Marco Island Marriott At A Glance
Start a conversation among club manager types about what it’s like to work for a resort property owned or operated by one of the big hotel groups, and it doesn’t take long for the snide remarks to start flying—especially if someone in the group used to work at one.
Yeah, they’re great places to work—if you don’t mind getting moved to another property in the chain every time you start to get comfortable.
I guess it can have some appeal—if you like doing everything “by the book,” and don’t mind that it’s the most boring book you can imagine.
Sure, you can get people to eat in the restaurants— but only the first night they’re there.
Members of the current management team at the Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Marco Island, Fla. (south of Naples) are certainly aware of the stereotypes about “resort chain” properties and even admit —having themselves worked in some that fit the profile—that there’s often more than a modicum of truth to the perceptions.
But in the case of the Marco Island Marriott—which not only carries the brand of one of the world’s largest hotel groups, but is part of a huge insurance conglomerate’s real estate portfolio—its enthusiastic managers say that spending time on the property looking for symptoms of “corporatitis” will be a lot less fulfilling than studying all of the unique and innovative things it has to offer.
|From its striking central lobby to the scenic holes at its golf course, The Rookery (located 10 miles to the north), there’s nothing “standard” about Marriott’s Marco Island property.|
“There are certainly ‘core deliverables’ that are part of being associated with the [Marriott] brand, and we want to consistently adhere to them for quality assurance purposes,” says General Manager Rick Medwedeff. “There are also a lot of above-property resources and expertise that we can, and want, to take advantage of, such as information systems, or just things like the detailed analysis Marriott has done to provide the best possible bedding in guest rooms.
“But at the same time, we have the latitude to differentiate ourselves,” Medwedeff adds. “Even more importantly, we’ve been given the money needed to do so—$100 million for renovations, upgrades and expansion over the last two years, and we’re about to embark on another $40 million phase.”
One of the reasons the Marco Island property has been given so much freedom—and funding—Medwedeff says, is its truly unique status within the corporate family. “We are the only domestic Marriott property with its own spa, its own golf course, and its own beach,” he notes. Additionally, it sits in the heart of one of the country’s most exploding areas of development, not only for residences but also as a vacation and business meeting destination. The resort’s two hotel towers (built with a central, A-frame lobby overloooking the Gulf of Mexico) were in fact centerpieces of the master plan for developing the island that was created in the 1960s by Deltona Corporation. Deltona later sold the property and it is now in the portfolio of Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, an arm of MassMutual Financial Services.
|Director of Golf Chris Major says he will have all the components of a “real, legitimate private club” in place—and 300 members lined up.|
Based on the level of interest in Marco Island 40 years later, it’s clear the plan was executed masterfully. “Real estate is off the Richter scale here,” says Medwedeff. “You can’t touch a waterfront property for less than $1.2 million.”
As things were booming all around it, however, the resort itself was pretty much stuck in a ‘60s time warp through the rest of the century. “Things really hadn’t changed much here well into the ‘90s,” says Hotel Manager Mark Schwanter, whose experience working on the property dates to the mid-1980s. “There’d been a reluctance to put anything more into the resort, with things like its potential exposure to hurricanes used as the reasons. But when it was acquired by Mass Mutual, they had a different vision—they saw the potential for making it the crown jewel of their portfolio.”
Good Money After Good
|Want to hold “bobsled” races as a team-building exercise for your group? If you come, the Marco Island staff will help you build it.|
Mass Mutual didn’t originally anticipate pumping over $100 million into the Marco Island Marriott, Schwanter notes. “It started out at about $45 million,” he says, “but the scope just kept growing and growing, as it became evident what they had here.”
Even a $320 billion entity like MassMutual, though, isn’t going to more than triple its renovation budget without seeing immediate and substantial evidence that it will get it back in spades.
In the Marco Island Marriott’s case, the momentum for major overhauls and expansions of all aspects of the property (including a new spa, ballroom, golf clubhouse, and structural and design improvements to the hotel towers to, as Medwedeff says, “step up the sense of arrival”), was all set in motion by successes in food and beverage operations.
You heard it right—before it started spending so significantly on upgrades for other parts of its resort property, the Marco Island Marriott first found a way to disprove the notion that F&B in a “chain” setting could never appeal to resort guests, let alone the surrounding general public.
Here too, though, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the first F&B score, generated by an energetic team headed by Director of Food & Beverage Steve Lipschutz and Executive Chef Mark Quitney, was motivated when the two grew tired of seeing guests carry McDonald’s bags through the lobby.
“We had a little coffee, fruit and danish cart in the lobby,” Lipschutz recalls. “The coffee wasn’t very good, but we still made people shell out eight or more bucks just to get something in the morning. No wonder we saw so many of them going out to bring Egg McMuffins back to their rooms—and by the way, getting to the nearest McDonald’s from here isn’t easy.
“That made us determined to make it our mission in F&B that people would never leave the resort, if we had anything to say about it,” Lipschutz adds. Fortuitously, Quitney then traveled to Seattle, where he discovered a high-quality “micro-roaster” coffee supplier, Fidalgo Bay. Discussions with its owner led to a plan to introduce the blend at Marco Island, not only through a lobby coffee stand with upgraded menu offerings, but also by serving the house-brewed coffee in all restaurants, brought to tables in special French press pots.
“[The coffee stand] was a turnkey conversion that would cost $40,000,” Lipschutz says. “We proposed it and were ‘challenged,’ shall we say, to show a fast and strong return. We made back [the investment] in three months; the stand now does half a million a year and we plan to expand it, so it can handle all the demand.
“That was our first victory, and it earned the trust we needed to move forward,” Lipschutz says. He and Quitney haven’t stopped moving since. The two are food-show junkies, constantly on the go to check out new concepts, equipment and menu possibilities. In the last seven years, all of the property’s restaurants have been fully “reconcepted,” Lipschutz says, and a cookie cutter has never been used. “[Mark and I] have been kids in a candy store,” he says. “We’ve been able to create everything we’ve wanted, and given the equipment and resources to do it right.”
|Rick Medwedeff, General Manager|
The showpiece of the new state of F&B at the Marco Island Marriott is the Asian-themed Kurrents Restaurant (see photos at right), which features a gas-fired stone hearth deck oven as the centerpiece of its “exhibition kitchen.” Kurrents, which seats 140 and has nights when it serves over 200 covers, always has several chefs at work in the open kitchen, which is situated near the dining room’s entrance, with counter seating around two sides. Even with that level of activity, the kitchen is a model of quiet efficiency, with none of the usual shouting or clanging (the staff communicates via headsets, so as not to disturb the diners’ conversations or their appreciation of the live jazz playing in the room).
With the revival of Kurrents, as well as the Marco Island Marriott’s other, even busier restaurants (Quinn’s on the Beach and Tropiks), the resort’s F&B staff has made major strides toward smashing the notion that resort guests won’t eat on a property more than once. At the same time, Lipschutz says, “We know we can’t rely just on the hotel guests—we want the people from [the nearby] condos and the beach walkers, too.”
To maintain a buzz that can also be heard in the outside world, Quitney and his culinary artists continue to look for not only new menu items, but exciting new presentations. “We strive to be out of the box, but with fun food—nothing too off the wall,” says Quitney. “We still want to make it easy for people to know what they’re eating.”
Even more impressively, Quitney has proved he can maintain quality while producing some of his creative specialties for Marco Island’s extensive banquet and business-meeting trade—for example, he recently pulled off producing his “cake and shake” dessert presentation (see photo) for an intimate little gathering of 800.
|The resort’s F&B staff continually searches for suppliers of unique serving ware for menu items such as its Hawaiian ahi tuna.|
With F&B now providing such a strong base to help lure—and keep—both individual resort guests and banquet/event participants on site, all of the Marco Island Marriott management staff is now working full-bore to maximize the appeal of all of the property’s attractions.
Ideally, over the course of the year the resort’s management likes to see overall use of the resort lean toward the more lucrative group side by about a 60-40 ratio.And there is certainly no evidence of any “corporate” restraints on the innovative ways that Director of Sales & Marketing Bob Pfeffer, Director of Event Management Laurie Flynn, and Director of Recreation Melinda McCown are finding ways to say “yes” to groups’ special needs for their corporate outings, banquets on the beach, or team building and leadership exercises (see photos).
McCown actually serves as much as a management consultant as a rec director, working with event planners to fashion customized games that best suit an individual organization’s needs. “I’ve had groups with a new woman chairman of the company and an all-male group that’s scared to death of her, and I’ve been told we have to fix games to make the president’s team win,” says McCown. “Helping meeting planners sort out these [cultural] issues is as much a part of my job as going to Home Depot for materials.”
Having all of these upgraded pieces now in place gives the Marco Island Marriott a big competitive advantage versus other options for corporate retreats and other group events, Medwedeff feels. “We not only have the complete amenity package, we own and operate everything, so we have direct control,” he says. “Others are either missing one or more parts of the equation, or don’t have full access. Plus, nobody comes close to what we can do with our beach, which is the largest unobstructred stretch in Southwest Florida.”
The overall appeal of the Marco Island Marriott has become so strong, in fact, that many in the area now want to be a part of it on a permanent basis. Golf for resort visitors has always been provided through a course, The Rookery, that was built off the island about 10 miles north, on the outskirts of Naples. Eventually, the course became part of the property on which the Fiddler’s Creek complex was developed, with an arrangement worked out for bringing resort guests in and out of the community’s gates.
This year, The Rookery is adding private, non-eqity memberships, and Director of Golf Chris Major says the cap of 300 will be reached by the end of the year, with 190 commitments already secured, and the rest to come through a bundling with luxury condo sales.
Of the first 190 commitments, Major reports, about 60% came from Marco Island residents, another 25% from people living within the Fiddler’s Creek boundaries, and about 15% as “defections” from other local private clubs. “Naples is an oversupplied, flooded market,” Major notes. “For us to be [selling out] in a year is truly a success story.”
With the opening of The Rookery’s new $8 million clubhouse this spring, the resort’s F&B staff will have a new source for its boundless energies—an upscale steakhouse that will also be open to the public and stand as the newest symbol of how the Marco Island Marriott has emerged as anything but your typical “chain” operation.
“We did a massive renovation of the golf course two years ago, and now we have a clubhouse and restaurant to match,” says Lipschutz. “With all of the people living in Fiddler’s Creek who we can target as [steakhouse customers], in addition to our own guests and members, I don’t think we’ll be getting bored for a while.” C&RB
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