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January 2007
Boutique Hospitality at Its Best
By Susanne Deitzel

When murmurings first began of the possible sale of The Park Hotel, one of the most iconic and venerable of SouthPark’s landmarks, the news was met with nearly a widow’s wail.

Built in 1984 as a labor of love by one of Charlotte’s leading families, H.C. “Smoky” Bissell and his wife, Sara, the hotel reflected the couple’s luxurious tastes, was outfitted with one-of-a-kind antiques from their travels, and was reputed to be one of the warmest, most accommodating and unique sites in the Charlotte area.

So when The Park Hotel, which was designed to the specifications of the Bissells and lovingly decorated by Sara Bissell herself, went under contract to none other than the megalithic Marriott Hotel group, prevailing gossip coddled fears of homogeneity, and the loss of one of the most accommodating and colorful of Charlotte’s meeting places.

What these naysayers did not realize is that the Marriott Corporation became as successful as it is because of the same warmth, hospitality, family focus and sense of history that The Park Hotel itself came to symbolize. And, what anyone who knows the Bissells should have guessed is that Smoky and Sara Bissell were not going to see their ‘baby’ going to just anyone, and they wanted assurance that their family of staff would be well-cared for. They found what they were looking for in John W. Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International, Inc.


Living Legacy

John W. Marriott Jr. is the son of Marriott founders J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott, so he knows a thing or two about legacies. Today’s $19 billion global lodging company started as a nine-stool root beer stand called The Hot Shoppe in the 1920s. The Marriott’s ‘spirit to serve’ evolved into a wildly successful food service company, which led to the couple’s foray into hospitality, the first Marriott Hotel in 1957.

The rest, as they say is history. J.W. Marriott Jr. pioneered the plan that marshaled Marriott International into over 2,700 properties in 70 countries with 17 different brands. Its umbrella includes the familiar Marriott Courtyard, Fairfield and Renaissance Hotels, the posh Ritz-Carlton, and several vacation ownership resorts, executive apartments and conference centers.

However, the Marriott SouthPark is a bird of a slightly different feather. John Marriott III purchased The Park Hotel as part of J.W.M. Family Enterprises, a 13-property portfolio that is not simply managed by Marriott, but is a ‘legacy-property’ (i.e. actually owned by the Marriott family.)

Comments John Marriott III on the legacy properties, “Properties like Charlotte Marriott SouthPark represent the best of both worlds. The hotel has a very involved, small, family-oriented ownership which cares about the space and its employees and, at the same time, benefits from the management talent and resources of the biggest and best hotel management company with the best employees—bar none—in the world.”

While this nomenclature automatically confers an aura of distinction, the SouthPark location is also Marriott’s flagship offering of “boutique hospitality.” The unique footprint, loyal clientele, sumptuous accommodations, location, and impeccable service that the Marriott’s encountered when visiting the hotel, set it in a class by itself.

Says Marriott, “Overall, the purchase of the hotel was a great deal—and by that, I mean the location is seated in a great neighborhood with a strong business and retail community, it is very well built, it offered an opportunity for renovation and to utilize Marriott’s management practices, and it was a fair price. But in addition to that, I love the feel of this hotel.”

Marriott continues, “Charlotte Marriott SouthPark inherited an understated luxury from The Park Hotel. It is comfortable and inviting, not ostentatious. And its reputation has built a strong following and warm clientele that has embraced the hotel as an integral part of the community, and this is something Marriott believes in very strongly.”

Says Marriott SouthPark’s General Manager Michele Pajot, “Community building is one of our core values, and the hospitality of the Charlotte community makes that commitment not just easy, but fun. It seems like everybody is willing to extend their hand to say hello or help out.”

Pajot represents Marriott locally and encourages her team members to get involved in several community capacities. Pajot is charged with implementing the company’s national efforts supporting The Children’s Miracle Network and The United Way, as well as local efforts such as the Levine Children’s Hospital, the Breast Cancer Walk, and Sister-to-Sister. She also holds positions on the SouthPark Chamber of Commerce board of directors, the Charlotte Area Hotel Association, and the Hotel and Tourism Alliance.

According to John Marriott, Pajot is eminently qualified to be the face representing the company in the SouthPark community.

This compliment from the man himself is an extraordinary vote of confidence. But add to that the fact that Pajot is relatively young at 34, female, and has been promoted to her first general manager position at the first boutique hotel of a major corporation, and the accomplishment borders on astounding. Pajot started with the Management Services Division of Marriott at 18 as a banquet supervisor while working her way through a college finance degree.

“I did it all,” she smiles. “I worked in every aspect of food service from catering, to restaurant and lounge service, to back of the house, and I loved it. I became really enamored with the values of the Marriott family and knew that I had to find a way to stay with the company and utilize my degree.”

Prior to Marriott SouthPark, Pajot worked in finance areas of the company and held Marriott managerial positions in Boston and Philadelphia. She has won several industry and company awards, and presented a paper suggesting Marriott Core Values in the context of hourly associates, which was implemented nationally by the corporation. She clearly has the communication style, enthusiasm and an appreciation for Marriott that translates very well into managing its operations and promoting its culture. She is quick to point out that it is neither hers nor Marriott’s plan to make change for change’s sake, but rather to provide the best overall environment for everyone.

Pajot attests: “The most famous Marriott saying is that if you take care of the associates, the associates will care for the guests. My 16-year experience with Marriott has been steeped in the history and the culture of the organization and I can personally testify to its generosity and warmth toward all people—employees and clients alike. I see it as my job to continue faithfully in that tradition.”


Ringing in the New

Pajot explains the transition has been rather smooth: “People are comfortable enough now to joke about how nervous they were when the company purchased the property, and what kind of changes they feared. I think now it has become evident that Marriott bought the property with an appreciation for what it is, not with an agenda to change it to be like many other full-service hotels.”

The practically non-existent employee turnover indicates that the staff agrees.

She adds, “It is more like an instance of Marriott valuing the essence of what was great about The Park Hotel and folding that into its offerings, while also providing its vast resources to amplify and accentuate its uniqueness. John Marriott just loves this property for its character; the last thing we would want to do is change that.”

Which is not to say that there won’t be changes. The $24.5 million contract for the sale of the property had a property improvement contingency that includes at least $5.7 million in upfits and renovations. Among the items are replacing carpets and wall vinyl, upfitting bathroom fixtures, making necessary repairs, as well as adding flat screen televisions, a high-tech ‘jack pack’ and hallmark Marriott luxury bedding in all guest quarters.

The improvements process necessitated a complete inventory of the entire hotel, compiling a catalogue of items in each room. According to Pajot, “John went through the catalogue page by page and hand-selected the items we would keep. It was of paramount importance that all the special pieces that make this hotel so extraordinary be highlighted.”

In some instances furniture will be reupholstered or moved around a bit, but the overall goal is that the unique look and feel of The Park Hotel will be preserved. Some custom furniture will be created to coordinate with the existing pieces, a testament to the sincere value the new ownership places on the hotel’s existing personality.

What was once Smoky’s Grill has become just The Grill, and is getting its own revamping of decor. Pajot shared that Executive Chef Scott Spaulding stayed through the transition and still enjoys free reign in the kitchen. Spaulding has been working on implementing a new lunch and dinner menu that Pajot says reflects Marriott restaurants’ emphasis on variety while maintaining several of the local favorites.

Marriott also enlisted the architect originally commissioned by Smoky Bissell for The Park Hotel, LS3P Associates, to oversee the redesign process. “They had the intimate knowledge of the building, an astute feel for the design, and an enthusiasm that made the choice pretty natural,” comments Pajot.


Extended Family

The biggest hallmarks of The Park Hotel were its friendly staff, its paramount dedication to customer service, and the familial atmosphere between the former owners and the hotel employees.

By all accounts it appears as though things will stay that way. Says Marriott III, “I firmly believe that one of the reasons we were able to get involved with this deal is because of the commonalities between our families. Like the Bissells, the Marriotts care about our team members like family, strive to be very involved in the community, are very family-oriented, hold fast to good values, and believe in building strong relationships.”

Says Pajot, “It was very entertaining the day we held our grand opening ceremony. The two families were side-by-side most of the day, laughing and smiling. At one point they sat down to an afternoon tea, and it was the most down-to-earth and relaxed atmosphere you could imagine.”

While Marriott has a firm commitment to building upon the strong values that the Bissells began in the Park Hotel, Pajot adds that many of the behind-the-scenes changes will add countless benefits to customers. “We are adding to our accommodations, amenities and services on-site, as well as introducing the incentives across the Marriott network, such as our Marriott Rewards program. We think customers will embrace the changes we make as much as they appreciate our attempts to preserve what they have come to love about the property.”

The grand opening festivities of the Charlotte Marriott SouthPark were emotionally charged when Smoky and Sara Bissell handed off ownership to the Marriott team. The Bissells, the Marriotts and Pajot ceremoniously threw good luck coins into the hotel fountain, sealing the best intentions to preserve its understated luxury while broadening its offerings.

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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