|By Thomas J. Monigan, Northwest Florida
Daily News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 21, 2009 --Anyone who has lived along the Emerald Coast for any length of time can tell you things come and go here.
Maybe it's just part of life in the region, where Mother Nature can make major changes in the landscape with what chambers of commerce like to call "weather events." There also is the natural ebb and flow of military life.
During the past 20 or 30 years here, change has staged a constant parade in this land along the Gulf of Mexico. And still there are more campaigns to make sure we get "discovered" by visitors from around the globe.
Considering all these factors, it is easy to understand why the management and employees of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa are so pumped up about celebrating the resort's 25th anniversary.
"I remember when Forbes Magazine named us 'Turkey of the Year' back in 1985 or 1986," Robert Kamm recalled. He is CEO and president of Sandcastles Inc., which operates the resort.
"We obviously proved them wrong," Kamm said, with an unabashed laugh out loud.
Hilton Sandestin has grown to 600 rooms, with four different types of accommodations. But those who work there are quick to tell you its attraction only begins with the fact that it is the only resort property on the edge of the gulf.
Other features include: Seagar 's Prime Steaks & Seafood, the first "AAA Four Diamond" award-winning restaurant along the Emerald Coast. Multiple dining options in Hadashi Sushi Bar, Sandcastles Restaurant, Barefoots Beachside Bar & Grill and Picnix Deli.
Two outdoor pools, an outdoor whirlpool and both an indoor heated pool and whirlpool. The resort also boasts access to 15 tennis courts, including 12 hydrogrid clay courts (four lighted), four championship golf courses and a game room.
Serenity by the Sea, the Spa at Hilton Sandestin Beach.
More than 32,000 square feet of meeting space, including the 10,000-squarefoot Emerald Ballroom, the 4,500-square-foot beachfront Emerald Deck and the Coral Ballroom, which flexibly accommodates 25 to 400 people.
"Technology has put the Hilton ahead of other flags," general manager Mike Chouri said. "At the front desk of every single one of Hilton hotels, there's a profile online that helps us know our guests.
"We estimate 170,000 rooms per year, and that means about 680,000 people," Chouri added. "We can have 4,000 people here on the same day during the summer. The beauty about Hilton Sandestin is that you can come in, register and then stay in your robe. You don't ever have to leave the property, because everything in here is within walking distance. ... It is huge for us ... people tell us about it all the time."
Some guests naturally want to see more beyond the immediate property, and being part of Sandestin Beach & Golf Resort certainly helps out there. The retail, nightspots and marina at The Village at Baytowne Wharf provide multiple options.
But if you ask Chouri or anyone else in management what rates as No. 1 on their list, their answers never vary.
"No. 1 in this business is who can deliver the best service," Chouri said. "You need to hire people with the right attitude and then you can literally train people ... you can grow them to provide that service."
Director of Guest Services Robin Bailer was a dishwasher and a busboy when Hilton Sandestin opened Dec. 15, 1984.
"Only half the hotel was completed at that point ... not the top floors," Bailer recalled. "We've expanded from 400 rooms since then, and we've had a complete transformation several times.
"You've got to reinvent yourself,butputtingtheguest first and doing the absolute utmost to give them more than what they're expecting, that always remains the top priority," he added. "You have to wow them when they come in for the first time, and that's been constant for 25 years. Our employees and management work as a tight-knit team. I'm not saying we haven't stubbed our toes over 25 years ... but it's how you recover from those mistakes."
Kamm refers to it as "commitment to service."
"It's not easy running a business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including holidays," he said. "It's been a very interesting time down here recently (with the overall economic challenges) but we've fared well. Last year was our most profitable year.
"We reinvented how we do things, how we go about things," Kamm added, "and we realigned duties. This year has had its challenges when it comes to group sales, but our transient guests are still coming in droves. So far this is the best June we've ever had, which means tourism is alive and well here."
Kamm said he and his team insist on "training, training and more training and on top of that would be follow ups. Consumers today are more educated and very value conscious and they want to feel good about the money they're spending. They're absolutely doing a lot of shopping and we absolutely do our best to impress them from start to finish."
Vice President of Sales Marshall Thompson has been with Hilton Sandestin for 12 years. About 85 percent of the group business at the resort is based on return trips, he said.
"At least a dozen of those have been coming from the very beginning," Thompson said. "One big thing for us is the owners and the management continue to put money back into the hotel, and that means expansion and more amenities."
Groups as large as 600 to 700 can visit Hilton Sandestin, with agendas that include meetings, meals and kids' activities.
"And we didn't cut back on staffing levels when things got tough with the economy," Thompson added. "In fact, we've stepped things up. My team greets them at the front door, stays with them and says goodbye when they leave. Personal service goes a very long way."
Jeffrey J. LeBoeuf, executive director of the Mississippi Osteopathic Medical Association, recalls his group first planned a trip to Hilton Sandestin based on architectural drawings before construction ever began.
"The rest of the association thought the men who did it were nuts to go out of state, let alone to someplace like Destin," LeBoeuf recalled. "It's become an excellent venue for us ... it's sort of become part of what we are.
"Members have watched their children grow up there and now they're bringing grandchildren," he added. "It's become everybody's family vacation along with a meeting. And since we come the week of Memorial Day, if we ever would skip a year, I don't think we'd get our week back."
Making sure everything keeps working properly on a property this size can be an enormous responsibility, but Director of Engineering Leonard Martin has been doing just that for 15 years.
"We're a premium property that's right on the beach and not many people can say that," Martin said, "but just keeping up with Mother Nature is the No. 1 challenge. She's constantly trying to tear stuff up. No matter what you put out, it rusts, dissolves and goes to pieces because of the salt and the climate."
Thompson and his team of 18 are charged with keeping the inside atmosphere at the Hilton Sandestin at 68 to 70 degrees, with a humidity level of 60. That means developing 1,200 tons of air conditioning on a daily basis. The chillers, elevators and hot water are monitored 24 hours a day.
"We've gone from chillers that stand alone and run by themselves to computerized units that adjust automatically to heat or cold," Thompson said. "They're also accessible by remote, and with this computerized system we typically know about a problem before the guests do.
"There's a lot to it, there really is," he summarized, "but we've got a good team and we're glad that our guests can count on us for something they naturally take for granted."
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Copyright (c) 2009, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach
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