Integration a done deal: Now, Benchmark looks ahead

NEW YORK—With last summer’s merger with Gemstone Hotels & Resorts complete and integration a done deal as of January, according to CEO Alex Cabañas, Benchmark—now with the qualifier “a global hospitality company” as part of its refreshed identity—is concentrating not only on growth, but on enhancements and reconcepting that will  benefit its property owners while helping intrigue, capture and keep more guests.

Recently here in Manhattan, Cabañas, together with Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Ted Davis, put a bow on the integration, more eager to talk about tomorrow and tout several initiatives the Texas-based company has implemented, including adding to its senior team.

“Integration is over in many ways. We, as a team, declared victory in January,” the CEO told Hotel Business. “We’re merged. We’re one company, one vision, one culture and we’re moving forward. We’re more focused on the future. We’re not referring to past practices or legacy Benchmark or legacy Gemstone. Those vocabulary words are largely gone, which is great.”

Now, he said, the concentration is on a portfolio with experiential positioning. “We really are looking at independent, soft-branded and unique experiential—branded in some cases—properties. For example, larger resorts/hotels like what is in Benchmark Collection; smaller, boutique, lifestyle in Gemstone Collection; and the conference center side of larger group hotels, all of which are still the three main pillars of the business,” he said.

Coming to the Gemstone Collection April 1 will be The Tennessean Hotel in Knoxville, TN. Owned by developer Nick Cazana, president of Commercial & Investment Properties, the hotel is located on the grounds of the 1982 World’s Fair Park. The property will have 82 rooms, with 12 residences on the top floors.

“We also brought in Hotel Deca in Seattle a couple of weeks ago and we are under construction with a project at Texas A&M University. We’re working on several other university-related projects; it’s been a unique opportunity for us. We’ve seen a lot of opportunities where universities are looking for the conference center side but also something that is independent and fits the university’s personality and brand rather than be fused with another brand,” said Cabañas.

Benchmark is also involved in a major restoration and expansion of the historic Natirar mansion in New Jersey, where it’s also adding a 5,000-sq.-ft. events center next to the 1912 mansion, with long-term plans for a 24-unit residential component.

A key effort for the “new” Benchmark is to redefine its food and beverage delivery, so it has brought on board Todd Parmelee as VP/F&B. The executive has oversight of operations for all food and beverage departments for each of Benchmark’s 70 properties within its Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and Gemstone Collection portfolios. 

Most recently COO for Entertainment Consultants International, Parmelee worked at Live! at The Battery in Atlanta, a mixed-use, multi-unit venue outside of the new SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, which has developed a lifestyle district around the stadium known as The Battery. He also worked in Las Vegas at Bellagio and at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in their F&B programs.

“Each resort and hotel has its unique story to tell and food and beverage is a part of that,” Parmelee told Hotel Business. He said sharper focus would ensure the correct local elements are in place to deliver a true experience, e.g., craft beers, local provisions, music and design. “We want to tell the story of the resort through the area that it’s in with the food and beverage program, but we also want to make it have destination appeal for leisure and business travelers so when they are out in the area and they ask, ‘Where should we go to dinner tonight?’ the locals point back to the resort that Benchmark represents and say: ‘If you’re staying there, you’ve got to check out their bar scene or restaurant,’” said Parmelee. “We also believe the locals need to support the restaurants in each of the Benchmark properties as well.” 

The new VP will be addressing ways to capture more local market share and will also review operations, quality, etc.

In addition, Benchmark is partnering with noted chef Stephan Pyles, a fixture on the Texas culinary scene, who has opened 22 restaurants in five cities over 30 years,  including his newest concept,  Flora Street Cafe, which serves  “elevated Texas”  cuisine  in  the  Dallas  Arts District.

“He’s going to continue to run his organization and we are going to have access to his skills and his team on concept development, really helping to refine all the various projects that we work on… That’s really accelerating the investment that we could make in this business and accelerating the skill set that we have, along with Todd and his leadership,” said Cabañas.

Pyles, who has history with Gemstone, created restaurants that include Dragonfly and the F&B program at Hotel ZaZa in Dallas and Sustenio and the F&B program at Éilan Hotel & Spa in San Antonio.

“So when the folks from Gemstone called me and said we’re merging with Benchmark and we all had the same vision, I said: ‘Sounds good. Let’s talk.’ We do share the same vision. It’s all about the experience. It’s all about quality and standards,” explained Pyles, adding, “When you walk into a restaurant you need to almost immediately have a feeling of what you’re going to be eating from the music, the lighting, the uniforms. You should be able to conceptualize what it is you’re about to experience.” 

Pyles noted he likes taking a deep dive on creativity, concepts and design as part of his embrace of restaurants. “So this is really the best of both worlds because I can create and somebody else will run it,” he said.

“We do $200 million in food and beverage. Lots of destination restaurants, lots of awards, lots of great culinarians. [But] we knew something was missing. We needed to do it different and better—not the same as others in our industry,” said Cabañas.

“We want to be the most experiential management company in the business. We believe we are leaders in that space. Everything that we are talking about as an organization is to be leaders in that space and to create the most highly focused experience in every property, in every relationship that we have,” he added.

 “Experience is not a contrived thing, it’s not a made thing,” said Davis, noting 50 different persons could experience the same event in as many ways. 

Davis said the company has been doing research around the experiential travel trend and suggested travel has gone from observation to participation, with both business or leisure travelers opting to add “something else” to their plans. “That’s what the world’s doing. They want to learn and experience,” he said, adding they also want “authentic” experiences, again noting they can’t be created; it’s either authentic or it’s not.

“What you can do, however, is enable the consumer to engage in an authentic experience. And that’s the difference between what I think the industry is trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to accomplish… Hotels really need to become, in our minds, community portals,” said Davis.

Toward this, Benchmark did consumer research to better understand what is wanted/needed so it could, for example, build better content on its website or enable its staff members to better deliver an experience to a guest.

“It was really interesting to me because the consumer almost never talked about the hotel property,” said Davis. “The only time they talked about the hotel was generally on the culinary side. They wanted a great restaurant or room-service experience. [Overall], they wanted to know what the locals did. Where they went, what they did because they wanted to experience that,” he said, noting adventure e.g., rafting, climbing, also was examined, as was how similar wants/needs—team building, menus, technology—affected the group and meetings side, to which Benchmark caters at several properties and venues. 

The research led Benchmark to hire a third-party company to build rich content about all the things consumers and meeting planners said they wanted. “We then had our technology people come in and build a technology platform, basically an app and a website, that allows all this content to be delivered and then distributed in this content ecosystem within our brand,” said Davis. 

Benchmark developed content-rich pages for each of its properties’ websites, offering a “Wanderlust” platform that includes videos and information titled “Like a Local,” “The Weekender,” “Flavor Of” and “The Adventurist.” All are geared toward delivering enhanced experiences in addition to the experience of staying at the particular property, such as a trip to the Kahuku Superette, five minutes away from Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore. The mini-mart  is where locals go for poke, the island’s signature raw fish salad. 

Similar content was developed for meeting planners that includes banquet menus, themes, cuisine concepts, etc.

Benchmark also is employing UGC (user-generated content) on other platforms, such as Flip.to, and also created its own apps to pull in UGC to its properties’ websites. It also is seeing deliverables via blogs and travel influencers on social media, as well as traditional advertising outlets. At some properties, GoPro cameras are made available with guests requested to post their experiences.

The company also is tasking staff to be “experience ambassadors,” training them so they can be fluent about the content and offerings.