Wake-Up Call for Greenbrier

On the anniversary of Justice’s acquisition of The Greenbrier— May 14-16, 2010—there is an event there, billed as “A Springtime Weekend at The Greenbrier,” featuring “The High Style of Dorothy Draper.” Don’t kid yourself. This is not just an exploration of the life and times of Dorothy Draper and the attendant complementary hoopla of luncheons, teas and cocktail parties. It is, additionally and intentionally, a reassurance to those who value legendary and timeless design that Draper’s and Varney’s at The Greenbrier are immutable.

The classic designs of Dorothy Draper trashed two years ago are being restored. It is as Justice had planned a year ago. So whether you think this “anniversary” event is calculated or coincidental, there is no doubt that, as regards the renovation, Justice and Varney want everyone to know that The Greenbrier is back, committed to reclaiming its industry preeminence.

“I grew up 50 miles away: 50 tough miles, no interstates to get here,” says Justice. “Our family couldn’t afford to come here. The Greenbrier was instilled in me as a young kid as Emerald City, so important to West Virginia and our country. To see it drift into commonality, to become, perhaps, a Marriott or a Ritz-Carlton or something and to take all of this stuff away—all of the stuff that makes The Greenbrier the Greenbrier—that would be a shame and that’s why I insisted on renewing the relationship with Carleton and it’s not going to be taken away. It’s going to be just as great; even greater than it ever has been.”

Justice, himself with absolutely no hotel/resort experience, surrounds himself with people who have plenty. Both Jeff Kmiec, v.p., sales and marketing, and Jeremy Critchfield, v.p., f&b and corporate chef, are alums of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort (Farmington, PA, a Pittsburgh suburb), where the latter, as exec chef and F&B v.p., was instrumental in earning AAA Five Diamond and Mobil (now Forbes) Five Star awards, an accomplishment forthcoming and predictable when, before Nemacolin, he won identical recognitions toiling as exec chef at The Lodge at Sea Island (Georgia). If one cares to read between the lines of these Justice hires, there is an ulterior motive to them: reclaim the fifth star Mobil/Forbes stripped from the resort in 2000 when inspectors noted, among other misdemeanors, the lack of in-room flat-screen TVs and phones in the johns. It is not too much of a stretch to assume that Justice had that in mind as a tertiary consideration when he hired Kmiec and Critchfield.

So, Jim Justice, given the unpredictability of the hospitality market and the fact that you have no experience…

“A lot of people must have thought, ‘this guy is a lunatic.’ This is, as you know, a tough business and I certainly don’t take it lightly at all; and, I don’t want to say anything bad about the previous owners, but running this great resort and losing $30 million a year is not very hard to do. About anyone can pull that one off. What I bring to the table is different. First of all, this is a business; it’s just running a business. It needs someone with a lot of passion, who genuinely knows how to appreciate and care for people. That was beat into me when I was a kid. I’ve got that; I understand courtesy and service.

“You cannot command that from CSX headquarters. As far as business experience is concerned, I’ve got that, too. My MBA is in marketing and advertising. This sort of business is right in my wheelhouse. It’s just that I’ve never done it before. But the evidence of how successful we’ve been so far has to be in the pudding. Our reservation calls are up 550 percent; group bookings up 400 percent. And that, I don’t have to remind you, is in the worst possible economic climate.”

If there is a mantra the industry crows about and teachers drum into the heads of their hotel school students that, when executed, never fails to deliver sales and hefty profits, it is a belief in, as Justice notes, courtesy and service. Caveat: it must be genuine.

“You can go to a bunch of hospitality schools and learn all about this business to include courtesy and service, but act like a robot when you report for your first job—everybody sees through that. That’s the difference in me and the people who work here. For good or for bad, we are the real things and we do genuinely care about the people who come here. This property’s just been asleep for the past few years and the people employed here: sleepwalking. It had everything going for it; what it didn’t have was energy, passion and enthusiasm.”

There is blame for the absence of that to be placed at the feet of absentee owners, CSX, and their appointment of management that, presumably, was expected to fix everything. But those kinds of expectations, articulated long-distance with the understanding that they will be met only goes so far. It’s not easy to convince employees to trust instruction and supervision from absentee-managers and their sycophants. Justice’s turnaround strategy was implemented in part to neutralize the malaise that was at the root of the resort’s financial troubles and its labor unrest.

“The property,” he says, “had become an elegant retirement home. Now, that’s pretty harsh, but that’s the way I saw it. We needed new blood in place here. I had to get my team in here—we had to quit thinking and behaving the way we had in the last five years. The next thing was to get the energy back into the property. And then, we had to bring The Greenbrier back to life and that’s where Carleton and his design expertise came in. So, now, we’ve got 6,500 wonderful acres and a great building full of fabulous history and tradition—it’s unbelievable … but, it’s hard to get here and we had to solve that. [In June] we started nonstop commuter flights (Delta and United) to Lewisburg, eight miles away, from Atlanta, DC, New York, Cleveland, etc. And, 12 months from now, give or take a few weeks, we’ll have a train—it’s in the process of being built and designed—The Greenbrier Express. It’ll have all of The Greenbrier style, pull out of Washington, DC, and in about five hours and 15 minutes, it’ll arrive at our property where passengers will be met by horse-drawn carriages and taken to our front door.”

There is more, of course. There is the casino, flashy, upscale, luxurious—a combination, says Justice, of “Gone With The Wind, Monte Carlo and James Bond”—with a dress code, no smoking, no disco, but a lounge with jazz.

“The disco might have worked,” says Justice, “but wouldn’t that be something like putting the space shuttle in the middle of Williamsburg?”

Dress code? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, someone appears at the door of the casino. He’s wearing sneakers, shorts and a tank top and he’s carrying a briefcase filled with $500,000. What do you tell him?

“Have a nice day on the tennis court.

“Please understand,” he says, “I don’t ever want The Greenbrier to lose its high end, its tradition, its elegance, no matter what. I want us to have all of that, but I want to lose the snootiness. The Greenbrier must be special, but it must also be comfortable; a warm and happy place.”

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