Dolce Stays Ahead of the Curve

Former Wyndham executive Steve Rudnitsky is president & CEO of Dolce Hotels and Resorts.

Dolce Hotels and Resorts is extending its reach to make itself the go-to meetings hotel brand by managing state-of-the-art complexes geared to a new business order. How timely its offering is was clear on the last day of April, when the Dolce Munich Unterschleissheim officially opened. It was quite a scene. Entertaining well-lubricated visitors at the tall, 255-unit property: An all-girl saxophone band in jazzy pinstripes who snaked through the hotel and the adjacent BallhausForum Conference Center.

Some 500 guests, including Dolce Hotels and Resorts founder Andy Dolce, President and CEO Steve Rudnitsky, and Rolf Zeitler, mayor of this prosperous German suburb, circulated through the striking, convex $63-million hotel, the fruit of a partnership joining the city, developer Andreas Striebel and Dolce, which manages it and the conference center.

Two months after my visit, Dolce extended its brand in the U.S., taking over management of Silverado, an iconic Napa Valley, CA resort. I caught up with Rudnitsky in early summer as he was on his way to close the Silverado deal. He said the whole Dolce portfolio is doing better than expected. Even in Europe, in the second quarter, Dolces posted double-digit RevPAR growth year-over-year; even the Dolce Sitges, outside Barcelona in the economically troubled country of Spain, is outperforming its market.

Like other European Dolces, the Dolce Munich Unterschleissheim is strategically located between an airport and a major city, in this case Munich. It's in an area studded with such economic generators as Microsoft; BMW, which operates a training center; and EADS, manufacturer of Airbus. Like other Dolces, it competes with big-box Hiltons, Sheratons, Starwoods and Marriotts. Like other Dolces (and unlike many big-box hotels), it's anything but cookie-cutter.

The Dolce Chantilly is a swank 200-room hotel with an equestrian theme.

Founded in 1981, Dolce Hotels and Resorts is based in Montvale, NJ. It manages 18 properties in the U.S., three in Canada and six in Europe. It hosts 30,000 events globally and four million group clients and last year generated $260 million in business. In 2008, it changed its name from Dolce International and shifted from owning and operating to pure management. A year earlier, Andy Dolce sold a majority interest to Broadreach Capital Partners, allowing Dolce to invest $100 million in capital improvements.

"At a time when wary competitors have retrenched, we're expanding," Dolce President and CEO Steve Rudnitsky said at the end of April, advising the suburban Munich crowd "to expect another addition to the Dolce system in the very near future."

"This complex was designed from scratch for our needs," Andy Dolce said. "This was a piece of dirt we designed for our business. The focus is to build a brand. We hope to double in size in the next five years."

"We have multiple locations in Europe that we're pursuing—in Italy, the U.K., Austria, Germany," Richard Maxfield, Dolce COO, said before the party. "There also are multiple opportunities in the U.S. we're working on. We build purpose-built spaces designed for serious business," focusing on "new product development, career development and training."

Because Dolce offers "buffet-style restaurants with free-standing quality," he said, so planners could focus on meetings. "It's an all-inclusive concept."

Even though 2009 "was survival for the industry," this year, Dolce is "in a real cycle of demand growth," Maxfield said. "We see three to four years of very positive revenue streams for the industry," as the meetings business targets training, reorientation and the invention of growth industries.

The Dolce Sitges sits on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean.

When I caught up with him during the summer, Maxfield said all of Dolce's properties are tracking on budget despite the continent's ongoing economic malaise. As for the new Munich property, it's falling a bit short of expectations and is set to post 58 percent occupancy through this year. Still, customer acceptance "has been incredible, and we're getting from four to six site inspections a day from meeting planners." And because the dollar has strengthened against the euro, European Dolces are beginning to see interest from American companies with European outposts. Key feeder industries are pharmaceutical, technology and car launches.

"We can bring expertise from an American market point of view," Maxfield said. "We also bring some business practices," including "process improvements on customer services, our focus on productivity and results-oriented business practices, and our service process improvement from an associate's point of view." Europeans can teach Dolce a "love for hospitality at their core and their culinary culture. They have the core of touching the customer, personalizing the customer experience."

As he approached Silverado June 28, Rudnitsky said it's too early to specify where in Europe Dolce will land its next management contract. But he did say Dolce is looking properties in London, Berlin, Hamburg and Amsterdam and is "working on a couple of deals in Italy." It may be a cliché, but Dolce is clearly on the move.

Freelancer Carlo Wolff is the former features editor of Lodging Hospitality.

THE DOLCE EUROPEAN TOUR

I spent nine days visiting five Dolces in four countries. It was the last week-plus of April, when the Icelandic volcano abated enough to allow air travel and the euro began its downward spiral. I, public relations professional Rich Roberts and veteran Travel Weekly reporter Jeri Clausing spent time at Dolces outside Brussels, Belgium; in Chantilly, near Paris; in Fregate, near Marseille; in Sitges; and finally, in Unterschleissheim, outside Munich. The one we didn't visit was the Dolce Bad Nauheim near Frankfurt, where Elvis Presley did his Army time.

Here are highlights of our tour:

Belgium
It's the morning of April 23. I'm sitting in my guestroom at a desk at La Hulpe in a leafy suburb of the Belgian capital. The weather is crisp and bright, the room large, with separate toilet and luxuriously appointed bathroom, two queen beds, seamless technology, an emphasis on wellness in the amenities, and a small Philips flat-screen TV.

A sleek conversion of a former IBM training center, La Hulpe feels like an office park or campus: it's modern, rectangular buildings, largely white, with soothing greenery between them. It's relaxing, the spa treatment particularly so. We spent a too-brief afternoon in Brussels, home to the European Union and NATO. A cosmopolitan, bustling city, Brussels evokes Washington, DC in its diversity and business opportunities Dolce is in a perfect position to capitalize on. Dinner was exceptional, with memorable foie gras, nonpareil asparagus and nifty small fish dishes. The wine—too much, as usual—was a tasty red.

After a challenging morning visit to the Waterloo battlefield, we boarded a relaxing, fast Thalys train (a Wi-Fi equipped train that reachs 186 mph) for Paris, where we transferred to a more leisurely local for the ride to the Dolce Chantilly.

According to La Hulpe General Manager Erik Jansen, the property is expected to post between 61 and 65 percent occupancy this year, representing almost 22 million euro (at the time, a euro equaled about $1.30; on Sept. 2, it represented a shade more than $1.28). Saturday leisure business has been about 78 percent, bumping up occupancy. Primary business sources are pharmaceutical companies, automotive, auditing and banking, Jansen said. La Hulpe may have been my favorite European Dolce.

Outside Paris
It's April 25. The Dolce Chantilly is a swank, somewhat formal hotel of 200 units and 20,000 square feet of meeting space. Its themes are equestrianism and art, its grounds are to die for and nearby are nearby chateaux with exceptional art collections. The food and wine the night before, at the one-star Michelin restaurant Le Carmontelle, were expectedly remarkable and overabundant, and a morning tour of the Musee Conde, the art gallery in Chateau de Chantilly, was awe-inspiring.

We spent that Sunday afternoon training to Paris, then walking from the Gare du Nord to St. Germain des Pres to meet Xavier Louyot, a slight Parisian of large intensity who is Dolce's marketing and public relations director.

According to Regis Voulot, Dolce Chantilly general manager, occupancy for 2010 should average 65 percent. Key feeder markets are the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Banimmo Real Estate Firm, a property-repositioning company based in Belgium, owns the La Hulpe and Chantilly Dolces.

On to Provence
The morning of April 26, we took a train into Paris's Gare de Lyon to catch Grande Vitesse train (another high-speed marvel) to Toulon. No one was there to greet us, so we wound up cabbing to the 133-unit Dolce Fregate Provence in St. Cyr, a bedroom suburb of Marseille, France's second-largest city. The rooms in the only four-star property in the area open year-round are tiled and airy, the ambience heavily resort, with two golf courses, gorgeous ocean views and nearby tourist attractions.

We spent nearly two hours in Cassis, a seaside city known for calanques, the miniature fjords lining its coast. Dinner with GM Abdel Zouari, a Tunisian native with a quietly commanding air, was awash with a 2008 rose and a 1998 red from the adjacent town of Bandol. The wine motif carried over the following morning in a tour of Domaine La Begude, a vineyard specializing in rose and an earthy, mineral-rich Mourvedre.

A tour of Marseille occupied us until the afternoon of April 27, when we boarded a rickety Iberia Airlines plane for Barcelona, where we took a shuttle for the Dolce Sitges, a five-star, 263-unit hotel atop a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Most of its rooms have been designed to hold meetings, and the complex, a stepped affair of spacious rectangles with a lanky, eye-candy lobby with offshoots for pool, darts and chess, includes 11 meeting rooms, 25 breakout rooms and the column-free Sitges assembly room seating 450.

We enjoyed a seven-course meal that evening with General Manager Francisco Jimenez and his equally expressive marketing chief, Carlos Sabate. The following morning, we spent three hours in Barcelona, gawking at La Sagrada Familia, the psychedelic cathedral architect Antonio Gaudi began in the late 19th century, and walking La Rambla. After a heavy seaside lunch in Sitges, we visited the Palau Maricel, an embellished medieval castle stocked with art collected by International Harvester magnate Charles Deering and shared cobblestoned streets with tattooed hippies digging the sunshine.

Inchydoney Partnership of Ireland owns the Sitges and Fregate Dolces (it paid Dolce International $77 million for the Sitges property, Spain's first purpose-built conference center, in 2007).

Munich, the last stop
Getting there involved an expensive lesson in the ways of Ryanair, the low-cost Irish airline. When we arrived at Reus Tarragona Airport some 47 miles north of Barcelona, Ryanair charged 40 euro each for not checking in online in advance and 20 euro each for every kilo we were over the 15-kilo luggage limit. Daytrip backpackers seem to be Ryanair's target market. The flight to Munich featured nonstop hawking by Ryanair stewardesses, in-flight magazines distributed and yanked back upon arrival, immovable seats and an anally efficient schedule.

The flight was a bizarre highlight of a long day that ended at Brenner's, a Munich restaurant of austere, surreal architecture where I ate venison ragout with pasta, a meal I still savor. The next day, April 30, was Friday, when the hotel officially opened with speeches, priests' blessings, a ribbon cutting, property tours and a party complete with signing of Trixie, a porcelain cow in the lobby.

Rates for a single room at the Dolce Munich Unterschleissheim range from 99 euro to 255 euro depending on season (expect to pay top during Oktoberfest). Add 30 euro for a double. Andreas Striebel, who told me he's a "developer from the bottom of my heart," owns the Munich Dolce; Unterschleissheim, a suburb of 30,000, owns the adjacent conference center.—Carlo Wolff

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