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The San Diego-area Fire Tragedy Dominated Donn Hooker's
First Month as WHG's New General Manager at the
Embassy Suites Temecula Valley

TEMECULA, Calif. -- November 7, 2007 -- In a perfect world, every professional starting in a new position of great authority should be able to ease into their new responsibilities. Donn Hooker, Windsor Hospitality Group’s new general manager at their Embassy Suites Temecula Valley Wine Country, did not have that luck. The San Diego-area fire tragedies in the last couple of weeks have dominated Hooker’s first month at the property. According to him, the take-away message from those challenges is how impressively his team and the community as a whole united to confront the situation.

According to WHG, the take-away is that they picked the right person for the position.

“Up to the fire, things here had been business as usual, in line with anticipation,” Hooker says. “Then along came the fire. It had started over the weekend and by that Sunday, October 21, it was apparent that we had a natural disaster on our hands.”

The next day, Hooker says his team met for their usual Monday morning meeting and discussed how they could help the evacuees they knew would call looking for a safe place to stay.

Donn Hooker and the Embassy Suites
Temecula Valley Wine Country 
“The first call was the one that started a series of decisions that were not business as usual. A family had been evacuated from their home in Fallbrook and they had two dogs with them. I thought of what it would be like to be in their position, to be told to grab everything of value and leave home in 15 minutes…and you would certainly have the family dog. We started changing policy from there on to accommodate our guests/neighbors/evacuees,” he explains.

At the end of that day, the Embassy Suites Temecula Valley Wine Country had 100% occupancy, but area residents continued to arrive, hoping the property team could accommodate them.

“We did not have any vacant rooms, so we opened our two ballrooms and put down what spare mattresses, foam pads and cots we had here at the property. When we ran out of those, we used blankets and laid out a cart full of linens so people could help themselves to washcloths and such.”

One family had two dogs, so Hooker and his team put them in the boardroom.

“Monday and Tuesday nights, those ballrooms were quite full,” he recounts. “Then we got a call from the Riverside Sheriff’s Department to ask if we could find a place for 60 to take a nap. We did not have any more space anywhere, so we asked our guests in the ballroom to leave for a little while so the sheriffs could grab a few minutes of sleep. They were happy to make room. Everyone was very supportive of their efforts…The interesting thing is we had not a single complaint all week.”

By Tuesday, Hooker and his team noticed smoke over the property and internally ran through their evacuation procedures. Fortunately it never became necessary to use them. Instead, this WHG property team had to restrategize to make room for more guests.

Wednesday they received a call from the fire department, asking if they could accommodate some fire fighters. Some evacuees had returned to their homes and found them still intact. This gave Hooker 10 suites his team could provide the firefighters on rotation for brief naps and a shower before the next shift of 17 or so arrived.

“Wednesday night, we could see flames from the hotel and I could see three fires from my house,” he says. “There was also a town hall meeting that 3,000 residents attended. They said there was no immediate danger to the City of Temecula, however the powerful winds were still driving everything sideways and the hotel parking lot was full. We had people sleeping in their cars in the lot, because we were completely out of space inside the property at this point.”

Over the days that followed, the panic in the area began to subside and guests began trickling homeward. Things began returning to “normal” and Hooker took a moment to summarize the week.

“I think the story that really should be told here is how the team at this hotel really stepped-up,” he says. “They worked extra hours, stayed late, came in early and really became friends with the people seeking refuge here.”

All week, Hooker says it seems he could not walk through the building without someone pulling him aside to tell him that team members were doing such a great job and how much they appreciated his team’s efforts. “It was a surprisingly upbeat situation, considering the circumstances,” he says.

Hooker has had 25 years’ training in the hospitality industry to handle such challenges. During college, he worked as a bellman at a small resort in Breezy Point, Minn. Positions he has held since then include director of sales and marketing at several hotels, general manager at the Doubletree in Delmar, Calif. and vice president of sales and marketing, western region, Interstate Hotels & Resorts.

“When I was VP, I could live anywhere in Southern California,” he says. “My family and I have lived in Temecula for two years and we have lived in the area for 10 years. Part of the reason we chose this city is my daughter is an accomplished equestrian and my son enjoys riding his dirt bike with his dad. Temecula is the perfect place for both.”

His happiness living in Temecula not withstanding, there was one thing Hooker still wanted. “In my last position, I was on the plane all the time,” he says. “I had not worked on-property in a couple of years and had missed the day-to-day interaction with people and, frankly, the guests.” Both for good and unfortunate reasons, a shortage in people or guests has not been a challenge in Hooker’s first month at the Embassy Suites Temecula Valley Wine Country.

According to Regina Samy, WHG’s regional vice president, the story that needs to be told is how Hooker showed his mettle in the last two weeks. “I chose Donn as a perfect candidate for this WHG hotel because of his professional background, his familiarity with the brand and his love of Temecula,” she says. “To me it was a homerun all the way around; he is familiar with working in a company similar to Windsor, he is familiar with our property management system and he absolutely loves the community. In fact, he responded to one of our online ads and took it upon himself to visit the hotel and interview our staff to find out if he wanted to be part of the hotel before submitting his resume.”

In addition to Hooker’s strong resume and commitment to working with this specific WHG property, Samy says she was most impressed with how Hooker’s goals align with the larger WHG mission. One of its key goals for their Embassy Suites Temecula is to draw in the community after all of the renovations and improvements. Another is to reintegrate the property team members into the community organizations.

“While a lot of people have buzz phrases that sound impressive on interviews, Donn Hooker agreed with these goals and lives them,” Samy says.

“We are a substantial part of the community and we have to stay involved,” she adds. “With the onset of the fires, Donn became so open to welcoming the community, to giving the fireman and police officers a place to rest and taking care of evacuees’ pets…to doing the right thing for the community and it will all come back to us…I think now is the time for all entities in the community to fortify those relationships to be prepared for whatever the future holds. We have just seen what good can come of that.”

About Windsor Hospitality Group - Windsor Hospitality Group is the hotel division of Windsor Capital Group, Inc., the California-based commercial real estate acquisition, development and management firm. The WHG portfolio includes 30 brand name hotels in commercial and cultural hubs throughout the country, including Portland, Greater Atlanta, Las Vegas and Detroit. It is the largest private franchisee of the Embassy Suites brand, which won its third J.D. Power and Associates "Highest Guest Satisfaction Among Upscale Hotel Chains" distinction this year. Through third-party management contracts and acquisitions, the Windsor portfolio will continue expanding in the coming months. 


Paige Nesbitt

Also See: Windsor Capital Group Completes $3 Million Dollar Renovation at the 176-suite Embassy Suites Hotel Temecula, California / February 2005

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