News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Suzanne Marta, The Dallas Morning News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 28, 2004 - GRAPEVINE, Texas -- A few cracked tiles and burned-out lightbulbs need replacing. And the last of the furnishings and supplies stored in the exhibit hall need to be put in place.
But for the most part, the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center on Lake Grapevine is ready to greet its first paying guests when it opens for business Friday.
The $480 million hotel complex is expected to be a convention juggernaut, with its 1,500-plus rooms and 400,000 square feet of meeting space.
Dallas hoteliers and tourism marketers say the Gaylord Texan will bring more attention, and bookings, to the area over the long run. But right now, it's being described as the "giant sucking sound to the west," given its aggressive sales efforts.
Gaylord Texan officials say the hotel has already booked enough business to reach 69 percent occupancy this year and exceed 80 percent occupancy in 2005. That compares with a rate of 52.2 percent for Dallas-area hotels in 2003, and that's expected to improve only modestly in 2004.
The Gaylord Texan is the third convention hotel for Gaylord Entertainment Co. The first is the original 2,800-room complex in Nashville, Tenn., and there is one similar to the Texan's size near Orlando, Fla. Analysts say the new facility will strengthen Gaylord's ability to attract multiyear contracts from groups that want to meet in different regions of the country. A fourth hotel-convention complex is planned for Washington, D.C.
The Gaylord Texan is expected to be an aggressive competitor nationally, drawing meetings that might otherwise go anywhere from Atlanta to Houston.
"We're very bullish on our strategy," says Jay Sevigny, chief operating officer for the Gaylord Hotels division.
After years of extensive sales and marketing efforts, the Grapevine hotel has booked events as far out as 2012. But before the first guests can check in, construction crews and a workforce of 1,300 are scrambling to put finishing touches on the hotel.
"This is the stage, but the stage doesn't create the experience," says John Imaizumi, Gaylord Texan's general manager. "We have to gear up so everyone knows where to stand and what the script is."
Mr. Imaizumi pauses briefly to pick up a stray scrap of paper on the floor outside his office, noting that everyone at the hotel must be ready to do housekeeping and security.
"At one point, I thought about getting a pedometer," he says, briskly making his rounds through the massive 4-acre atrium. "Everything is changing so fast."
This is Mr. Imaizumi's sixth hotel opening. "If I hadn't gone through this several times, I might be more worried," he says.
Work crews populate the hotel, finishing countless projects.
Several tall street lamps in the main atrium are being replaced by ground lights hidden by plants -- a last-minute change to make it easier for guests to see their way to Mission Plaza, whose façade resembles the Alamo.
Near the Texan Station sports bar, several plants have been replaced with larger ones so guests won't be tempted to step through them to get closer to the railing overlooking a mini-river that flows through the hotel atrium.
"There will be things that we tweak again in a month," Mr. Imaizumi says. "But there's nothing that needs to be done that would prevent us from opening."
The Gaylord Texan has been hosting employee friends and family as guests for overnight stays to test the hotel's restaurants and services. Front desk clerks are practicing their welcome spiels and how to operate the computer system while maintaining eye contact. And they're memorizing where guest rooms are located so they can offer clear directions through the sprawling complex.
One hint: Odd-numbered rooms face the hotel atrium, and even-numbered ones face Lake Grapevine.
"It can be confusing," says Justin Clemente, who will work the front desk. "When the guests arrive, we have to be able to tell them which way to go so they won't get lost."
Back in the convention center's banquet services kitchen, executive chef Ty Thoren keeps an energetic pace.
"You want to try something?" he asks, holding out a shot glass filled with lobster meat and roasted tomato sauce. "I'm just trying to do everything out of the box."
Even though the hotel hasn't opened, Mr. Thoren's crew has already served more than 5,000 meals. A recent luncheon for 250 people suddenly exploded to 750, requiring fast work by the kitchen staff.
"It's great practice for us," Mr. Thoren said.
Mr. Thoren worked the last 11 years as the regional corporate chef for management firm Interstate Hotels and signed on with Gaylord in order to spend fewer days on the road.
The job presses him to be creative. He's collaborating with a supplier to make a Texas star-shaped waffle iron for breakfast events. On his desk is a list of Gaylord Texan-theme messages to use in fortune cookies during Asian-style buffets.
Assembly line stations have been set up so his crew can dish up food for 3,000 people in just over an hour.
"At a place this big, you have to be very smart about how you do things," Mr. Thoren says. "The key is for the food to be fresh."
On most of his 13-hour days, he shuttles between developing menus with potential banquet clients and working with his crew to make sure the dishes maintain a consistent look.
"There are so many sous-chefs, and each has their own style," Mr. Thoren says. "Every day, we're refining things."
The mantra of consistent service echoes throughout hotel departments.
"Everyone needs to be well-informed so the customer has a good experience," Martha Neibling says while leading the way through the "back of the house" -- underground hallways used by the staff. "We can do 99 things right, but the customer will remember the one thing we did wrong."
Ms. Neibling oversees the Texan's internal communications, organizing employee events and newsletters to keep the workforce in sync. It's seen as a critical role in keeping turnover low and morale strong.
"Get ready to start clapping. We've got a promotion," she calls to employees during a recent lunch hour while ringing a cowbell.
A few moments later, John Emmett, general manager at the Texas Station sports bar, rounds the corner pulling his new assistant in a cowboy-theme rickshaw.
The brightly lit cafeteria erupts in applause.
In another part of the hotel, Vicki Clark, the Gaylord Texan's horticulture manager, strides to the atrium before an urgent phone call diverts her to the Old Hickory Steakhouse.
"That's how it is all day," she says with a sigh. "I start doing one thing and have to stop in the middle to check on something else."
On the lower level of the winding steakhouse, there's a piano that doubles as a player piano when a musician isn't available. The problem is, there's no convenient electrical source, and power cords don't exactly fit with the decor.
"We could always paint the cord so it blends in," Ms. Clark offers.
Larry Slawter, who supervises Ms. Clark's interior horticulture team, jots notes as she points to spots that need potted plants.
The exercise center could use large screening plants because the shutters won't arrive in time for the opening, and "people on the treadmill aren't going to want to be watching the people drinking margaritas," she jokes.
Outside the pool area, she points to a wide wall area that needs something tall and wide. The hot tub also needs plants to screen it from passers-by.
"After we open, we'll want something to grow on this trellis, but for now, we'll just do a screen," Ms. Clark says.
Since the hotel's original plan was crafted, the number of potted plants indoors has grown by 50 percent -- mostly shifting from spots in the atrium.
Before Ms. Clark leaves, crews have been dispatched to put the plants in place. She'll make a similar route later, mapping where fresh floral arrangements will go.
"I sat down for 10 minutes today to eat lunch, and that's it," Ms. Clark says. "It's been like that every day for the last two weeks. But once we're open, we're open."
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(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. GET,