The International Network of Hospitality Consulting Professionals

Task Force Operations… Filling The Void In Hospitality Leadership

As a long-time hospitality executive I did not even know what ‘task force’ was until I was in the job! It sounded a bit like the title of a Chuck Norris movie, not the genteel world of the hospitality professional.

Task Force operations have come into their own in the last few years to provide continuity in hotel and resort operations. A task force contractor fills the void in staffing caused by never ending executive turnover or staffing voids created when a hotel or resort changes brands. As a ‘flag’ prepares to change, the outgoing company will move key staff to other chain locations. Also, employees privy to rumors may ‘jump ship’ due to impending changes creating openings in key operating departments. A task force partner can put fresh, unbiased perspective (fresh eyes) on an operation, provide quick fixes, and bring not only revenue suggestions but potential cost reduction ideas.  In temp-to-hire situations, both sides have the chance to “date before they buy the ring” as a GM friend is fond of saying.

In the case of sales and marketing positions few hotels can afford a void in top line activity as it will quickly threaten the revenue stream and profitability of the operation. This is where a task force contractor can step in: typically a 1099-contractor is paid a flat rate on a weekly, monthly, or project basis. Benefits paid to a full time employee that can run an additional 30-40% of a base salary are typically included in the task force fee, so the owner pays a set amount and can budget accordingly. This fact combined with a potential tax deduction for hiring an outside contractor might also be appealing in the financial statement. The contractor typically takes meals in the employee cafeteria or the three-meal-a-day restaurant, may have laundry privileges and gets a paid trip home every 2-3 weeks. A contractor can be engaged in screening and hiring the replacement position or other key positions in the department.  Most importantly, continuity is provided with close feedback to the owner, General Manager, or corporate staff.
I would like to share my experience in several recent task force assignments.

I worked with Atlanta-based Hospitality Ventures, who manage 35 mid-market hotels and incidentally also employ several full time task force positions such as General Manager, Director of Sales & Marketing, and Sales Manager executives. My assignment involved the transformation of a 35-year-old, 202-room Holiday Inn on Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island. Following a $6.2 million rejuvenation, the resort moved up in pricing within an upgraded competitive set.  The finished product was renamed The Beach House to reflect a boutique feel and compliment the upgraded restaurant and lounge at this prime beachfront location.  This required a complete rework of pricing, new collateral (both electronic and printed), new banquet menus, and a complete new look with the OTAs (online travel agencies). We closely reviewed competitive pricing and transient demand working hand in hand with the brand and our own revenue team. As we moved up in the market we replaced lower rated group business with premium conferences and catering bookings. This was a 60-day assignment initially but ended up a five-month project. We had a task force GM and F&B Director and supported one another. It was tough to leave Hilton Head Island, believe me.

My next assignment presented a chance to put away the resort attire and bring out the suits and cuff links. The 4-Diamond Intercontinental Harbor Court in Baltimore was to be reflagged a Royal Sonesta as the latter seeks to grow in the domestic marketplace. This assignment had a whole set of different challenges. We had a ‘morning muster’ meeting with the sales team and reviewed hotel occupancies, groups in-house and site inspections. The challenge was to cover all these details but most importantly have everyone give a presentation to the group on the business they wanted to book. We changed the culture of the sales and catering team, calling the morning meeting the Daily Business Review. The meeting was to last just 15 to 20 minutes which required preparation and focus — after all, we wanted the team on the phone with customers not sitting in an in-house meeting.  The team quickly developed a sense of what was a good piece of business and honed their presentation skills to speak to the toughest audience ever — their peers!

The team developed a passion for presenting and booking their business. We re-deployed the team into vertical and geographic markets. Work was needed with the ad agency as well as a new online presence. New collateral, print and electronic, was needed as well as enhanced scripting for the reservations agents and sales team so all could speak to customers with a unified message about the new brand in this well established Baltimore hotel. It was a 60-day assignment. We hired a topnotch Director of Sales & Marketing and they were off to the races — and I was just getting used to wearing a suit and tie again.

My most recent assignment was with Salamander Hotels & Resorts, based in Middleburg, VA, and owned by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson, a delightful lady and savvy businessperson. She purchased the Innisbrook Resort outside Tampa and put in over $75 million in upgrades, enhancements, and a beautiful spa, thus creating  ‘Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf and Spa Resort’. At the same time Salamander entered into management contracts with the Reunion Resort in Orlando and the Hammock Beach Resort on the Palm Coast of Florida, and together the three resorts marketed as the ‘Great Golf Resorts of Florida’. I served as the task force Director of Sales & Marketing through most of the latter part of 2012 and into 2013 for Innisbrook (affectionately known as ‘the mother ship’).

The sales team was deployed on a cluster basis where the sales staff of all three resorts focused on geographic market areas for each of the resorts. At Innisbrook we had the team focus on all group prospects and tentatives on the books, sent out several targeted ‘eblasts’ and maximized our presence with all online group booking engines such as Cvent and Starcite. We also had to educate the sales team from the managed resorts on the nuances of Innisbrook so it was properly represented to the meetings marketplace. It took a hands-on approach with every sales manager to review each piece of business to determine what was needed to reach closure and render a definite booking.  It was an exciting assignment and Tampa was not a bad place to spend the winter — now I see why so many people head to Florida. I must talk with my wife, Suzie, on this topic!

Task Force assignments offer a variety of situations with great self-fulfillment, including positive and sometimes immediate results. You must be forever a diplomat. I have been asked, “Are you one of them or one of us?” The correct answer is, “Yes!”

I look forward to the excitement of my next assignment and how I can make a difference to an owner or management team — and meet new friends along the way!

About the Author

Gary Brown is a former member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants.