By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
SUN PEAKS, B.C. — When Vivek Sharma arrived at the Sun Peaks Grand three years ago, the hotel was ranked fifth out of eight hotels in Sun Peaks on TripAdvisor. One of their restaurants was a cringe-worthy 18th out of 20. By July 2016, the hotel had risen to No. 1 on TripAdvisor and has stayed there ever since.
As the resort’s signature property and only full-service hotel, the 220-room Sun Peaks Grand Hotel and Conference Centre is located in the core of the village, with chairlifts, trails and activities at their doorstep, an in-house mountain-view pool, terrace and health club, as well as on-site grocery store, boutiques, and eateries. It was initially managed by Delta Hotels & Resorts.
Sharma arrived a few months after the hotel and Delta had parted ways due to the hotel's poor performance. The hotel was then 12 years old, and ready for a property improvement plan (PIP) of $10 million.
Sharma, who came to the hotel from SilverBirch, knew the hotel would be a bit of a challenge, but he still wasn't prepared for the rude awakening he received when he arrived.
“This was my biggest challenge in 22 years as a hotelier,” he told Canadian Lodging News. “We were not making money, and every owner is in it for the money. Instead we were spending millions of dollars per year, just to make the wages. When I walked in, I knew we had to spend money to make money. We should have been the top hotel in the region, but instead we were fifth out of eight hotels when I got there. I thought, 'it cannot get worse from here.'”
The turnover at the hotel was enormous. During Sharma's first summer, there was not enough staff to service the rooms, and they ended up taking room inventory out of the system during the busiest time of the year. On the August long weekend, they had to close the restaurant.
Culture of Performance
Sharma quickly realized he had to build a culture of performance, and called his mentor, Mark Medland, regional vice-president at SilverBirch, for some advice. Medland told him to take a deep breath; that the culture would not change overnight; and that results would slowly start showing.
In October 2015, the Sun Peaks Grand team got together with an external facilitator. At first the dynamic was 'he said, she said,' but after a couple of weeks they started talking to her. The key players realized that they had to work differently; that there were three important pillars the staff, the guest and the bottom line. The third is a byproduct of the first two. Before that, there had been too much focus on the bottom line.
“That year, we broke even — 2015 was the first year we didn't bleed,” said Sharma. At the board meeting in October, he assured the members that his wages would be covered that year, but at the same time sowed the seeds that a renovation would be needed now that the cost of goods and labour were under control. He walked the ownership over to the existing dining room to show them the reality. The buffet was using old-fashioned chafing dishes and covered tables. The owner was shocked. That afternoon, the board approved $100,000 to redo the buffet in the main dining room.
That renovation gave the staff an injection of self esteem, as scores changed for the better and turnover started dropping.
“It was a chicken and egg situation,” said Sharma. “Because turnover was so high, the staff never had training, inductions or orientation. When they were so short-staffed, how could they send people to orientation?
“That October, we realized we had to put a hard stop to this. Each person had a training plan, so that when they were facing the guests, they were prepared. That also had an impact on turnover, and delivery of guest experiences was much better.”
Fast forward, and by July of 2016, the hotel was ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor. It was a rah-rah moment for staff, and the hotel has stayed there ever since.
Renovations were done in stages. In February 2016, Sharma presented a concept and got permission to engage a design team. By October 2016, they got funds to design a mock-up room. In April 2017, they presented the mockup room and got approval to start the renovation in Sept. 2018 and finish it in December 2018.
Beyond Bricks and Mortar
While bricks and mortar and staff training do a great deal to build the hotel's reputation, Sharma wanted to go beyond that — to engage the community and make the hotel a destination and a brand. “Let's see where we can go on TripAdvisor for all of B.C.,” Sharma challenged his staff. “We reached the top 15 per cent of hotels in B.C., and our goal was to reach the top 10 per cent by the end of 2017. We made the top 12.”
Success breeds success and the tipping point for Sharma came when the food and beverage manager and three servers who worked the winter wanted to stay for the summer as well. Staff started having fun at work — and Sharma did too.
“I'm a little obit of an old-fashioned taskmaster, but two years ago, I went skiing with an assistant. It's amazing what that does to motivation — it makes sure we are aligned in our journey.
Independent vs. brand
Sharma is glad that the hotel is an independent. “It makes us more nimble and agile. There were three teas that guests didn't like, so we changed them. As an independent, people on the ground can make the decisions — they know what the reality is. It's so much easier and more flexible.”
But, he added, one of the reasons it works is that Sun Peaks is a mountain resort lifestyle destination.
This year, the hotel's group business is pacing way ahead of last year. The hotel is also looking to stand out with special events. Last year, they had a big marquee weekend event with celebrity chef Vikram Vij. “We got 12 people from Kamloops, who had never been to the resort. We broke even, and we even got one wedding. It was not a cheap event, but it was still affordable and it was an experience guests couldn't get anywhere else.”
This year's marquee event will be a Taste of the Middle East on March 23 and 24. It will be a Tale of Two Chefs, featuring Sun Peaks Grand's executive chef, Sudhir D'Souza, who has worked at the Grand Hyatt Doha in Qatar, and Chef Tawfik Shehata from the International Centre in Toronto.