B A C K G R O U N D E R
Todd M. Felsen is senior vice president of operations for BENCHMARK®, a global hospitality company. He has held the position of vice president, operations for Benchmark, and originally joined the company as general manager of Cheyenne Mountain Resort, a Benchmark Resorts & Hotels®-brand property located in Colorado Springs. CO. Previous to this, Mr. Felsen was managing director for The Claremont Hotel Club & Spa of Berkeley, CA. He is a graduate of the University of Miami,
T H E F E L S E N S T O R Y
As a young boy, I remembered travelling to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and staying with my family at the Polynesian Village when it first opened in the 1970s. When I walked into the lobby, I was intrigued by the massive cascading waterfalls and the magnitude of the lobby as well as the costuming of all of the employees dressed in Polynesian wear. I felt like I was in Hawaii. It was my first real experience at a very large resort. I asked myself the question, how in the world can this possibly run as a business? From that point, I was always excited to go on family vacations knowing that I would have the opportunity to stay at some of the best resorts in the country. To me, it was fascinating how these beautiful buildings really operated as a city within a city. I was intrigued! Being brought up in New York City, I had the opportunity to visit some large and prominent hotels. I then decided to explore what working in a hotel would be like. So when I was in High School, I got a job as a doorman working part-time after school. I felt at home and that I wasn’t really “working”. I was “making it rain” while opening doors and talking to people. What a piece of cake I said to myself. It was then that I found my passion for the business and delivering the finest guest service.
MATT WARD: What separates Benchmark from your competitors?
TODD FELSEN: As a hotelier with vast experience in the industry, Benchmark’s culture is inclusive, diverse and entrepreneurial. It is not a company — it is family. And it all started with the vision of our Chairman — Burt Cabanas. Our ability to be creative and driven by our sales and marketing platforms surpass our competitors. Our strategic objectives allow us to build a future in the hospitality industry as well as create memories and deliver personalized and extraordinary service to our guests. I believe our success is driven by our entrepreneurial leadership, integrity and the fact we dare to be different. We learn from today so we can craft our tomorrow. We not only coach, teach and encourage each other, but really take personal responsibility for our actions. Our No. 1 goal is to be the different in creating memorable experiences for the individuals we serve. That’s what sets us apart from our competitors.
MW: The entire tourism industry had a major wake-up call from The Great Recession that ended in ’09 — what lessons were learned from your perspective?
TF: To me, the math is simple. Be strategic about hiring strategies and streamline the operation to control expenses. In our world, the owner comes first and the financial responsibility to deliver the best results possible. Hiring and maintain the right team members is absolutely key.
MW: You provide golf at a number of your properties — is golf still a good fit for those in the lodging arena?
TF: Absolutely. There are days in which I am able to drive a golf cart or even play at one of our finest golf resorts. To me, the inspiration of Jack Nicklaus and the late Arnold Palmer was right on point. Their vision to provide a beautiful yet challenging setting for our guests still resonates today. Whether its an outside tournament, corporate event or a father/son, mother/daughter enjoying a day out, golf is still a quality day. Golf continues to generate significant revenues for our golf resorts. In 2016, we experienced a significant increase in rounds and revenue. Golf to me will always play a key part in family vacations and corporate outings. We must continue to foment the sport for the younger generation.
MW: Golf has stagnated in terms of adding new players — especially among Millennials, women and minorities. What would you suggest to the major golf organizations to increase the rate of growth among those specific groups?
TF: When speaking about Millennials — speed of the game is always important. People today have a tough time playing a golf round which takes 5 hours. We must continue to educate that golf is not only a great sport but also a game of integrity, honesty and friendship. All of these are qualities are ones which we must instill in our society. It is a game for everyone. While we have to understand that perhaps not everyone enjoys golf, educating people on the game is vitally important.
MW: Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
TF: This would definitely be my late mother. She always taught me that a smile is contagious. And, that integrity, kindness and patience should always be part of my life.
MW: How should company leaders handle success? Failure?
TF: We often discuss this and feel that we do not celebrate success enough. In true hotelier fashion, we always strive to perfect every strategy in place. With that said, to us failure is the gateway to success. We strive to learn from our challenges and mistakes so we can avoid similar scenarios in the future. By no means, do we think we are perfect. That is what makes Benchmark so great. We are constantly learning and growing.
MW: You can change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
TF: Cost would be key. Unfortunately, the more the game evolves with technology, the more difficult this becomes.
MW: There’s been a real emphasis placed on customer service for those in the tourism area — define the term as Benchmark sees it?
TF: “Being the Difference” is our culture. Whether that is making a difference in our family life, in our guest’s or our own, it is important to do so on a daily basis. When guests walk into Benchmark Resorts & Hotels’ corporate office in Texas, they see a large piece of mosaic art behind the reception desk. Every single one of the company’s team members is given one of those mosaic tiles, which symbolizes the company’s unity as well as being a piece of the company. As a company we promise we will operate as one — as a team. So everyone is a small piece of that mosaic and has a place in it, which is very important. That also carries over into how we train our employees as well because they are our No. 1 assets. Every company says it, but saying it and believing it are two different things. We believe it because that’s what our company is all about. We have more than 10,000 employees, and we believe that as long as you have the will we can train the skill. We look for people that are passionate about our business, that have a purpose for being in the hospitality industry and want to be or make the difference every day – whether it’s in their own life, family life or someone else’s life that they’re affecting every day.
MW: What’s the biggest challenge for Benchmark — short and long term?
TF: Looking ahead, the company wants to continue growing, but not at the expense of losing its purpose. As we continue to grow we have to keep that in mind because where we are and where we’re going tomorrow is very important. That’s why we’re always grounded and making the most conscientious decisions that affect our owners and team members the most, so we can watch people succeed, grow and make our properties profitable.
MW: You’ve got one mulligan to take — what would you like to do over again either personally or professionally?
TF: The hospitality industry as a whole is very demanding on one’s time as it is a 365/7 days a week, 24 hours a day industry. If you want success in this industry, you must spend the time working and live through many relocations. That means often uprooting your family to different cities. This is my passion and hotels run in my blood and I love it. However, I have personally sacrificed a lot of time away from my family and friends in order to do what I love and my family has always supported me 100%. I have and continue to learn to balance and to focus on what is important to them.
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