Developing A Story

Build A Story


Yesterday was an exciting day for Charlotte, North Carolina…they won…they won the right to spend over $100 million on a new building…the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Congratulations.

This is huge for the city of Charlotte, as it would have been for any of the other candidate cities, like Atlanta or Daytona Beach. And, not because this new venture creates jobs, improves land value or streams millions in taxes…but because it fuels a story.

NASCAR is a very powerful story, almost a religion…especially in the South. Millions of people watch the races, buy the myriad of logo stuff, watch the ads on TV and revere the drivers…past celebrity status. They believe…because they want to, because of how it makes them feel.

People won’t visit the NASCAR Hall of fame because it cost over $100M to build. They won’t visit because of ample parking, a fancy lobby or clean restrooms. They’ll come because they’ll have a chance to be a part of the story…to get closer to the dream.

So, if you’re in the market to develop a hotel, build a story first, and a building second. Stories are more interesting, last longer and pay much bigger returns...just ask Charlotte.

Our Town


I had an interesting discussion with my mother the other day spurned by the recent Akron saga. One of her comments…“some towns just aren’t in to tourism”. This started me thinking…all towns have tourism, whether they like it or not. While they might not make it their focus, there isn’t any place on the planet which doesn’t see some sort of visitor traffic.

Now, they can embrace that and build upon it…or not. I’m not sure why you would choose to ignore such a vibrant and financially rewarding business. But, that’s another story for another time.

If a place plays on either end if the experience spectrum, it’s okay…as visitors we get it. If you absolutely don’t care about tourism and are focused on some other industry whether it be coal mining or whatever, it shows. When we get to your town, we understand your focus is not on us…but on whatever. And, on the other end, if you’ve created something remarkable and the vast majority of your resources are poured into a visitor’s experience that’s equally noticeable.

The problems begin when a city, town or region tries to capitalize on visitor traffic without investing in itself and creating a remarkable experience. Half baked and inconsistent products send mixed signals to the audience and hence create dissonance about the experience. Usually, this type of experience is the result of a disjointed approach to tourism with no real plan or community teamwork. We have a little bit of that going on in my town…but, it’s getting better.



The town of Walsenburg needs a story. Located in Central Colorado at the junction of Highway 160 and Interstate 25, it has long been just a place where you change travel direction.

Now, the townsfolk want to get some (or, more likely, a lot) of the current traffic that passes stop. So, they’ve banded together (as this article points out) to change the exterior of the buildings to give them a more inviting feel. They’re focused on changing the appearance of the streetscape and storefronts to catch people’s eye, hoping that they’ll pull over for a closer look. Now, that’s a good first step. But, rarely does design alone, even if it’s quite remarkable, provide enough of an “experience” to get people to pay attention for long. And, some new stucco certainly won’t compel anyone to tell their friends how wonderful the town has become. People are looking for more than just a unique façade. They want something meaningful and different..something with a story. They want something that’s not only worth stopping for, but interesting enough to go out of the way for.

Cleaning up Walsenburg and giving it a facelift will definitely drive some incremental business and make it nicer for the folks that live there. But, the initial spike probably won’t last, and it certainly won’t result in a wholesale change in the economy. In order to make a long-term impact and change the economic landscape, they need to set their sites on and invest in the experience itself, not just the look, but the feel. They need to use the collective energy that’s now in motion to figure out what they can be the best and how to spread the word about it.

Here’s a place that’s way out of the way yet still managed to build quite a following over the years. I don’t think Joe Atkinson achieved that with a building.

Incidentally, my intention is not to single out Walsenburg. There are plenty of cities, big and small, who have done a lot worse in the area of “economic development”. At least the folks in this little town are trying to do something about it.



My friend, Chris Cavanaugh at Magellan Strategy Group, just sent me this link (subscription required) to a WSJ story about boutique hotels. In a nutshell, the article paints a picture that boutique owners and operators face a dilemma in serving multiple audiences in their properties. The subject hotels like the Hollywood Roosevelt, Mercer (NYC) and Gansevoort (NYC) have become popular hang-outs for celeb gawking clientele interested more in “being seen” and alcohol consumption than a “hotel” experience. Of course, that strategy (and, it is a planned approach) is bound to annoy those that are looking for a quiet respite along the lines of a more traditional hotel stay as is clearly indicated by the complaint accounts documented in the story.

This brings out a couple of thoughts. Number one, not all boutique properties have this concern. Most are not catering to the “hip and loud” crowd. Boutique is often a misunderstood term, especially in the world of hotels. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word boutique: a small company that offers highly specialized services. To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean pool parties and crowded bars. On the contrary, I think it’s better to say that boutique properties are characterized as small, uniquely designed with a mix of traditional and non-traditional services making you feel special.

Number two, these particular properties (and many others) are trying to spin and sell too many stories. That gets very confusing to those of us paying the bill. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re going to be the hip, loud, pool frenzy kind of place in downtown Hollywood, then don’t sell rooms to people looking for a quiet weekend getaway. Of course, some of the blame probably falls on the guest. If the hotel has a clear reputation for being one thing, and you’re looking for another…don’t go! Usually, it’s the property though that’s to blame for sending mixed signals of some sort.

You’ll do better to find your niche, design everything about the place (product, service, people, PR, etc.) to support that identity and let your guests take care of the rest.
I think Mr. Klein of The Argyle Hotel makes an excellent point at the conclusion of the article… "Word of mouth is the buzz I want, but not by creating a fake scene. Consumers will be fooled by that for a couple months, but eventually you need to deliver good service, good food and good beds -- and you just can't mask it with ridiculousness."

Stories Through Process

People love what goes on behind the scenes…they love process. Biltmore Estate makes part of its keep from its “behind the scenes” tours. People visit the Boeing factory to see how airplanes are made. More and more, people are interested in “how” and “why” something happens. Anything that enriches our understanding of “the experience” makes it that much more meaningful. Cocktails and meals taste better when we can see them come to life. That’s why bars and exhibition kitchens are so popular. Wine seems to taste so much better when we get to taste it at the winery with the wine master explaining the intricacies of the fermentation and aging process with every sip.

Creating stories through process is an extremely powerful tool, especially in the F&B side of our business. Let’s face it, it’s much more interesting to tour the kitchen and learn about new ingredients than to tour the hotel laundry and see some soap in a washing machine (yes, I know, big ironers and folders are pretty cool to watch). Hells Kitchen, Iron Chef and the Food Network didn’t pop-up by accident. People like food, and they like the art of creating it even more.

I’ve been at Keyah Grande for about eight months. And, with very few exceptions, our kitchen and the Chefs are the highlight of our guests’ stay. It helps that we have an open kitchen policy (come in anytime to learn and raid the fridge for leftovers) and that Aki and Alex are so passionate about their trade. But, it’s the combination of intrigue, the possibility of learning and our openness and informality that draws people in to explore the process of cooking. In any case, it makes for some very memorable experiences which lead to a lot of storytelling…a relatively inexpensive way to spread the word.

So, the next time you’re racking your brain about how to add value to your guest’s stay, try opening the kitchen door.


Every story needs a point, an anchor, to be understood.

At Keyah Grande, it’s the food.
At Biltmore and the Stephen F. Austin, it’s the history.
At Pinehurst, it’s course #2

Not to be too corny, but without one, you’re drifting, using the ebb and flow of the market to stay afloat. That’s dangerous.

You need to better secure your own destiny. And, the brand with the accompanying sign out front is not it.

So, please figure out who you are and what the point of the story is, preferably before you set sail.

I Was There Factor

I like Hugh's thought.

I was there when George Vanderbilt's dream was realized and Biltmore first opened it's doors to paying guests.
I was there, on the balcony of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, watching Lance Armstrong's first Tour de France victory parade.
I was there when Aki and Alex made history with food.

Do you have "I Was There" stories for your property?

The Lost Liberty Hotel

Whether you're in favor of last week's supreme court ruling or not (I haven't found one person that is), you'll probably agree that this use of controversy makes for a very powerful story. I just don't know if controversy and proving a point gets people to check-in.

Check out the full story about the Lost Liberty Hotel.

Okay, so this might not be the best tactic to use to develop a story and spread the word about a new hotel. But, it's a great way to prove a point.

Where do I send my donation?

Opening Your Doors


The key to a new hotel (at least for most of us) is to have business when it opens.

Apart from getting the lights to work, the furniture in place and the staff trained, there is little that is more important than having a stream of guests when you throw out the welcome mat. You can talk all you want about having a great sales team, partnering with powerhouse marketing organizations and developing fancy websites with on-line booking capability. But, it really comes down to two things: desire and anticipation.

Desire is created by offering something meaningful that didn’t exist before. Anticipation follows suit and is driven by the desirability of your new offering and how well you tell the story about it. The combination of the two determines if there’s a line to get in when you turn the lights on for the first time.

Creating something that people want is much more than being on the right side of the supply and demand equation (which is what the bank cares about). Maybe you can hang your hat solely on the economics if you’re lucky enough to find a market running 80%, and you’re the first in line to develop a new project. Most of us, however, are faced with creating some new demand, either on our own or with the help of our neighbors.

A new Comfort Inn (nothing against them, just an example) in a sea of existing budget hotels is born from numbers. It’s not what most people want. And, it’s certainly nothing to write home about. Its success is dependant almost solely on the supply and demand equation. That’s extremely dangerous. One twitch in the wrong direction on either side and they might have trouble making the loan payment.

A better way is to start with something people want. It’s much more fun and interesting. Plus, you get the added bonus of creating some insulation in the event the market starts behaving uncharacteristically.

The Inn on Biltmore Estate was developed to satisfy desire. For over 100 years, people (I mean, a lot of people) wanted to spend the night on Biltmore Estate. Only a select few were ever given the privilege as a personal guest of Mr. Vanderbilt. So, when the plans for the Inn were announced, there was a firestorm of anticipation. The Biltmore marketing team was very smart. They turned that desire and anticipation into one of the most successful PR campaigns I’ve ever seen (about $1 million in free advertising prior to opening). As a result, they enjoyed a first year occupancy of over 70%. That’s virtually unheard of.

The Stephen F. Austin Hotel, first built in 1924, had a storied history including tales of Babe Ruth signing autographs on the front porch, Charles Lindbergh stopping by before his historic trans-continental flight, Frank Sinatra giving an impromptu performance in the lobby and a whole host of political heavyweights calling it their outpost including LBJ. Unfortunately, the energy bust of the late 70’s and early 80’s took its toll, and the Stephen F. closed in 1986. So, when plans were announced to revive her in the late 90’s, you can imagine the heightened level of interest and the increased level of “talk” about the “new” Stephen F. The people of Austin desperately wanted her back.

Do something different. And, get people to talk about it…long before you open the doors. Everyone will be smiling, especially the owner.

Arts at ASU


I’m on business in Arizona today…yes, it’s hot. But, that’s not the story.

Typically, when I travel and am fortunate enough to be near a college or university, I make it s point to explore the campus. I like the scenery, serenity and the people. Usually, I make my journey in a pair of running shoes. This morning as I had the pathways of ASU to myself at 5:30 AM, I noticed something that I really hadn’t taken in before at other places, the arts side of the campus is a far nicer place to be than the sciences. For one, there’s art (duh). But, most of the physical spaces are different. The buildings, curved pathways and even signage…all “designed” differently. Here, they even a have a series of signs along one of the main streets which tells a story about why the Arts are important. It just makes you feel better to be there. Nothing against Science majors (I have one of those B.S. degrees), but the Arts folks have figured out that design and stories matter…more than anything else. No spreadsheet or quantitative analysis will deliver meaning this way. Another plug for Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind. He explains this phenomenon in much greater detail.

If you have the chance, visit a college campus. The youth and spirit alone are contagious.