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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris BUTCHER, BAKER,
HOTEL GENERAL MANAGER


BY CHRIS BARNETT

September 16, 2004 -- Too many hotel general managers act like lords of their castle, holding court on their office throne and rarely appearing in public.

But Wayne Susser, general manager of the 252-room Doubletree hotel in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, acts more like the mayor of a small town. He cooks omelets at the breakfast buffet, checks in guests at the front desk, pops into the restaurant to say hello and clean tables, scoops up dirty room-service trays outside guestroom doors and occasionally bakes Doubletree's signature amenity, the free chocolate chip cookies.

Guests are suitably impressed. "I'm on the road nearly 100 percent of the year except for my two-week vacation," says Jacqueline Pawlikowksi, director of nursing for Ardent Health Services in Nashville. "I stay in lots of different hotels, but I've never seen any hotel manager who is so visible and helpful."

Folksy and friendly, Susser says he's an "old school" hotel manager with a few new twists. "This is my business and I run it like my business," he says. "Actually, it's more like my party and I'm having fun."

Located in a Philadelphia suburb and surrounded by marquee companies like Unisys and Aetna, the Doubletree Plymouth Meeting's clientele is 70 percent business travelers. Some are long-term guests who check in for three to six months. Pawlikowksi, for example, "lived" there for eight months while she was helping build a new hospital and flew home to be with her family only on weekends. During the week, she says, Susser and the hotel staff "adopted me and treated me like family."

A hotelier for nearly 20 years with Hilton and its Doubltree subsidiary, Susser should hold a seminar for hotel managers on how to make business travelers, or any guest, feel at home. He has some fresh ideas.

Hotels often have "employee of the month" programs and winners get posted on bulletin boards in the back of the house. But Susser has a "guest of the day" program where regulars and returnees get recognition out front and free dinner that night at the hotel's Brandywine Hunt restaurant.

His take on building staff morale? Anoint all 126 employees as "general managers" with the clout to solve any guest problem on the spot. "They do not have to say 'Just a minute, let me get my general manager to help you,' " he explains. "They're all GMs and all empowered to make a decision and I live with it."

A guest visiting an insurance company near the hotel arrived annoyed one afternoon. The airline had lost his luggage and he had an 8 a.m. meeting the following morning. His one shirt was on his back. A bellman asked his size, bought the guest a dress shirt at a department store across the street and never put it on his bill. For a long-term guest, Susser personally created a menu of the guest's favorite foods.

This is the kind of treatment you get--or that you're promised--at expensive luxury properties laden with stars and diamonds, not at a $169-a-night chain hotel that could use a little sprucing up.

"Look, we know we're not the prettiest and fanciest hotel," concedes Susser. "We're not renovated yet. But we care about our guests, we engage them and our bottom line is to solve any problem they've had before they walk out the door." Recently, Doubletree's house laundry lost a guest's underwear--shorts, t-shirts, everything. A staffer who got the angry call asked for his size and favorite brand (Ralph Lauren Polo), then went shopping and replaced more than the guest lost.

"We didn't fight him on it," says the manager. "He was right. So we said, 'What can we do to make it right?' Then we did it. It's just showing that you understand the guest's pain and showing you care."

Susser, who logs thirteen-and-a-half-hour days and drives 90 minutes each way to work, gets in early for his omelet-cooking shift and to call or greet Hilton HHonors frequent guests with a personal welcome. He also gives business travelers more than just TLC. In-room high-speed Internet is free and Wi-Fi is coming soon. There's a no-charge business center, two fitness centers and a swimming pool.

Still, it's the little touches that add up. When Susser recently overheard a guest looking for the quickest, easiest way to get to the mall and see a movie, the GM said, "I'm going home. Hop in. I'll give you a ride."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.