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July 2012
Premier Hospitality
By Jim Froneberger

     There’s the old saying, “Timing is everything,” but the folks at Bissell Hotels have proved that wrong on a couple of occasions, when the timing couldn’t have been worse.

     H.C. “Smoky” Bissell and his team were putting the finishing touches on a new luxury hotel in their Ballantyne master planned community in south Charlotte. After years of planning and construction, the hotel was just weeks from opening. Then the world changed forever on September 11, 2001.

     In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, hotels worldwide saw occupancy rates plunge as companies curtailed travel plans amid security concerns and an economic downturn. Although a very challenging time to launch a new hotel, just two weeks after 9/11 Ballantyne Resort opened for business as the first true luxury-class property in the Charlotte region.

     Even before the events of 9/11, many had questioned the viability of a luxury class hotel in what was still a relatively new, emerging south Charlotte business park. But Bissell and his team had a crystal-clear vision of what Ballantyne would someday become, so despite the challenges and the risks, they were committed to moving ahead and making the project a success.

     Today, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is the flagship of the Bissell hotel portfolio in Ballantyne. Along with three sister properties—Courtyard by Marriott, Staybridge Suites, and the Aloft—Bissell now owns and manages nearly 600 hotel rooms providing a variety of service levels and price points for Ballantyne clients and visitors.


Joining the Bissell Family

     Bissell Hotels is the hospitality division of The Bissell Companies, an organization specializing in commercial real estate development, office leasing, property management, real estate investments, and hotels. Bissell also has ancillary interests in golf, spa, and media businesses. The company is most noted for two of the Southeast’s most successful mixed-use communities—SouthPark and Ballantyne.

     Leading Bissell Hotels is President and COO Joe Hallow. Born in Charlotte, but raised in eastern North Carolina, Hallow returned to his birthplace in the early 1990s as a sales manager for Lanier. Subsequently, he joined medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific and spent the next decade traveling the country in a variety of sales and management roles.

     “Working for a Boston-based company, it was hard to stay connected locally and to get to know the city,” recalls Hallow. “I was a Charlotte guy on the weekends, but I was gone during the week.”

     So when father-in-law Smoky Bissell invited him to join The Bissell Companies in 2003, he decided the time was right to get off the road and work for a Charlotte-based organization.

     Hallow’s first six months or so with Bissell were spent evaluating the business and getting to know the team. But with the rapid growth and early success of Ballantyne came a realization that more vertical focus was needed on some of their assets.

     “I certainly didn’t know how to check anybody into a hotel, but we made the decision that I would move into hospitality, and with the help of a great team, we began to evaluate our assets and our position in the market,” explains Hallow. “We wanted to make this a self-sustainable, thriving business unit within The Bissell Companies.”

     When Hallow assumed leadership of the hotel team, Bissell was operating four lodging properties—three in Ballantyne, plus The Park Hotel at SouthPark. But in March 2006, they sold The Park to Marriott to help create capital for office expansion in Ballantyne.

     “It was very tough for the Bissell family to divest The Park Hotel,” admits Hallow. “It had been a part of the family since the mid-1980s.”


Ballantyne’s Innkeeper

     With 200 guest rooms, 14 suites, a 35-room Lodge retreat, a four-room Cottage, and 30,000 square feet of meeting space, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is Bissell’s flagship luxury property. A part of Starwood’s The Luxury Collection and an AAA Four-Diamond award winner, the hotel focuses on the corporate group market, corporate travelers, and the social wedding market (the hotel has already booked a record 59 weddings for 2012).

     The rustic Lodge retreat, which opened in 2002, focuses on hosting private groups, corporate team building, and corporate board meetings.

     The Ballantyne Hotel is also home to Gallery Restaurant and The Spa at Ballantyne, both Forbes Four-Star recognized establishments. The Golf Club at Ballantyne is one of the top daily fee golf courses in the region and has been rated 4.5 stars by Golf Digest. Golf Magazine has also consistently rated Ballantyne’s Dana Rader Golf School as one of the top 25 schools in the nation.

     The hotel opened in 2001 without a major global affiliation, making it difficult to sell to corporate travel offices in places like New York and Atlanta.

     “They had no idea who we were,” concedes Hallow. “But we needed these larger feeder market travelers to help make The Ballantyne Hotel a sustainable asset.”

     So Hallow’s first order of business was to make sure quality and service levels were equal to what these travelers experienced at other luxury hotels. Next, they needed a connection to a broader worldwide marketing organization, and Starwood’s The Luxury Collection seemed like the perfect fit.

     “Our target travelers were staying in New York or San Francisco the night before, so there could be no drop off when they arrived in Charlotte,” Hallow continues. “And with Starwood, we liked that we would be in a collection of unique hotels like The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona; San Francisco’s Palace Hotel; and Hotel Danieli in Venice, Italy.”

     Originally called Ballantyne Resort, the hotel has now been rebranded as The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge.

     “Clearly 2008 and 2009 were challenging years for most businesses,” explains Hallow. “There were quite a few of our larger customers that could no longer meet at resorts, so if ‘resort’ was in our name, it became a challenge in that environment. But while that triggered the change, we had actually discussed making the move as early as 2005 or 2006 when we first affiliated with Starwood. They always felt ‘hotel’ might fit better with the markets we serve.”

     Bissell owns and operates all of its hotels under franchise agreements with the hotel brands, and each property is targeted at market segments that complement the Ballantyne area. The first hotel in Bissell’s Ballantyne collection was the 90-room Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in 1998. The Courtyard caters to the business traveler, the weekend traveler, and the overnight wedding market.

     The Staybridge Suites opened in early 2001 and targets the extended stay traveler with its 118 studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom suites.

     The newest hotel in Ballantyne is the Aloft, a 136-room LEED-certified property with a youthful, modern, and energetic ambiance that opened in November 2009.

     “If the worst time to open a hotel was two weeks after 9/11, maybe the second worst time to open a hotel would be the fall of 2009,” laughs Hallow. “The Aloft struggled out of the gate and didn’t approach the pro-forma that was built for it in 2006-2007. But it quickly became financially sustainable after that first year, and this year it has really exploded. So far, 2012 looks like a really robust year for the entire portfolio and our 12-month backlog looks much more promising today than it did a year ago or a year and a half ago.”

     As Ballantyne grows, so will the need for more hotel rooms. A recent rezoning will allow over one million additional square feet of office space, 600 residential units, and 200 more hotel rooms. It is important to Bissell to stay ahead of the market, ensuring that Ballantyne has adequate hotel capacity.

     “We have already started evaluating what hospitality product will be next for Ballantyne,” says Hallow. “We’re a live, work, stay, play concept out here. If our tenants have guests coming to Ballantyne and they have to stay five or 10 miles down the road, that is probably not a good thing for us.”

     Though Bissell’s core business is development, Hallow and his team have turned Bissell Hotels into a major player in the Charlotte hospitality business.

     “Joe has demonstrated great leadership and tenacity during one of the most challenging economies in history,” says company founder Smoky Bissell. “His energy is such that sometimes many who work side by side with him do things that they never thought themselves capable of achieving. Joe has truly elevated our hotel portfolio, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for us in hospitality.”


Selling Charlotte

     Hallow has a unique perspective on the state of the tourism industry in Charlotte as the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA). The CRVA is responsible for marketing Charlotte as a tourism destination and managing Charlotte’s public assembly facilities—Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte Convention Center, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Bojangles’ Coliseum, and Ovens Auditorium. The CRVA CEO is Tom Murray, a 30-year veteran of the hotel and hospitality business who came on board last December.

     After struggling through some lean years during the recession, Hallow says the Charlotte hospitality industry seems to be on the mend.

     “We were gaining inches through 2010 and 2011, but in 2012, we’ve gone vertical,” he says with confidence. “Our occupancy rates are up considerably, but our average daily rate still lags that of the other large markets we compete with. We have grown so fast, but the larger markets had a major head start in the development of higher-end lodging properties.”

     “Our primary competitors for conventions used to be more third-tier cities,” explains Hallow. “But today, we’re competing with more first- and second-tier cities like Boston, Atlanta, and Baltimore.”

     Hallow attributes Charlotte’s elevation to three primary factors: rapid population growth combined with a culture that accepts newcomers and encourages them to become engaged in the community; strong leadership shown by the banks and other Charlotte business and civic leaders who made amenities like Time Warner Cable Arena, the Convention Center, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame a priority; and the connection that our airport and US Airways has given us to the rest of the nation and the world.

     Major events like the Wells Fargo Championship, the CIAA Basketball Tournament, the Belk Bowl, the recent NRA Convention, and the Democratic National Convention are also important engines for the tourism and hospitality business in Charlotte.

     “Those types of events don’t just help our businesses thrive; in many cases they help our businesses survive,” says Hallow. “We do not have the transient base of travel in this city that Atlanta has, so we need to embrace major events.”

     The Democratic National Convention (DNC) is an example of how success in hosting major events breeds more success.

     “You don’t just go from the kind of conventions we had in the early 1990s and all of a sudden get a DNC,” says Hallow. “You’ve got to show a pattern of success and deliver a quality experience. The DNC is a huge win, but now we must be successful with that event to win even more opportunities.”

     He says hotels and motels throughout the Charlotte region are booked solid for the Convention, with some impact extending as far away as Columbia and Greensboro.


The Next Level

     Whether it is ensuring that guests are greeted with a smile when they check into a Bissell hotel, or helping to chase the next big tourism event for the Charlotte region, Hallow is always looking to take things to the next level.

     “In hospitality, having a quality product is great, but it is secondary to delivering an exceptional experience for our guests; and that comes from our people,” he explains. “If you make a great first impression in the first 15 minutes after the guest arrives, you have a great chance at getting them to come back or give you a referral. We’re very fortunate to have top quality general managers in all of our hotels to help make that happen.”

     For the city of Charlotte, Hallow says the key to competing at the next level is teamwork between the hospitality industry, other business leaders, and elected officials.

     “We don’t have a mountain range or breaking waves like some of our competitors do,” he concludes. “So we win when we work together. With the leadership of this team now, I think we can begin taking it to an entirely different level. It’s fun to be in this city and to get work with so many great people.”



Jim Froneberger is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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