August 21, 2017
SHOP TALK

Southbridge hotel is moving on from its military days

PHOTO/BRAD KANE
Steven Gardiner, general manager, Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center

VIEW: Gardiner and WBJ Editor Brad Kane square off in a game of cornhole

Steven Gardiner

Title: General manager

Company: Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center

Age: 53

Location: Southbridge

Employees: 75 (50 full-time)

Residence: Cheshire, Conn.

Education: Bachelor of science in business management, Radford University, Virginia

Steve Gardiner took over management of the Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center one year ago this August, as the facility was still trying to transition from almost exclusively servicing the U.S. Department of Defense to attracting visitors to its 203-room hotel and conferences to its 24,000-square-foot meeting space.

What was your biggest challenge?

Our first challenge was to change the culture and change the mindset, from focusing on one client for 14 years to – while keeping that client important – a new type of customer, which is the corporate and social and leisure customer.

How did you do that?

It was a two-pronged approach. First, we made some capital improvement to the building. We changed the courtyard to now what we call The Yard, which has a fire pit, soft seating and cornhole. It is a lot more recreational. We changed the lounge as well, updating the taps where we serve 10 craft beers – mostly Massachusetts beers as we try to put a local flavor on things.

What is the second prong?

The real focus has been on our associates. The capital dollars – you get a chunk of money, you decide where to spend it. The big thing was our associates, taking care of and recognizing them. We created an associate of the month program. We started a stars of Southbridge program, which recognizes our associates whenever a guest mentions them by name, plus there is a little financial reward. It has created a little competition among the front-of-the-house staff, although we incentivize our back-of-the-house staff a little more aggressively when they get recognized, as housekeepers and the people in the kitchen aren't as visible.

The No. 1 priority is to get staff to buy in. Without the staff, we aren't going to do anything. It is the hospitality business.

How do you get staff buy-in?

The top issue is empowerment. Every associate – from the day I walked in here – has the authority to do whatever it takes to make sure the guest is happy before they walk out those doors. A dishwasher can overhear something and comp a guest a free meal. A server has the ability to make sm issue right, including comping the room for free, if they feel it was worth it. We want to make sure it is reasonable, but we don't want our staff to be scared to make those decisions.

Is it paying off?

It has started to come around full circle. We have seen a bounce in our customer service scores. We all make mistakes, but we want to make it right before the customer walks out those doors. They can't wait for the general manager to call them on Monday after they have checked out, because at that point, it is too late.

What are the other capital improvements?

It will be about $500,000 in all. We are waiting on the designs from our interior designer as we are going to renovate our whole lobby area, which we will start in December. In 2018, we will do guest rooms and guest corridors.

We also made some back-of-the-house improvements, including some upgrades in the kitchen. We put in new doors in the lobby, replacing a pull door with an automatic door.

What takes it to the next level?

Once we get the capital straight, get the employees happy, get good customer service – we have won an award from Trip Advisor for customer service each of the last six years – the next challenge is exposure. We have got a 203-room hotel and 24,000 square feet of meeting space, and we are in Southbridge, Massachusetts. It is a great town – the town has great bones – but we are far away from other hotels of our size. Normally, a hotel this big wouldn't be in Southbridge.

We focused on one customer – the Department of Defense – for so long we didn't have the capacity to bring in others: corporate outings, associations, retreats.

When we invite meeting planners to come out and tour the facility, they say, "We had no idea you existed. I had no idea this was here." Exposure is really it.

Up until three years ago, we didn't have a sales team. The Department of Defense didn't leave us much room to sell. Now, we have a sales team out there, participating in trade shows, doing fan tours. We hired a company to do social media for us, and that is going really well.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

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