A “one-for-all, all-for-one” spirit amongst the business community that also extends to residents is an uncommon quality and one of Marco’s strengths.
That belief is shared by Steve Falciani, general manager of the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, Sharon Lockwood, GM of the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, and Dianna Dohm, executive director of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, and Amanda Cox, the Marriott’s director of sales and marketing.
The foursome shared that opinion, among others, recently when they sat down with the Coastal Breeze News for a roundtable discussion centering on their views of the island’s economy and tourism industry, the vitality of their rejuvenated resorts, both in the short-and-long-term.
For about one hour, they shared their love for Marco, their hotels’ integral roles in Marco’s commercial environment, the value of working cooperatively and not competitively, and the economic boost renovation-expansion projects at the resorts will provide.
Dohm, Falciani, Lockwood and Cox also touched upon challenges the resorts face and more, including being unanimous in forecasting a future for Marco Island’s tourism industry and its overall commercial scene. (Part One of the discussion ran in the May 25 issue of Coastal Breeze News.)
How has working cooperatively benefitted your resorts?
Faciani: “Don (Manley) and I were talking about that earlier because he assumed that we’re competitors; always against each other. But I said it’s really the opposite, we help each other out as much as we can. It wouldn’t benefit anybody if we said, ‘We’re not going to help you because you’re our competitor.’
“A good example is they’ve been very busy (at the Marriott), thank the Lord. During season, when they needed some additional parking for their team members they would call us and say, ‘Can we use the lot, because it’s just sitting there.’ So we said, ‘Sure, no charge or anything.’
“We just work together. If we need something, such as, we don’t have hotel rooms right now, so if our corporate people come for a visit, they help us out with that. So it really balances out. We really do care about our neighbors and we want to work together.”
Cox: “Whenever I’m interviewed, one of the questions I’m asked is, ‘Well it really must be nice that the Hilton is closed, with all that excess demand you can capture?’ That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s very, very difficult to have a major player that is out of the mix because there are so many guests who are passionate about Marco Island. Andrew (Neubauer, the Marco Hilton’s director of sales and marketing) and I have talked about how one of the hardest things we’ve each had to do during phases of our renovation projects is to have to relocate a group, even if we’re sending them to the Ritz Carlton in Naples, because people are so passionate about this beach and this community.
“We get together, Andrew and myself and Lynn Alexander at the Marco Beach Ocean Resort, about once a quarter and talk about the areas where business may be strong, areas where we may have an opportunity to move some things around and areas where we may want to work together in the future. It’s very unique. In all my years, I’ve never seen a hospitality community that did that across brands.
Falciani: “Like we were saying earlier, guests can walk down and use the other facility. We just did a tour recently for a group from South America that is going to be holding meetings at our hotel, but their major meeting is at the Marriott. So it works really well.”
Dohm: “It lifts the whole community up. I’ve been here for 21 years and there were times when literally everything was closed in July, August and September. I’ve noticed, over the last five years, that seasonality is leveling off. The demographics are different. You have South Americans and Miami residents in the summer. We see that and it really helps. Now instead of 10-to-12 restaurants closing for the summer, they may close for three days or for a week, to clean and get reorganized. It’s incredible that it’s becoming a year-round destination here and that’s due to you guys.
What is it about Marco that fosters a cooperative spirit in the business and residential communities? Is it the island’s status as a small town?
Falciani: “I think the people who started things here in the sixties probably had that spirit of community and a small-town feeling and just kept it going. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. No matter what you do, it doesn’t matter what your job is, everybody is just so welcoming.”
Dohm: “I have to give credit to the Mackle Brothers because their vision for this island was to have a resort community working together with a residential community that would help our businesses. They vision of that I think has always been in the forefront for people doing business here. We live here. We want to have a great relationship with our resorts because we know it’s going to help our businesses.”
Lockwood: “I’ve only been here for four or five months, so I’m meeting people for the first time who’ve been coming down, who actually have homes or condos on the island, but they still stay at the resort because of the people.
“Another thing that is unique too is the locals love our restaurants. You go to any other city, anywhere, and our restaurants after breakfast, unless it’s a signature restaurant, they’re nonexistent. People don’t dine in them. But our locals love our restaurants.”
Dohm: “I talk to a lot of Naples-area people and they say, ‘Oh my God, all the Hilton and Marriott care about is keeping people on their properties.’ I say, ‘I totally disagree with you.’ They want their guests to have an island-wide experience and not just stay in the resort 24-7 and eating at their restaurants. Yes, that’s a wonderful experience, but you encourage them to get out in public and go to the 100-plus restaurants that we have on the island. I think that’s unique.”
What are some of the challenges your hotels face?
Falciani: “Staffing, but I think that’s everywhere. I think it’s always worth discussing and figuring out what everybody could do better. I know there’s a lot of talk about (having) more public transportation. Seems to me that’s something that would be beneficial to not just the resorts, but to all businesses on the island.”
Lockwood: “Parking, as well.”
Dohm: “I give the city kudos for creating an ad-hoc parking committee that’s looking at that. There’ve even talked to Collier County about bring a CAT (Collier Area Transit) run here. That’s really important.”
Lockwood: “Staffing, across the board, is the hardest.”
Falciani: “I can only go by what I’ve been told because I’m not really hiring a lot of people right now. But I anticipate it’s one of the biggest problems we’re going to face. It’s tough. I’ve worked at other resorts and its tough there too. I think it would be helpful for people if there was a greater availability of ways to get here.”
Lockwood: “Especially in the evening. I can get our housekeeping teams in during the day, but for the second shift, unless they have a car, they’re unable to get in. So we struggle with that.
“When we look to fill positions, it does take longer to attract the right associate, but the other thing we do, and I’m sure you do, as well, is cross-utilization of staff. There’s a young man I met when I first started. Alexander was working in housekeeping. Our associates love the variety that they can have working in the different disciplines and the different departments and they have the opportunity to do that.”
Dohm: “Our proximity (to the rest of Collier County) makes things difficult. That’s the hard part. The pay scale has to be a bit higher to attract workers. But once people start working here and they feel the love, I think it becomes worth it.”
Cox: “I think we want to look at the challenge of attracting customers, which to my mind is a little bit different than the challenges of running our businesses. We still work through building awareness and that’s not just Marco, but all of the Paradise Coast. Our tourism teams for this area have done a great job augmenting the (number of flights) and less-seasonal flights into the destination. If we’re looking at an obstacle to someone choosing to vacation here or have a meeting here, we’re normally overcoming the availability of (flights) and distance to the airport (Southwest Florida International). But with the changes over recent years, I’m encouraged that things are moving in the right direction. We probably get an updated airlift analysis every two months with additional either seasonal flights or nonstop, year-round.”
Lockwood: “The international airports are really important. In Chicago, there’s O’Hare, which is totally international. But here, it’s difficult to get the international market close enough for the 50 minute ride here. Our large international customers have to go into Miami and then have to fly over. So not having a large international airlift out of Fort Myers is a challenge.”
Cox: “But again, it’s totally moving in the right direction. That’s kind of how we begin the customer life cycle because we have to get them here before we can concentrate on getting them to Marco specifically.”
Has the new meeting space attracted customers the Marriott would not have gotten otherwise?
Cox: “Over 60 percent of our business is business that we would never have been a candidate for in the past. Some of that is because of the sheer volume of the space. There’s almost twice as much, so some of it is they just needed more space and some of it is the space’s functionality; the fact that you now have the ability drive a car into a freight elevator and lift it up to a third-floor ballroom. There are certain things in our industry that are very important, in terms of ceiling height and production capabilities. You have Fortune 500 company meetings and events, and many times you have to talk to their audio-visual people before you can even get to talk to the customer. Those are conversations that our prior facility prohibited us from having. So it is very much a brand-new customer for the area, which is super, super exciting.”
What has been the impact of the Hilton’s new space?
Falciani: “For us, it’s not nearly on the scale of the Marriott. We just added a 10,000 square-foot event lawn. It’s just wrapping up now and we’ve already booked a couple groups. That helps because before, if there were 100 people in a group, we could do 100 for the meeting and meals. Now we can do 200 or 300. That helps us because groups are growing and growing out of us, in some cases, so we’re trying to keep as much of that (business) as we can.
“But I think we’re unique in our differences, as well. The Marriott is going to be a giant group resort, but us, we’re going to be much more transient oriented. That’s what makes us different and unique, and I think that’s what enables us to work well together, all three of us.”
When will work be done at your resorts?
Faciani: “For us, we’ll be opening rooms the end of August, beginning of September and completely done, we think around October 1.
Lockwood: “We’ll be done in late summer. It was so important for us to get our meeting space open because that’s the economic driver. Without that, we don’t have groups. Especially coming off of season, we wanted to make sure it was up and running. The fifth floor, which has Tesoro, our adult-exclusive restaurant and 10K Alley (entertainment center), and then the 93 guest floors above, will be later this summer. It’s moving along nicely. We’re very excited and I know the residents are going to be extremely happy to have us finish the construction and get everything open so we can all appreciate and enjoy it.”
Your projections of the island’s tourism industry, five or ten years down the road?
Falciani: “Our owners (New York City based Olshan Properties) built the building in 1985. This is a family business, a family investment real estate company that invested a lot of money in this resort now, for the future. The way this renovation is going, it’s much deeper that what would normally be done. So everything is being done so the resort is in great shape for the next 30 years. They call it a generational asset. The father built it and now his daughter Andrea runs the company. She’s preparing it for her sons to run someday. This resort was their first hotel and now there are six, soon to be seven. That’s what they do. They invest in the future and they see the future of Marco Island as being very robust for the foreseeable future, and not just for the next five or 10 years. They’re thinking about 30 to 40 years down the road.”
Lockwood: “I think our owners have always believed that this is the diamond. This is that very special, unique place that you just can’t replicate. So by investing $300 million into the tower, there aren’t a lot of companies out there that would do that unless they truly believed in the future of the island. I think a lot of what we’ve talked about today, where success is going to be seen immediately, it’s also really building a foundation for the next 30 years. It’s saying that the way people do business will continue to prosper in this particular environment. I think this environment is resilient, in some respects, to the cycles of the economy because it is so unique.
“So I see us continuing to grow. Next year is going to be phenomenal for us. It will exceed expectations and we will continue to see that. I know that for the hotel community, throughout the United States, 2019 is a concern for group business, but not here on Marco Island. Not at the JW Marriott. We have the most on the books that we’ve ever had.
“The beauty of our new convention space is that it will book further out. You will see the destination being booked three, five, seven years out, whereas I think before, it was 24 months or maybe 36 months. Getting more on the books protects our future and it helps to protect the future of Marco Island.
“There’s so much good that’s happening between our two resorts. I’m so excited and so blessed to be working with Steve. We both came on-board just about the same time, which is fun and I know that we’ll continue to cultivate that relationship. And I know Amanda and her teams will do the same. It truly is about making sure that all of us continue to see that success and that will bring more success to the island.”
Readers are invited to forward any questions they may have for the general managers to the Coastal Breeze at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will be discussed at the next meeting.