A Day in the Life of a Hotel
Inside a Superstar Best Western
Aguest driving up to the Best Western Sterling Inn, Banquet & Conference Center probably won't be impressed. The architecture makes it strikingly similar to thousands of other suburban motor hotels built in the 1970s and ‘80s: big, blocky and bland. Even the lobby and guestrooms aren't cutting-edge in design or flair.
But this 246-room suburban Detroit hotel is among the best in the lodging industry, not because of its look but because of its soul. Starting with President Victor Martin and Hotel Manager Kim Nicholson, the entire staff of the hotel exudes confidence, warmth, competence and that much-discussed but generally elusive quality of hospitality.
The family-owned property has grown over the years, both in number of rooms and also in facilities. One of the centerpieces of its business is a high-tech, well-designed conference center, which includes a 15,000-square-foot divisible ballroom that seats 2,000. For family business, a multi-attraction indoor waterpark helps boost occupancy on weekends, holidays and cabin-fever months.
The management style of Martin and Nicholson is one of collaboration and consensual problem solving — a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. At a recent rooms department meeting, for example, Martin and Nicholson allowed their department heads to brainstorm to both solve problems and create enhancements for the operation. One example: security and front desk personnel were receiving a lot of complaints about late-night hallway noise on weekends. Because the property's game room closed later than the adjacent indoor waterpark, kids were causing a ruckus in the hallways. The consensus of the managers was to coordinate closing of the two facilities at the same time. Despite the potential loss of revenue it would entail, Martin quickly okayed the group decision, and the meeting moved on to other business. There's no dictatorship at this hotel.
A meeting of sales managers later the same day summed up the can-do and cooperative hospitality attitude found in all facets of the sprawling property. One sales manager shared with the group that she was able to book a big piece of business after the decision-maker spent a night in the hotel. Her take on the transaction: “We can sell all we want but if everyone else in the hotel doesn't give service, the customers won't come back. We must always tell everyone on the service staffs how much we appreciate them.”
Staff loyalty is another sign of the hotel's success. A number of associates and managers have been there for decades: a laundry worker recently celebrated 31 years at the property; a waitress at the Loon River Café has been serving customers for 23 years, the same tenure as the hotel's executive chef.
“Our philosophy is to give people jobs they love and can do well and let them do them,” says Martin. “And as the business grows, they also grow.”
Perky? For sure. Professional, too. Director of Social Catering Sales Rebecca Pettineo is on the weddings case, ready and eager to clinch the deal for the many matrimonial events that take place each week at the Best Western Sterling.
“During the week, it's kind of crazy around here,” says Pettineo, who's been working the social sales shift for three-and-a-half years. Each weekend, the hotel hosts seven to 10 weddings — sometimes more — she says, and there's every reason to think she does bang-up business.
“The only challenge with social events is it's actually hard to go out and find the business,” says the Michigan State University graduate, who's also a certified wedding planner. The Best Western Sterling Inn is an area powerhouse in the weddings field, she says; other outfits catering to that business are “strictly banquet halls.” And business is largely local: “This is not a destination wedding place.”
And where Tina Fike, Rebecca's counterpart in corporate sales, says the facility's distinctive waterpark can pose a challenge —” corporate travelers don't want to see a lot of families” — it's a boon for Rebecca. “The waterpark even helps out for our weddings,” she says. Not to mention the lacy, skirted wedding cakes on display in the sales office.
“I'm like a sponge,” says Sabrina Lopez, executive housekeeper. On the job for only two months, Lopez is a quick study: “I like to absorb things.” As soon as she assumed her new position, she rearranged shelving to make materials more accessible for her staff. Between housekeeping and laundry, Lopez oversees a work force of 58.
Communicating in Spanish — at least — is critical to the job; Lopez's biggest challenge “is learning all the languages,” she says, noting her workers converse in Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish and Russian. To ease the linguistic logjam, she has posted pictures on the wall showing common housekeeping tasks and indicating where supplies may be found. One of her workers is being trained to be her bridge to the Hispanic housekeepers.
A housekeeper can handle 16 to 17 rooms a day, says Lopez, who joined housekeeping from purchasing and receiving, the department she headed for 10 years. The rooms of stayovers — people who spend more than a day at the hotel — are taken care of late in the day. “Guests are here to enjoy their weekend, not necessarily to clean up after themselves,” Lopez says.
“We never have enough space and everybody complains about that,” says Mike Wuerth, executive pastry chef. But nobody grouses about the dominant ingredient in the offerings Wuerth and his work force prepare: “Chocolate rules,” says Wuerth, who came to the busy hotel from a private club on Detroit's west side more than five years ago. It even figures in the pert caramel mousse timbales he's preparing one recent morning.
On Thursday, Wuerth and his crew of three full-time and two part-time employees assemble the wedding cakes that highlight the social side of the hotel; the huge mixing machines in his work area are heavily used. In addition, he makes decorative “sugar pieces” for corporate presentations; big, transparent butterflies Wuerth and his gang create seem ready to take achingly sweet wing.
The favorite part of his job? Making ornamental displays for the holidays, like the gingerbread houses his department crafts for Thanksgiving.
The variety lies in the product more than the crew, Wuerth suggests. “Sometimes you have the same group every day, the same people,” he notes, keeping a loving eye on his daughter, Samantha, who works in his department this summer. “You have to have variety,” he adds. “And chocolate is always a favorite.”
Sneaks ‘n’ sweats fit Aquatics Director Ray Onisko, who oversees a 32,000-square-foot indoor waterpark that features a zero-entry swimming pool with a three-story slide, lazy river, indoor running track, video game arcade, two large whirlpools, two saunas, a new “Interactive Splash Play Park,” and a poolside snack bar with full bar service. It's a lot to keep track of, but Onisko, who's overseen the burgeoning complex since August 2001, is up to the job. So is his crew.
“I have a very loyal group of guards who have grown up with us and go to college and then work summers or Christmas week,” says this take-charge guy. “Everything is really intertwined; our corporate guests are primarily Sunday to Friday, with weekends almost all leisure. Special groups like hockey teams, family reunions and church groups use the water park, too.”
His chief beef? Guests with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. “My favorite comment is, ‘we paid all this money, so we can do anything we want’,” Onisko says, reserving his sharpest barbs for parents who think they can put a kid in a hot tub in Sterling just because they do so at home. The challenge, Onisko says, is “trying to keep a delicate balance between customer service and rule enforcement.” And supporting a domain that encompasses video game commerce, a fitness center, miles of pipes, giant exhaust fans, and sophisticated engineering.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones. An example is the innovative meeting break kiosk the Best Western Sterling devised for its 16,000-square-foot conference facility. Instead of scheduling, setting up and wheeling in meeting break carts for each individual event, the hotel built a dedicated area at the entrance to its meeting space that's equipped all day for continuous breaks for attendees from all meetings in progress at the property. Cost of the service is built in to each group's pricing structure.
“Attendees love it because drinks and snacks are always available whenever they break, or even during their meetings,” says Victor Martin, hotel president. “Beyond guest satisfaction, this system is actually a money saver for us. While food costs are up, labor is way down with this approach.”
The hotel uses fountain dispensers for sodas and other drinks instead or cans and bottles, a money saver. Also, a concentrated liquid coffee dispenser is less costly and less wasteful than the standard brewed-and-urned coffee service. One tidbit from Martin: “We change the set-up from morning breakfast-type items to afternoon snacks, and at all times we offer a lot of healthy items. But when we bring out the Snickers bars, everybody grabs them instead of the apples and granola.”
FOOD IS THE STAR
Not many Best Westerns can afford the luxury of an ACF-certified chef. But it's a must at the Best Western Sterling, given the volume and quality levels generated by the property's banquet and restaurant facilities. The f&b star at the Sterling is award-winning Executive Chef Ray Hollingsworth, who's been with the hotel for 23 years.
Hollingsworth wears a lot of hats at the property. In addition to overseeing the culinary and kitchen staffs for the property's Loon River Café, in-room dining and its extensive catering operations, he teaches at a local culinary college, which also serves as a source of kitchen staff. And for five years, he's hosted a cooking show, One Pan Madness, on a local cable access channel. During the twice-monthly show, which is taped in the hotel's kitchen, Hollingsworth shows viewers how to prepare quick, easy and innovative meals. Who needs Rachael Ray?
With such experience and creativity, many chefs of Hollingsworth's caliber would dream of opening his own restaurant. “I love the hotel business because of the variety of operations like we have here and the fact that we never know who's coming through the door,” he says.
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