Brian Gullbrants has opened 23 hotels during his career and as a result developed a habit of personally delivering employee orientations. When you do that for a 200- or 300-room Ritz-Carlton, where Gullbrants spent 20 years, it is ambitious but not borderline crazy. However, for the past 14 years he has been leading Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas and Boston where staff levels reach 12,000, and this service zealot has continued to conduct new-employee orientation every single week throughout his tenure.
Not unlike the hotelier who taught him about service excellence years ago, Ritz-Carlton co-founder Horst Schulze, today Wynn Las Vegas President Gullbrants loves sharing with his teams what he stands for, seizing the moments to create converts and impress upon them company values that stand for service-driven excellence. He told HOTELS in July that he loves to tell stories from throughout his career to drive home his messages because they are more compelling than facts and framed mission statements hanging in the HR department. People will listen to and remember good stories, he believes.
If that is not enough of a commitment, every single day Gullbrants writes a daily pre-shift message for the three shift leaders to read to their teams. In fact, Gullbrants estimated he has now written some 5,000 notes, usually two or three or four paragraphs recognizing excellence or reinforcing the passion for which the brand stands. “Talk about alignment,” he said. “I continuously get great feedback both in writing and verbally as I walk around the resort.”
To take it even one step further, Wynn Resorts has just developed a series of leadership classes and the infatigable Gullbrants is teaching the first class to all 1,380 leaders and was already on his 16th or 17th lesson because he is limiting class sizes to 50 or so to create intimacy and stimulate dialogue. Again, he loves to tell stories about great leaders and the not-so-great managers he has worked for, analyzing the traits and talking about what matters. “It’s sharing those experiences and those stories, getting them to participate in the education process that develops them as better leaders for the future,” he said.
By having that daily communication, Gullbrants believes it helps people understand the brand and even build self-esteem where needed. “There’s nothing more valuable, right? So, when I can tell a story about one of our employees, and it pumps them up, that person’s walking on cloud nine for the next 30, 60, 90 days,” he added. “And we try to do that as much as we can here. But it really is impactful when all 12,000 people are hearing about it that morning.”
A little bit of craziness with a habit that engrained. “Yeah. This is what I do. It’s what I signed up for and I love what I do,” Gullbrants said. “And I hope people can sense that. I think they do.”
What makes this impactful is the consistency. “They think they know me better than they do because they hear from me every day.”
Proof in the pudding
Perhaps there is a method to Gullbrants’ madness. The Wynn Las Vegas hit 91% hotel occupancy in March, which contributed to a record EBITDA result. March strength continued into Q2 with forward bookings showing no signs of a slowdown. Booking pace in April was at pre-COVID levels on substantially higher ADRs, the company reported.
“We have taken incredible price hikes and seem to not feel any softening of demand. It’s insane,” he said. “We are now pacing slightly ahead of 2019 and 2023 is pacing even farther ahead than that. We are on pace to have tied or slightly better than any year we’ve ever had. I would have thought that we would see some softening but leads that are coming through are still beyond our 2019 rates.”
While encouraged, Gullbrants also said he anticipates softening at some point soon. “The party’s not going to last forever. But we’re also dealing with a different customer – maybe a little less price sensitive.”
On top of the sales success, Gullbrants said Wynn Las Vegas service scores have actually improved by two points from 2019. This comes after the property spent more than US$220 million to redo all the rooms and suites and it is just about to start on the villas. It just opened two new restaurants, three lounges, and four more restaurants are under development. High-limit areas of the casinos are going to be renovated, as well. “We’re deploying capital for the future, and I think it’s going to pay significant dividends as we come out of whatever recession we’re going into,” Gullbrants said.
The hotel continues to provide luxury-level service, including butler service, proper in-room dining service and twice daily maid service. “At some point, hoteliers need to understand they have to deliver service to command those rates and loyalty,” Gullbrants said. “At some point, the customer is going to push back.”
Gullbrants further stated that hoteliers who continue to deliver on their brand promises, cater to their customers and deliver more can charge much more. “We’re doubling down on service, cleanliness, safety, and evolving our brand and our experiences,” he said. “By doing so, the customer is willing to pay more. I’ve told our teams to figure out what more we can give the customer and charge double. Don’t worry about the price. Give them the best experience on the planet and there will be no competition… But if you don’t deliver the product and service, forget about it – you’re done. You’ll make a lot of money in the short term, and then you’re going to go bankrupt in the long term.”
At age 55 and some 35 years into his hospitality career, Gullbrants is more focused on developing leaders. “I’d say I’m much more introspective. How could we have done that better or approached that differently?” he said. “When I’m presented with a problem today, the first thing I think about is one of the brightest people we have on our team that can solve this problem… My earlier self would have been proud to make a quick decision, be decisive and be done with it.”
Gullbrants still understands his need to be decisive and act, but with critical decisions he says he strives for more balance, bringing in a diverse group of people to vet the best solution – an approach that became even more clear to him during the pandemic. “If you don’t have those right people on your team, who are the outside resources to make sure you make the very best decision without sacrificing sense of urgency and speed to solution?”
When asked how the pandemic has changed him as a leader, Gullbrants said he sees more value in human connection and interaction. “Where I would always say hello to people, now I spend an extra minute or two. I spend more time to really focus on an individual… The most valuable thing we all have, and you learn this through the pandemic, is the time that we that we have with everybody around us. So, try to spend that time wisely.”
While Wynn Resorts is rebounding in Las Vegas, the casino resort group was also taking a big hit in July with its two properties in Macau, which continue to suffer from COVID-related lockdowns, the latest coming in mid-July.
Elsewhere, the planned Wynn resort in the U.A.E.’s Ras Al Khaimah region is the first of its kind in the MENA region and set to open in 2026. It marks the most significant foreign direct investment in Ras Al Khaimah and will include more than 1,000 rooms, entertainment, and a gaming zone.
Back in Vegas, Gullbrants said the city and its offerings continue to evolve with a greater emphasis on sports and entertainment. There are now NHL hockey and NFL football teams based in the city with rumors persisting about the NBA basketball league and Major League baseball coming in the next year or two. The city also recently announced an F1 series racing even and is preparing to host the 2023 Super Bowl.
“The global stage that these events put Las Vegas on is certainly something we’ve never seen before, and that continues to evolve,” Gullbrants said. “When you think entertainment, sports and unique experiences, as well as great food, incredible hospitality, going big and large – the first thing that should come to mind is Las Vegas.”
More specifically for Wynn, next year it will create automobile- and speed-related programming around the next F1 race, including an exotic car auction and a massive activation at 37 acres of land owned by Wynn directly across the street from the resort.
At the same time, its 1,480-seat Encore theater over the last two years has been the highest- grossing theater in the world for a venue with less than 5,000 seats. It has partnered with entertainment agencies to non-stop bring in big acts like singer Lionel Richie or comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. “We have this niche that we’ve cracked and created for ourselves with comedians because people are longing to just have a great night out and laugh with others,” Gullbrants said.
Wynn Resorts is also adapting its group offering to meet evolving guest wants and needs by placing growing importance on networking components. “What I really want to do is create moments where group attendees can connect,” Gullbrants said, adding that receptions are often replacing sit down dinners and that the hotel is allowing planners to buyout restaurants and clubs.
Internally, four of the nine Wynn Resort board members are now women. This comes more than four years after former chairman Steve Wynn resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations and a recently settled federal defamation lawsuit claiming sexual harassment and retaliation.
“Now you really have diverse opinions, which is good,” Gullbrants said. “Your board and your leadership team need to reflect your customer base.”
The person in charge of food and beverage in Las Vegas is a woman, as is the head of hotel operations, sales and marketing, finance and legal counsel. Wynn also recently promoted women to lead the two resorts in Macau and the Encore in Boston. “We have very important positions in our company being led by very qualified female professionals, and I am not aware of any other hospitality company doing the same thing,” Gullbrants said.
In closing, Gullbrants urged his contemporaries to be prepared. “Don’t get caught flat footed,” he said. “But also make decisions for your brand that are long term and not short-term knee jerk decisions because those are the kiss of death.”
Gullbrants also believes hoteliers need to think about what more they can do for guests and charge appropriately. “Don’t look at it as ‘what can we cut’ and they might not notice,” he said. “Think about what else you can give them and charge them extra. How can we improve, give more service and give a better, unique experiences… It’s about unique connections and experiences that we need to create as hoteliers… How we make money is by creating those experiences. We can never forget that.”