On a morning when the Ballantyne Resort Hotel is bristling with the excitement of an opening-night play, Smoky and Sara Harris Bissell relax on a burgundy sofa in the hotel's Magnolia Room conference room. At least, they appear to be relaxed. The gleams in their blue eyes, however, suggest that they're just as keyed up as the Hotel staff.
The Bissells are the driving force behind The Bissell Companies, the company that has developed the 535-acre Ballantyne Corporate Park, and now the Ballantyne Resort-which includes the luxurious Resort Hotel, the Golf Course, the Dana Rader Golf School, and two other chain hotels.
"Its been a labor of love," says Sara, about the Resort. That's because she and her husband, as well as top managers, have spent the past five years getting ready for the Resort Hotel's opening day. They have dreamed, and researched, and planned, and shopped for the exact details to make the Resort a "must-stay" for business travelers.
Smoky Bissell defines the Resort as a destination, along the lines of destination resorts in Pinehurst or Asheville. The Ballantyne Resort, however, provides something they don't: convenience and time-savings.
"If your company is having a meeting in North Carolina, and you want to include golf, we can save you a day in travel," he explains. Because of the Ballantyne Resort's proximity to the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport - only 20 minutes away - companies can easily bring together their sales teams, executive groups and boards of directors for conferences, without having to build-in hours of destination drive time.
The Spa at Ballantyne Resort, scheduled to open next spring, will provide additional services for conference spouses.
"This is not just another hotel," says Geoff Kirkland, chief executive officer of Horwath Horizon Hospitality Advisors, consultants to the hospitality industry. While he emphasizes that he has not yet seen the hotel-he was unable to attend the grand opening-he credits the Bissell Companies as being "high-quality hotel operators," and says that, given what he's seen of the Resort's advertising and services, "People now have the option of coming to Charlotte for a resort experience. They didn't have that (option) before."
The Bissell's vision has come together beautifully on this late summer morning. Golf carts are running in a line dotting the groomed golf course, in preparation for a charity golf tournament. Elsewhere within the Resort, a silent auction fundraiser has been arranged in the rotunda, and places are set in the Ballantyne Ballroom for the golfers' lunch.
A place like this doesn't come together overnight, and the Bissells are happy to share some of the many steps, the many strategies, they undertook over the years.
The Name and Place
Ballantyne, located on the southern crescent of Interstate 485, once would have seemed in the middle of nowhere. Today, however, it seems like the area soon will be in the middle of everything.
Sara Bissell's father, the late James J. Harris, had accumulated 1,750 acres in the area, and left it to his three children after his death in 1985. A few years later, the governors of North and South Carolina negotiated with the family for 80 acres, in order to tie in the four-lane highway U.S. 521 to the emerging I-485.
The family saw that the location would be ripe for a new community, "something that hadn't been done before," Smoky Bissell explains. They envisioned a self-sustaining neighborhood with homes, a golf course, corporate offices, and hotels, and worked alongside land developers and the Urban Land Institute to come up with a workable plan.
They tossed around ideas for a name, finally choosing "Ballantyne" to honor a distant great-aunt, Barbara Ballantyne, who took Smoky and Sara under her wing when they moved to California in the 1960s.
Crescent Resources bought some of the land to develop its residential Ballantyne Country Club Community. In 1992, a large insurance company bought 108 acres, thinking it might someday develop a service center. About 525 acres remained for an office park; Smoky Bissell bought the land from the family in January 1996, and immediately started planning for office buildings and hotels.
"There was nothing out here," Smoky Bissell recalls, "no roads - nothing. We spent the winter learning our way around."
Smoky and Sara would cross the frozen creeks and climb the rolling hills to get a feel for the terrain, their beloved Dalmatians running ahead.
"We had many a picnic down here," Sara says with a smile. "We'd sit on a hillside and say, 'maybe this could go here.' We'd let the dogs run wild and we'd talk big."
Ground was broken eight months later for the first office building.
The Bissells knew from their experience in operating the Four Star and Four Diamond Park Hotel in SouthPark that the growing corporate community would request - and support - a hotel for company guests and vendors. To satisfy the immediate need, they became a Marriott franchisee and built the Courtyard by Marriott at Ballantyne.
Yet they wanted to create something more elegant, building upon the operations and hospitality talent abundant at the Park Hotel, as well as the management expertise of Wayne Shusko, now the managing director of Bissell Hotels. Corporate clients were asking for golf facilities, so Smoky started planning for a golf course. He did not hire a golf course architect, he explains, because he didn't want to build a corporate center around the topography needed for a golf course - "I wanted to build a golf course where I couldn't build office buildings." (And still, he beams, the par-71 daily-fee course was named the "Best New Golf Course in North Carolina for 1998" by North Carolina magazine.)
At first, the Bissells planned for a 13-story resort hotel, with 348 hotel rooms. They attended travel trade shows around the country, studied travel guides, and made worldwide "best practices" trips, visiting the best hotels in several countries, to determine which features worked best at which hotel, and why.
The first big hurdle they realized they faced: parking. For 348 rooms, they would need two parking decks-"which would have ruined the view of the hotel from the street," Smoky says. So they scaled back the number of rooms, without scaling back the amenities. The ballroom, for instance, was built as if it were to serve a 300-room hotel.
"We wanted to make sure there was plenty of meeting space," says Smoky. "I wanted to be able to hold three wedding receptions at 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday, and have three separate entrances so guests didn't run into each other."
The Bissells, along with special projects director Dave Conlan and his wife Jane, took extensive notes from their "best practices" trips. Sara remembers a trip out west to five U.S. resorts; while the men were surreptitiously taking photos of a pro shop's layout, or a resort's parking spaces, "my job was to move the suitcases from one hotel to another," she laughs.
On one trip, they visited 30 golf courses in five days. At night they would run to a nearby pharmacy, and have the photos developed in duplicate. Dave and Smoky would review the photos, explain why they were taken, and place them in a scrapbook. As a result of this mission, the Golf Club's cart storage was designed to fit under the clubhouse, in order to save space.
Smoky learned that a conference-style amphitheatre wouldn't be practical: the fixed seating placement would not allow any flexibility for room use. Sara learned that room schemes, or themes, could be more simply replicated by having fewer schemes per hotel. Whereas the Park Hotel has ten room schemes, for instance, additional storage is needed for ten different backup bedspreads, draperies and the like. The new Ballantyne Resort Hotel, in contrast, has only two room schemes.
Fewer does not mean less important, however; the Bissells intended to create a boutique hotel noted for its fine appointments. Carpets were hand-loomed in England. Antique pieces came from a flea market in Paris and several shops in the English countryside. A majestic breakfront in the lobby once resided in the office of Prince Charles' philanthropy.
"Anytime we would take a trip anywhere, we would shop," Sara explains, gesturing toward two silk prints in the Magnolia Room that originated in Singapore.
Dave Conlan liked the luggage racks at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok so much, he had them replicated for the Resort. Sara favored the European-style, two-tier bath vanities that allow for storage space without massive countertops.
To perfect the guest rooms' layout, Smoky Bissell built two 'spec' hotel rooms in the basement of a nearby office building. Every detail was built-in-beds, telephones, electrical outlets-"down to the where the towel holders were placed," Bissell says. They made notes on the rooms' comfort, then redesigned and rebuilt the two rooms. "If we hadn't done that, we would never have had the product that we have here."
The piece de resistance of the Resort is, in fact, a collection of pieces: oil paintings by Vermont artist Tom Vieth. A college roommate of Sara's -Vieth's aunt by marriage - had sent her a postcard featuring one of his works. The Bissells invited him to dinner, and asked him to provide one-of-a-kind artworks for the Resort Hotel.
General manager Steve Brooks spent two days with Vieth, driving him around Charlotte, showing him some of the Queen City's highlights, including the Mint Museum, the statues at Trade and Tryon, and St. Mary's Chapel, formerly the Thompson Orphanage chapel. Vieth made watercolor sketches, then watercolor paintings so the Bissells could choose the portraits they liked. Vieth then painted the approved scenes in oil.
"These are very much a signature of Ballantyne Resort," says Brooks, noting that two guests already have asked how they could contact the artist for paintings. He's working on printing a self-guided tour booklet so guests can view all the artworks and understand their significance.
The idea, Sara Bissell says, is to get visitors interested in all that Charlotte has to offer-to reinforce the notion of Charlotte, and, of course, the Ballantyne Resort Hotel, as a travel destination.
"(The resort) is going to draw people to the city," Kirkland adds. "It definitely is something that's a positive for Charlotte."
The Bissells haven't yet learned of Kirkland's comment, but they've heard plenty of rave reviews from guests, visitors and meeting planners. Surely such feedback is music to their ears, sweetening the fruits of their 'labor of love.'"