Nils Stolzlechner is an esteemed hospitality executive with years of award-winning experience. Nothing could prepare him for Hurricane Maria, however. The Category 4 storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, leaving the Caribbean island and U.S. Territory in disarray. General Manager of oceanfront Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf & Beach Resort, Stolzlechner shined in leading the property and his team back online. He was joined by Director of Rio Mar Country Club Jamie West, PGA, who manages the golf club, to talk to Club + Resort Business about their inspiring comeback, an epic club and hospitality success story. Illuminating the success, golf club revenues are up 128% from January-May 2019 over the same period in 2018, and rounds played are up 56%.
Club + Resort Business: Is it true you that you opened the hotel rooms to island residents for some period of time, and if so, how did that come to be and what did it entail logistically?
Nils Stolzlechner: From the very beginning we engaged with our local community — We provided lunch and other assistance to all resort employees and volunteer workers housed at the resort, as well as those who were working in the surrounding area.
C+RB: Wyndham Grand Rio Mar is home to 400 rooms, a casino, nine F&B venues, a full-service spa, swimming pools, and two golf courses, among other things. What items or tasks were most critical in not just re-opening, but guiding the resort to best-ever status, which is how many people now characterize the property?
Nils Stolzlechner: The most critical tasks were in the first two weeks. Showing our team members that there is hope, convincing everyone that we will be OK. We had over 100 guests still at the hotel and making sure that they felt safe and taken care of equally challenged us. When we accomplished these tasks, our team saw that we where capable of achieving great results. This energy remains with us to this day and our guests can feel the positive energy.
C+RB: Nils and Jamie: was it difficult to obtain the resources and people needed to rebuild after Maria, and if so, how did you overcome these hurdles?
Nils Stolzlechner: By extending open arms to the neighboring community, we had all the help we needed. Within two days of Hurricane Maria, all of the resort’s major repairs had begun and we partnered with community members to clean up roads and other areas that were covered in debris. Additionally, we established a Rainforest Recovery Fund to help restore our beloved and severely impacted El Yunque Rainforest. As part of it, one dollar was donated for each night a guest booked during March and April of 2018. Our goal was to raise $10,000 to aid in recovery efforts and we were thrilled to exceed our fundraiser goal with $16,000.
Jamie West: Our family of associates quickly responded to the need of the resort as it has been their life for many years. We quickly put teams together to focus on specific areas of the resort. Erik Krahn (Golf Course Superintendent) and I first worked on cleaning the beach and pool areas. From there we reduced the team to smaller groups to work on clearing the golf courses. Our first goal was to get the greens cleared of all debris to keep them healthy. We also took advantage of this time and aerifed them several times as we were not having any play. In less than two weeks we had 9 holes cleared for our members to play.
C+RB: Jamie, your multi-million-dollar, 36,003-sq.-ft. clubhouse renovation features new locker rooms, innovative food and beverage venues, and a refined golf shop. What’s innovative about your F&B venues, and what has been the most popular or successful new addition(s)?
Jamie West: Once we began reconstruction of the clubhouse, Nils and I walked through the areas and decided to make some changes to the design of the restaurant so that we could host larger events at the club. The space was increased by eliminating and reducing walls. Nils also reorganized the kitchen so that we could have an Open Window concept which has been a hit with guests and members. The Atrium Bar which was once not used has now become the focal point as it was when the club originally opened.
C+RB: Your golf courses – the Ocean (Tom and George Fazio) and the River (Greg Norman) – are semi-private, allowing the public and resort guests to play, but catering to a membership that has resort privileges. How do you make both sets of constituents feel like they’re valued and rewarded for their business?
Jamie West: The Ocean Course is the original and was built in 1972. It is the pride and joy of the membership, but they also want others to enjoy as well. Saturday mornings have become the member play day, however, we do allow resort and other play in the afternoon. The River Course is open to all any day and time unless there is a tournament. As a Troon facility, our mission is to make every guest feel like a “Member for a Day” giving them an extraordinary experience.
C+RB: As a Troon Golf managed property, ostensibly you were able to draw upon the company’s significant resources, via its size, widespread presence, and expertise. How did Troon Corporate harness its assets to assist Rio Mar given its post-storm circumstances?
Jamie West: From the beginning Troon has been a partner with Wyndham Grand Rio Mar in driving results for the property financially as well as purchasing of all aspects for the Rio Mar Country Club. Specifically, during the aftermath of the hurricanes it was difficult to get supplies from off the island for some time. We used local resources for many months however Troon with their many resources has since provided several levels of support with procurement and agronomic programs to help bring life back to the Rio Mar after the disaster. It is always the goal of properties managed by Troon to be a partner with ownership and to be engaged and make the operation better.
C+RB: The resort is plastic straw free now, a mandate adopted earlier this year. How has that been received by guests, and what has it meant operationally and financially?
Nils Stolzlechner: The resort-wide plastic straw initiative has been very well received by our guests. More and more travelers are coming to the island with the goal of contributing to Puerto Rico’s recovery, and know that doing something as small as not using a plastic straw is a huge starting point. We are also Styrofoam free and all our plastic items are required to be made from recycled materials.
C+RB: Wyndham Grand Rio Mar won an award for its “comeback/success story” marketing, and the island has a new Destination Marketing Organization (“Discover Puerto Rico”) that has similarly garnered tourism industry acclaim for its proactive work. Talk about the role that savvy branding, public relations and marketing have played in the resort’s and island’s resurgence.
Nils Stolzlechner: Encouraging travelers to return to Puerto Rico and showing them that the island is now more than ever ready to welcome them was the driving force behind our success. Whether through press trips and influencer visits or proactive outreach and partnering with the new DMO, we’ve taken advantage of every possible opportunity to spread the word about our re-imagined hotel and the destination as a whole and our efforts are shown through the increase in tourism. What Puerto Rico now needs are additional marketing funds to promote this beautiful Island both for the U.S. and international markets.
C+RB: Gentlemen – what were the greatest lessons you learned as leaders – of businesses and people – from your hurricane experience?
Nils Stolzlechner: Giving people hope and setting goals on the recovery of our resort and maintaining an upbeat attitude contributed to our quick success. We had an objective and the best team members I have ever worked with that maintained their composure and inspired each other daily.
Jamie West: When faced with a disaster many things happen. For me the most important was the humanity shown from all areas of the island and specifically our team at Rio Mar. I still get emotional thinking about those days when we all became one to move forward together. We were blessed to have so many wonderful human beings working together to bring back life to our home away from home we call “work.” Yes, everyone had their own personal struggles to deal with, but it did not stop the progress of rebuilding.
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