|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 14, 2012--David Kohlasch, a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry, recently took the helm of an Inner Harbor landmark.
Sonesta, a hotel brand relatively unknown in the Mid-Atlantic, assumed management in May of the InterContinental Harbor Court hotel, now called the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court.
Before this year, the rapidly expanding brand only had a handful of properties in the United States. Its roughly two dozen hotels were concentrated in South America and Egypt. By the end of summer, Sonesta hotels will dot the eastern seaboard, nearly doubling the brand's locations.
In Baltimore, only the management is changing, from InterContinental to Sonesta. The building remains owned by Hospitality Properties Trust of Newton, Mass., which bought Harbor Court for $78 million in 2006.
Most of the staff remained the same and room rates are not expected to change, Kohlasch said.
Still there's work to be done, he said. Even though it underwent a $5 million upgrade in 2006, the 195-room hotel is going to be refreshed again.
Kohlasch, who used to manage the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center, a Washington, D.C., conference and event space near the National Mall, looks forward to introducing Baltimore to the Sonesta brand, he said.
Being general manager of Sonesta's Baltimore outpost is his second stint with the company. He worked at its Boston flagship hotel two decades ago.
He returned, he said, because Sonesta has maintained it family-business roots and collegial culture. At the end of June, Kohlasch sat down with The Baltimore Sun to discuss Sonesta's plans for the Harbor Court property.
What does Sonesta offer the Baltimore hotel market?
As a company, all of our hotels are four-star hotels. We come from a very high-quality background and environment. In Baltimore ... there are a lot of great hotels here, but there's huge demand here for Four Seasons-level hotels and we consider ourselves in that arena.
With the Harbor Court specifically, for the 25 years it's been here, it's been a four-star hotel. It's had an incredible reputation from the day it opened.
All of our properties are very unique. We're very indigenous to the environments that we're in. So we're not going to come in and have a cookie-cutter-style hotel. That's not how we operate.
Within the next 18 months, the property's going to go through a very extensive renovation. As we're working with designers to do renovations, they'll maintain the unique, indigenous feel to the hotel. We, very candidly, feel that that's going to help us succeed here, but it's also going to show our guests and the local community that we value and embrace the Baltimore culture.
What will the renovations entail?
We've had one meeting with designers and architects so far. So we're not at the point of getting into specifics of colors and fabrics. We're not there yet; we'll get there eventually.
But we're going to renovate all the guest rooms. All the public spaces are going to be completely renovated. We want to maintain the Baltimore feel and, in terms of the design, we're not looking at the exterior of the building.
Ninety-nine percent is going to be on the interior. There may need to be some repair work on the facade and stuff like that, but we're not looking to change the whole skin of the building.
When you compare the hotel's red brick exterior to the more recent structures of Harbor East, it doesn't have the same contemporary feel. Do you think that puts Sonesta at a disadvantage?
No. Once we get done with the design of the place, it's going to be beautiful. State-of-the-art technology. It's going to have all the amenities.
People pay and come back because of the service levels and the people who are inside. The building's unique because it has a distinct look to it. It's something people are going to remember. I don't think it's going to hurt us at all.
At the end of the day, what's going to be our success is what happens within the four walls of the building. It's the people that you're interacting with every day. It's the service levels, the quality of the food, quality of just the guest experience.
As long as on the sales and marketing side, we're doing everything we need to do in order to market Baltimore as a city and market ourselves as a destination -- which we will do -- I don't think that's going to be a detriment to us.
Have you heard from customers who are hesitant about the management change?
We've been here four weeks now -- a very short time period -- and a lot of people have come in very curious to see who we are. The curiosity, the feedback so far has been excellent.
A lot of people come in and say, "Who's Sonesta? We haven't heard of you guys," which I can understand, because we're a smaller company. Once we explain who we are -- that we've been in the business for a long time, we're not new at this, we know what we're doing and we have been very successful -- once we tell people our story and the culture of the company and where our focus is, the feedback overall has been excellent.
I haven't sensed any hesitancy. We were adamant that we were going to keep the Harbor Court name because [it] is almost a landmark. Whether it's Sonesta or any other name, all you need to do with a lot of people is mention Harbor Court and they know exactly where it is. Doesn't matter what brand is on it.
Why was Sonesta interested in this property specifically?
In terms of our quality levels of our hotels, which are all four-star, this fits right into that. Plus, we have a good presence on the East Coast, so this fits into that as well. We've got Boston, our flagship. We opened up a hotel in Hilton Head a few months ago and we're now in the Baltimore and Philadelphia markets. Also Baltimore itself, just from the business side of it, there's a lot of opportunity here.
Did most of the staff stay on through the transition?
We retained everybody. We brought everybody on that wanted to stay on.
Our employees are just as important as the guests in our company and we do everything in our possible power to make sure that we treat our employees with the utmost respect 100 percent of the time.
Whether you're the GM or the housekeeper or the front desk clerk -- whatever the position may be -- there's nobody more important than anybody else.
Our style is we go on a first-name basis. We are not formal. We want an environment that people love to come into. Feel appreciated and valued. If we can do that with our employees, they're going to end up servicing the guests exceptionally.
(c)2012 The Baltimore Sun
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