It isn’t true that you can’t go home again. Nearly 20 years after he left the former Innisbrook Hilton Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla.,, J. Michael "Mike" Williams returned two years ago as the managing director of the renamed Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf and Spa Resort. This year, he celebrates his 40th year in the hospitality industry and his second year as the managing director (the property’s term for general manager) at the place he calls home.
A Taste for Hospitality
Williams was introduced to the industry by his father, a salesperson for National Cash Register. “His biggest client was Marriott hotels,” Williams said. “He sold all of the cash registers, computers, etc. to Marriott back in the late '50s.” Marriott had been a restaurant company, but expanded into hotels with the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel in Arlington, Va., in 1957, when Williams was a year old. “I think I was at every Marriott opening from that point until I was about 12 or 13 years old,” he recalled. “I thought my dad worked for Marriott. He just was going around the country opening Marriott hotels and would drag the family along with him.”
While studying political science at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., Williams forwarded his resume to Marriott and was selected for the company’s management training program. “This was 1979, and Marriott was opening a hotel (it seemed like) every other month,” he said. When Williams joined the company that year, Marriott had 55 hotels. By the time he left three years later, it was up to 110.
Williams spent the better part of 20 years working for Hilton hotels, including five years as director of marketing at what was then the Innisbrook Hilton Resort. During those years, he learned how to make sure different groups had the same level of experience, from a 1,000-person convention to 12 people on a golf excursion. “It was important to see why they were here, to understand what their expectations were for their trip to Innisbrook,” he said. The other important lesson was learning how to balance the demands from the hotel guests and the members of the private country club. “Our members are such an important part of what makes Innisbrook tick,” he said. “Back in the mid-'90s, I was first introduced to the importance of that and it was something that I was able to bring to the table when I returned here in 2017.”
After four years as EVP of hotel operations for Crescent Hotels & Resorts, Williams heard that Innisbrook, now part of Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Hotels & Resorts portfolio, was seeking a managing director. It seemed like kismet: “My wife and I had, just six weeks prior to this job opening, signed a contract to build our retirement home on the 10th green of the Island Course here at Innisbrook,” Williams said. After a conversation with Salamander President Prem Devadas, a deal was in place for Williams to step into the role, his first position as a general manager or managing director of an individual hotel. “And here I am.”
After 40 years in hospitality, Williams has seen dramatic changes in the industry—some for the better, he noted, but some changes that he would undo. “Somewhere along the way, I think we've lost the fine art of hospitality,” he said. “At the end of the day, a general manager or a managing director still has to be out in front interacting with the guests, interacting with their members and—most importantly—interacting with the team members. Because while it's cliche, I truly do believe that we have to have happy team members. Those happy team members will take great care of your guests and if your guests are happy, they'll take great care of your bottom line.”
Mike Williams' Biggest Challenge
Challenge: The crisis that we faced as a hospitality industry in the wake of 9/11 was occurring at the same time as many of the third-party travel-management sites were being born on the Internet. As an industry, we found ourselves with corporate America cutting back on travel and finding ourselves with a lot of empty hotel rooms.
Solution: While the internet has provided vast opportunities for us to reach prospective guests in ways that we never had before, it's also provided challenges in how we manage our inventory and pricing recommendations on a daily basis. But at the end of the day, we're still looking to ... make sure that a guest is is thrilled and happy.
Advice to GMs: Have a curious mind. Never stopped questioning how we can do something better. Even if you're at the top of your comp set, even if you've achieved the highest accolades, there's always ways to improve.
Three Secrets to Success
Surround yourself with the most competent team members that you can find. Provide them with very specific guidance, direction and expectations, and then get out of their way.
Take time to think: You have to have what I call “stare at the wall time” built in your schedule every week, time that you can close your door, time to be contemplative and think about some of the big-picture items that you have to do.
Make the guest experience positive. At the end of the day, that's what our business is all about. If that guest is not satisfied ... you haven't accomplished all that you could as the managing director or a GM.
Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf and Spa Resort
Rooms: 485 / Management: Salamander Hotels & Resorts / Owner: Sheila C. Johnson / Opening: 1970