February 7, 2013
Executive Interview: Derek Sylvester, Gulph Creek Hotels
Wayne, PA, February 7, 2013 – Eric Hawthorn featured Derek Sylvester in the Llenrock Blog on Llenrock’s website, www.llenrock.com.
Derek Sylvester joined Pennsylvania-based Gulph Creek Hotels in 2006. Prior to this company, he held management positions with Marriott Hotels & Resorts. He has also served as a consultant with Pannell Kerr Forster, Restaurant Advisory Services and Sylvester Consulting Group. Mr. Sylvester’s development experience includes the Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset, New Jersey; Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport, Rhode Island; and the redevelopment of the Hotel Hershey in Pennsylvania and the Wyndham Bermuda Resort in Southampton, Bermuda. He holds a B.S. from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job? What is your least favorite?
I enjoy the diversity of my job. I spend time in sales – prospecting and pitching new contracts, acquisitions, capital raising and development. A good portion of my time is spent in operations – reviewing numbers, sales & marketing, leadership reviews, team building and owner/investor relations. I also oversee our new hotel development projects – permitting, design, construction and openings. We have ten hotels in varying stages of the development process.
Q: How has Gulph Creek Hotels’ strategy changed in light of present economic conditions? Have you expanded/narrowed your focus?
We have expanded our focus to acquiring and managing hotels within the wider geographic radius of New York to D.C. and are looking at more turnaround, value-add opportunities in both the select-service and full-service segments. We are spending more time looking for development sites and opportunities now that the hotel metrics and financing markets have improved.
Q: In the last year or so, have you seen conditions in the hospitality sector change? For better or worse?
The lodging sector seems to have stabilized, which is very positive given the declines and uncertainty we experienced from 2008 to 2010.
Q: You have done a lot of work with resort hotels, such as properties in Bermuda, Hershey, PA and Newport, RI. What unique challenges come with operating and developing properties specifically for leisure travelers?
Resorts are obviously capital intensive and highly seasonal businesses. The public thinks that the off-seasons are time for resort owners and operators to relax and take time off. I have found that the off-seasons are the most critical times for planning and executing new strategies, and implementing operational changes and vital capital improvements to ensure peak season success – all with a significantly reduced operating team. It’s challenging, but very rewarding.
Resort sales and marketing is typically not a direct sell, like it is with a business hotel such as a Courtyard or Hilton Garden Inn. Focusing marketing efforts on building repeat guests is a great strategy and is getting increasingly sophisticated, but resorts need new first-time guests each year. Successfully communicating to the marketplace each and every year that our resorts stand-out and offer new amenities and offerings is integral to improving the resort’s performance. The peak, shoulder and off-peak seasons all require distinctly different marketing and operating strategies.
Q: Is green technology impacting your business? Do you think it is a good strategy economically?
Yes. We are finding new ways at our hotels to reduce or conserve utility costs which have provided a direct impact on our bottom line without significant impact on guest service. Our management and operating teams are incentivized and excited to find ways to reduce consumption and waste. Seeing that effort and the results it generates is rewarding and motivating. But to do so requires the review of multiple proposals, reference checks and studies of what will really work and have a measurable impact on costs and service.
Q: In what ways do you imagine the industry will be different 5 years from now? 10 years?
Not much. The trends of building new hotels and shuttering older hotels are back, just like the last 30 years in the hotel business. I really like what the brands are doing with design and I think those trends will continue. The major brands seem to be closely following trends in residential offerings such as showers-only in guest rooms, bigger and better televisions and attractive functional outdoor spaces. Hotel lobbies will continue to be a major focus of innovation as they are a central point of differentiation for branded and independent hotels.
Q: A survey by Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels named Philadelphia the “10th best market to acquire a hotel property.” Do you agree with that choice? What conditions are contributing to the growth of Philadelphia’s hospitality sector?
Yes, I agree. The Philadelphia suburbs have consistently achieved strong room rates relative to other suburban regions, which helps to attract institutional capital. In the Philadelphia CBD, the challenges of new construction feasibility have prevented over-building, and the leisure and group markets are strong.
Q: If you weren’t in real estate or hospitality, what would you be doing with your life?
Not sure. This is a great industry and I’ve enjoyed my evolving career, which started like most as a 14-year old busboy. The business is highly competitive, increasingly innovative and at its core – dedicated to serving guests. My position affords me the opportunity to meet interesting people each day, work with our dedicated management and operating teams and still have time to coach my son’s baseball team and read a good book. Not bad.
Q: What is the most impressive hotel you have ever visited?
Maybe not exactly what you asked, but I visited our Hilton Garden Inn in Frederick this past week. We took over management of the hotel in mid-2012 with the new owner and initially struggled to get the right people in the right places and get our guest scores going in the right direction. Operations started to click in December and we went from resting uncomfortably on the bottom of the rankings to within the top 50 in the brand in the last 60 days. I was really impressed with how all the broken equipment is now fixed, and the optimism of the operating team. That to me is impressive.