What a difference a few ducks can make. Mention either ducks or Memphis to a seasoned traveler, and he or she is likely to say, “The Peabody.” While the venerable, market-leading property is often called the South's Grand Hotel, it's the power of the ducks that give the recently renovated, 464-room facility its cachet and status as a one-property (actually there are three Peabodys) brand name.
To prove the point, General Manager Doug Browne talks about a day a number of years ago when former President Jimmy Carter, in town for book signings, called to see if he could attend one of the twice-daily duck marches between the lobby fountain and the ducks' rooftop home. While Carter was probably the most important of the 200 or so guests and visitors at that day's ceremony, he wasn't the only celebrity on hand. Off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous in sunglasses, stood basketball legend Michael Jordan, while on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby was the then-married Lisa Marie Presley and actor Nicolas Cage. Very few hotels can routinely attract that kind of star power.
But The Peabody Memphis is a lot more than its ducks. The Peabody name has been at the center of cultural and social life in Memphis for 137 years. (The original hotel opened in 1869 and closed in the 1920s; the current building opened in 1925. The hotel fell into disrepair in the 1970s before the Belz family purchased the property and reopened it in 1981.)
According to Browne, the three-year, multi-million-dollar renovation program was the biggest upgrading for the property since the reopening. The top-to-bottom project touched all aspects of the hotel: guestrooms, meeting rooms, public spaces and f&b outlets. While the property was due for an upgrade, management also wanted to position The Peabody to get its fifth Star and Diamond from Mobil and AAA, respectively.
“The guestrooms were due for renovation as part of a typical five- or six-year cycle, and since we were in the rooms, it made sense to do the bathrooms, too,” says Browne. “AAA has told us only two things — the bathrooms and the health club — keep us from five diamonds. We've redone the bathrooms, and the health club will completed shortly.”
Luxury and elegance are the hallmarks of the new look for the hotel's guestrooms and bathrooms. Some traditional furniture pieces were retained and matched with new art deco-style chairs and overhead lighting and wall sconces. Colors, as reflected in the bedding and draperies, are heavy in golds and yellows. Biggest guestroom updates were the additions of the Peabody Dream Bed (and the mandatory plush mattress pads, down comforters and down pillows) and wireless Internet capabilities.
Bathrooms received complete makeovers with new tubs and sinks, chrome and brass fixtures, ceramic and granite tiles, marble countertops and new lighting and accessories.
All 15 meeting rooms, as well as an executive conference center, were modernized and refreshed. To better serve meeting customers and the hotel's large base of local social business, both the grand ballroom and an exhibit hall were expanded. The rooftop Skyway, once home to big band broadcasts and today a meeting room and Sunday brunch venue, was the last meeting room to be renovated.
Biggest change among the hotel's five main f&b outlets was the conversion of one restaurant into Capriccio Grill, an Italian steakhouse concept that's also in the Peabody properties in Orlando and Little Rock. Chez Philippe, the hotel's long-time signature restaurant, got a new chef who introduced an Asian twist to the outlet's traditional French menu.
As they say, the devil is in the details, and so is considerable investment. According to Browne, part of the renovation tab was a $700,000 investment in new 360-count, 100-percent cotton linens. That change also meant the hotel had to spend another $1 million to upgrade its laundry facilities to handle the new linens.
THE PEOPLE INVESTMENT
Like all smart owners and operators, The Peabody upgraded its staffing, training and service ethic to accompany the physical transformation. The hotel hired The Freeman Group to reset or establish new service standards throughout the property. “Everything we do now has a standard, even the sugar packets we use,” says Browne. “The program also included a year of training for our associates.”
Another touch was the purchase of mobile radios for guest-contact staff, which enables everyone from the doormen to the front desk staff to bellmen to address guests by name. The investment in human capital has paid off: Browne reports that the hotel has been able to reduce annual turnover from 64 percent three years ago to 38 percent today.
SELLING HISTORY, TRADITION
Marketing a hotel that's part of a very small chain has advantages and challenges alike, say Browne and Director of Sales & Marketing Craig Smith.
“It's a dream to sell this hotel because you would be hard pressed to find someone in Memphis or in the meeting planners community who doesn't know The Peabody,” says Browne. “On the other hand, it's our challenge to introduce the service and quality levels of this hotel to the younger generation of travelers and planners.”
The three Peabodys work together on a national sales level, with offices in Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. The properties do joint sales calls, trade shows and cooperative advertising. RAP, or Refer Another Peabody, is an in-house incentive program to encourage intra-company bookings.
“Obviously, we don't have the resources to do the kind of frequency advertising programs that chains can do, so we focus a lot on public relations to tell our story,” says Smith. “And luckily, the history and attractions of Memphis give that effort its teeth.”
While The Peabody holds the top slot in the Memphis marketplace, new competition is on the way. While 1,000 new hotel rooms have been proposed or are in the works for downtown Memphis, consultant Chuck Pinkowski doesn't believe they'll all become reality.
“Memphis will absorb the deals that make sense,” says Pinkowski, “but it will be the rising costs of construction that will separate the men from the boys.”
One new project that's close to reality is a new 203-room Westin across from the FedEx Forum basketball arena and near the Beale Street entertainment zone. Other downtown projects under consideration include a Courtyard, an Embassy Suites, a Motel 6 and a condo-hotel.
“Other than the Westin, there is no other convention-type hotels under development,” he says. “The market has difficulty selling 2,000-room citywide conventions without splitting the room block among eight or 10 properties. The market has 20,000 rooms, but only five hotels with more than 300 rooms, and only two are downtown.”
And spoken like a true GM, Browne welcomes the competition the Westin will bring. “It will be good for the city and good for us because it will keep us on our toes,” he says. “Still, for most people who come to Memphis, The Peabody will be their first choice.”
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THE BIG IDEAS
What a Job!
Dan Fox may have the best job in the lodging industry. As The Peabody Memphis Duckmaster, Fox is sole caretaker, trainer and march leader for the five mallards (one drake and four hens) who make their daily trek between the Italian travertine marble lobby fountain and their tricked-out Duck Palace on the hotel roof.
A local farmer raises the ducks, which only serve three months at a time before they retire back to the wild. And in deference to the hotel's VIPs (Very Important Poultry), no duck is served at the hotel's restaurants, or roomservice or banquets.
Each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., a typical crowd of 200 to 300 hotel guests and visitors crowd the lobby bar (adding significantly to f&b sales) as Fox unrolls the red carpet, gives a little spiel about the duck tradition and leads his feathered colleagues on their march. Occasionally, Fox selects a child from the audience, or a patient from the nearby St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, to be honorary duckmaster.
The Peabody's original Duckmaster, Edward Pembroke, held the honor for 50 years. Fox got the job in 2003 following a nationwide search that yielded 250 candidates.
The tradition began serendipitously, as most of the best ones do. In the 1930s, the story goes, the hotel's GM and a buddy returned from a weekend of hunting and drinking in Arkansas and decided to play a prank by depositing their live duck decoys in the fountain. Guests loved the fowl, and the ducks soon became a permanent fixture.
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