Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oldest island hostelry boasts newest operations manager

Chris Davison, the new Vice President of Operations at the Island Inn, came on board at the Inn this past June and, since then, has been a very busy young man. The Board of Directors recruited him from Florida Gulf Coast University, essentially, straight out of the class room. In fact, he’s still taking on line classes, mostly in resort management, hospitality and finance. But he says he gets along well with this mostly middle-aged or older board — probably because revenues have been going up ever since he came on board.

The Inn is the oldest hostelry on the island, having been started — largely as a boarding house with meals — by Hallie Matthews in 1895 on one of the widest tracts (550 feet) of beachfront on the island. It was always a spot to which relatively wealthy Northerners came for the winter, not just for a few days vacation — often joined by their children and later their grandchildren. But, generally speaking, those days are gone forever — at least for vast majority of the 21st Century population.

The problem arises when trying to bridge that gap — the Inn was still geared to that and didn’t have the experience or really even the know-how to go after other types of clientele… Time for a change, time for a new strategy… time to look for new blood that’s trained in the Hospitality business, has a vision, and goes after it. Time for a Chris Davison.

Whereas the Inn had been operated more as a club than a business, Davison convinced the board that it needed a business plan… He created one and they approved it. “The board needed a vision and a mission statement,” Davison said. “They needed to know what they wanted and how to convey that to an ‘outsider’ (me) coming in with the desire to help, to lead, to assist them in achieving their goals.”

With only 49 different lodging options that include cottages and hotel rooms (all with ocean views) and on on-site restaurant/bar on a 10-acre piece of property, its low-density and family orientation, its history and traditions, and its superior beach access — the Inn’s major goal, as Davison saw it, was to have guests embrace the relaxed island atmosphere, customer service and olde Florida charm.

Another point Davison insists on is that staff be governed by the famous Dale Carnegie quote: “‘Give people what they want,’ and integrating that with warm southern hospitality to lift our service above that of its competitors.” He holds weekly brainstorming/feedback meetings with the staff to not only encourage them in their pursuit of the overall goals, but to build morale and create a positive working environment. His ideas must be working… Unbelievably, the Inn was mostly full in October!

While old-timers still come back — often — most of the guests now are brand new or returning new guests, often the result of Davison’s increased focus on getting as much information as possible out on the Inn’s website which now has a webcam pointing directly at those 550 feet of beach sand, water and wavelets.

Another strategy Davison is implementing is to ask guests to fill out a short questionnaire at check-out and offering a discount at completion, and/or to leave a review of their stay on Trip Advisor (or a similar site).. The use of Facebook is another part of the Inn’s daily operating procedures. The Inn has made sure to strengthen its relations with the finest international tour operators in order to secure an increasing number of international guests who have an affinity for the Island Inn’s offerings. Davison has also focused on strategic partnership with companies like Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline. By utilizing these corporations’ superior marketing power, he has been able to increase bookings through travel agents by over 200%!

And this year, the Inn is partnering with Andrea Mucciga, former operator of such island favorites as The Riviera, Dolce Vita and Bellini’s, to run the food and beverage operations. “He will be operating Traditions on the Beach, soon to be upgraded with a full-service bar and on- and off-site catering. We are very excited about the prospect of working with Andrea — who shares Island Inn’s passion for value-added guest services and our tradition, and has a true appreciation for Sanibel and its residents.”

It sounds as if Davison eats, sleeps and breathes Island Inn (when he’s not in class! and he’s probably applying newly assimilated knowledge to the Inn then, too!)… but no. He loves to fish (“After work I grab a rod and fish off the beach as often as I can,” he says). He loves sports and his boat and knows the waterways around here well. He plays softball at the Rec Center. He’s single, his mother lives in town, and he’s always loved Sanibel. “This is the real Florida,” he says. “The Island Inn sells itself.”

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