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Business Observer Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 10 years ago

No Holiday

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Executives behind a $25-million hotel project set some lofty goals. The hotel itself will be the linchpin in the endeavor.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

COVER UPDATE

The knockout punch struck by the Holiday Inn-Sarasota Bradenton Airport still resonates more than a year after it opened.


The knockout blow is essentially the entire $25 million hotel. It includes a $2 million atrium that reaches to the roof of the six-floor building, a South Beach-themed outdoor dining and bar area and a spa that offers facials, manicures and pedicures.


“The wow factor is still there,” says Mohammad Gharavi, the hotel's general manager. “Everyday someone comes in here and is blown away.”


The biggest challenge in 2010, which will likely be true for 2011, is to turn wows into bookings. “Our goal is to be the leader in occupancy for our subset,” Gharavi says. “It's an ambitious goal, but we think we can do it.”


One step toward the goal is a common one in hospitality: To split the sales force into laser-focused mini departments, from conferences to catering. At the Holiday Inn, however, Gharavi set up a sales structure that belies the typical Holiday Inn. That's why the hotel is going after business that would usually go to properties higher up the industry food chain.


Sales and marketing director Tom Yorke, for example, has traveled to Tallahassee in search of statewide conference business. Other sales people have worked with local and nearby businesses. And on the catering side, the hotel has landed some high-end parties and events.


Says Gharavi: “People know when they come here they get a beautiful product.”


The sales side, of course, is only one side of a hotel. And even though Gharavi has been in the local hotel business for more than two decades, he still encountered lots of surprises in the Holiday Inn's first 12 months.


“There are things you think you thought about but really didn't,” says Gharavi, the onetime general manager of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sarasota. “I expect the unexpected because I've been doing hotels for such a long time.”


One of those things was the day early on when the cold water didn't come on anywhere in the hotel. A separate issue resolved in the first few days was a small water leak at the bottom of an elevator shaft.


Another mini crisis: Hotel staff came in to work one day and discovered the indoor pool was empty. Turns out an issue with a pump in the pool's heating system temporarily drained the water. “That was a two-day adventure to figure that out,” says Gharavi.


Hotel executives are confident the maintenance issues and kinks will not impede its lofty goals. Indeed, Gharavi projects occupancy rates will grow 25% in 2011 over 2010, a significant feat considering two relatively new hotels, a Hampton Inn and a Hyatt Place, are a mile away.


“We have penetrated the market,” says Gharavi. “Our competition knows us.”

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