By Graeme Willingham
Doug Smith was a point guard with the Arizona State Sun Devils in his college days when he studied broadcast journalism and hotel management, although in his dreams he was a power forward.
He recalls, as a seven year-old, his mum buying the best courtside tickets to see California’s Los Angeles Lakers strut their stuff in the heyday showtime 80s. He was in awe of the on-court mastery of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan while he suspects his mum had a crush on Pat Reilly.
His basketball team skills re-emerged in Australia recently when as General Manager he oversaw the $7million renovation of the eight-level 90-room boutique Jasper Hotel, on the doorstep of Melbourne’s drawcard Queen Victoria Market, for 2013 new owners, Creative Wealth Management, directed by Malaysians Kien Chong Loh and Kean Seng Lim.
The site, the Y.W.C.A. Headquarters of Victoria, was converted in the mid -1970s to a women’s shelter and refuge, with a women’s-only gym, basketball courts, ballet and dance studio being added in the 1980s, occupying two levels. In the 1990s, the owners turned the property into a three-star backpacker hotel, named the Hotel Y. In early 2000 a hotel upgrade coincided with a re-named and fresh look for the property; 98% of Victorian Y.W.C.A members voted in favour of the name Jasper Hotel, in reference to the famous Jasper stone, which has many colours. Creative Wealth Management bought the property early 2013 and retained the Jasper name for the then 65-room hotel.
Smith had only just been appointed GM when the hotel was sold to the new owners. He and the five-strong management team were retained.
He developed a game plan that combined change management and teamwork to knit owners, architects, managers and staff to realise a vibrant 4-star boutique hotel. The aim is for the hotel to be recognised as a 4.5-star property hotel by mid-2015.
On a walk-through of individual hallways painted in post box red, cobalt blue, lipstick pint, plumb purple or racing green, perhaps the noun extravert fits better. Behind the colourful hallway doors though, room decor is contrasting neutral, calm and restful.
Converting a defunct and derelict second level to 16 suites and a courtyard for guest use was an exciting challenge, Smith told HM. This level housed dance studios, a gymnasium, a full-size basketball court and two half courts from earlier YWCA hostel days. It was ignored when the hostel became the Hotel Y.
In deference to OH&S rules, Doug Smith reluctantly dismissed the temptation to shoot a few baskets before the work crew demolished the courts, gym and dance studios.
This area is now an atrium and open guest space, with six suites facing the space. Doug Smith says while he no longer plays competitive basketball, his youthful basketball aspirations are rekindled every time he walks through the quiet 145 sqm area, which features natural light, artificial grass as well as horizontal timber strip panelling on the walls. It was accommodating airy space for pre-lunch drinks served to 50 members of the Melbourne chapter of The Australian Society of Travel Writers a few days after opening. Next to the ASTW dining room, new conference facilities were fully engaged.
The renovation is the design work of David Lee (K2LD Architects) who worked on the landmark Eureka Tower in Southbank.
Prior to this Jasper appointment, Doug Smith spent seven years with IHG before being appointed manager at Travelodge Southbank.
He said Jasper’s new owners had no experience in the hotel business so invested a huge amount of trust in him, and the management team.
“In basketball parlance, we had to rebound with a new hotel, score on style, defend high levels of service, play with a small flexible on-court team and care for our supporters during the construction process,” he said.
“The owners trusted us, but trust had to come from the staff too,” he said. “To change we had to have buy-in from staff and the first big hurdle was protecting staff salaries and benefits as we moved from the YWCA charity-based structure to the standard commercial system.
“I had learnt from two change management experiences – one was bad and the other worked beautifully – that you have to put yourself in the team’s shoes.”
Instead of running with a proposed nine F&B staff and nine guest services staff, Smith created a team of 12 that is skilled in both departments. This concept works well in a 90-room boutique hotel, he said.
In working closely with the architects, Smith convinced them not to establish the hotel’s restaurant upstairs but locate it at street level, even opening on to the busy Elizabeth Street with an al fresco bar, coffee and snack service.
“It has worked a treat, with 70 per cent of coffee sales coming from passerby foot traffic and wall-to-wall open structure enticing non-hotel guests to the restaurant,” he said. “A small pavement dining area is also proving a successful advertising medium for our tapas dishes. I was eating a chicken espache out front recently and a passerby said it look great so he ordered one.
The hotel continued to trade during renovations. Bookings were phoned and offered the renovation discount rate or refund. Smith said 96 per cent of guests were happy with the interaction during renovations and just five guests reported dissatisfaction on TripAdvisor.
“We tried to have a bit of fun with it too, by offering earplugs at reception and we ran with a sign ‘pardon our ugly duckling status, but a beautiful swan is coming soon’” he said.
It was during the renovations that Smith pushed ahead with technology to be the first hotel in Victoria to introduce Mobile Opera, the online, mobile check-in system designed to significantly reduce guest queues and waiting times at check-in. The technology enables guest to check-in and check-out via a wireless connection to the hotel’s booking system and network — accessed by ipads, smart phones or tablets – facilities payment and sets scheduled check-out times.
“No point in dribbling Mobile Opera into the hotel launch program when it was there on the bench primed to play, six months ago,” said Smith.