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Posted on April 7, 2015 at 4:58 PM by Heather Newman
Step into Allen’s Courtyard by Marriott at the John Q. Hammons Center and you’ll have to rethink your idea of a chain hotel. The soaring lobby is covered in pearly tile and strung with modern chandeliers. A couple is snuggled next to the fireplace. The air smells like lavender and eucalyptus.
“It’s probably the nicest Courtyard in the country,” affirms Pablo Zuniga, the property’s new general manager. The hotel boasts 228 rooms and suites, along with 15,000 square feet of event and meeting space. With more than 20 years’ experience in full-service hotels—the kind with four-star restaurants and daily fees for Wi-Fi—Zuniga is just the man to run it. He envisions an “elevated, enlightened” approach to hospitality that offers superior service without the sticker shock. “It’s all about creating an experience.”
For Zuniga, that means personalizing every visit. Event and meeting planners are treated to a carefully coordinated site tour and visit with Courtyard’s CIA-trained chef, Brandon Ganus. While Ganus is capable of anything (tonight he’s catering an Italian feast for 700 college wrestlers and coaches), he gravitates toward imaginative, inventive cuisine. He and Zuniga have conspired to introduce new flavors and memorable presentations to Courtyard’s catering lineup. “We want to offer something surprising, something our clients would only see in larger venues,” says Zuniga. He gestures to the hotel’s namesake courtyard. Plush patio chairs are cinched around a fire pit. “This summer, I’d love to see people roasting s’mores out there.”
Zuniga is that rare combination of idea-man and detail-lover. As we meander through the lobby, he can’t help but straighten luggage carts or stoop down to collect a speck of lint. You can’t blame him for acting like he lives here. When he became general manager in January, he didn’t just take over an office; he moved in. Arriving from Houston ahead of his family (his daughter graduates high school this spring), he’s learning how it feels to be a guest in his own hotel.
“I might show up in the lobby at midnight or stop by the kitchen at 6 a.m.,” he admits. “I like to talk to guests as they’re coming and going.”
His “live above the shop” arrangement has also helped him get to know his staff. Zuniga breezes through the hallways greeting each employee by name, from his director of sales to a pair of Allen high school students completing a hospitality internship. Each week he gathers associates in the ballroom to review goals and discuss the schedule—when does the Everett wedding party arrive? What is the final headcount for tonight’s award banquet? Occasionally they role play customer service scenarios; this week, it’s a simulated car break-in. “We can get very loud,” he chuckles.
For Zuniga, these weekly meetings help nurture the hotel’s greatest asset: its people. Associates are publicly praised for accomplishments and creativity; get mentioned by name in a guest’s email or web review and you’ll earn a $20 gift. “The space can sell itself,” he tells me. “It’s the people who set you apart.”