Even if the name Mountain Lake Lodge doesn’t ring a bell, photographs of the Pembroke, Va., property should certainly jar memories. The hotel, which first opened in 1936, was the filming location for 1987’s hit "Dirty Dancing," and has attracted fans of the classic movie for the past 30 years.
But sometimes fans can only support a business so much, and five years ago, Heidi Stone came onboard as a first-time general manager to help save the property from imminent closure. In order to accomplish that feat, she had to call on decades of experience and know-how.
Growing up in Saratoga Springs, an upstate New York town that saw an influx of tourists during horse-racing season, Stone knew that she wanted to be involved in hotels. Thanks to family connections, she wound up at the front desk of a nearby Howard Johnson’s when she was 16, and went on to study hotel and restaurant management at the State University of New York.
While at SUNY, Stone had the opportunity to participate in the Disney College Program and oversaw the food-and-beverage programming at the Kentucky Derby. “I was always a foodie,” she recalled, and found the work to be a good fit for her interests. “I was a food-and-beverage operations [manager], banquet manager and restaurant manager.” When her parents were planning to retire to Greenville, S.C., Stone walked into a local Hilton there to apply for a position as a banquet manager. “And they said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about the sales business?’ Because three days earlier, the catering sales manager had quit.”
While Stone didn’t have much experience in sales, her expertise in F&B got her the job. As the catering sales manager, she oversaw thousands of weddings at the hotel and soon became director of catering.
Leaving the F&B side of the industry, Stone was promoted to director of sales and marketing for four different properties before finding her niche at independent boutique hotels.
Branded to Independent
In 2008, Stone helped open High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid, N.Y., a repurposed Hilton that had been built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. “We created a new hotel there from scratch—brand and everything—which had been a dream of mine,” she said. Opening a new property also gave Stone the chance to build a sales-and-marketing department from scratch. Just as she got going in her new role, the recession hit, affecting hotel revenues across the world. “We had marketing plans and ways that we thought we were going to do things and we completely had to revamp and talk about thinking differently,” she said. Using social media—then a nascent concept—as a marketing tool, Stone and her team helped attract group business to the property and managed to help push the resort’s profits 30 percent over its budget by 2010. “We came through the worst of the worst times and had become extremely successful and met all our goals,” she said.
But after five years, Stone was feeling the creative urge again, but didn’t have much left to create at the resort. Even more frustrating, there were limited opportunities for her to repeat her accomplishments at another property. “There aren't a lot of opportunities out there,” she said. “There's not a lot of, ‘We're going to open a brand new hotel or fix an old branded place and we're going to turn it into an independent and create everything from scratch.’ It's hard to find those kinds of opportunities sometimes.”
Lightning does, however, sometimes strike twice, and Stone learned of a struggling resort in Virginia that needed some help. “Mountain Lake was so intriguing,” she said. Beyond the property’s history and its fame as a filming location, Stone was attracted to the challenges she would face in turning the 100-room lodge around. In a statement, Mountain Lake board member Bob Donovan said that in 2011, the lodge was “rundown, stale and neglected,” and the owning endowment was considering closing the property.
“The fact that they were going to close the property, and this was the last Hail Mary essentially to save the [hotel], was so overwhelmingly intriguing,” she said. “People's lives were really on the line. Their jobs were on the line. The stakes were a lot higher—and I loved that. I loved it. There was a lot to be done, but the difference was going to be the biggest difference I had ever made.”
The property, she recalled, had not had a major renovation in decades, and needed about $50 million in order to get it where it needed to be. Instead, the endowment that owns the property offered Stone a fraction of the necessary funds and expected to see an immediate turnaround. “You had to look through a lot of ugly to see the diamond in the rough,” she recalled. “I was the only one who saw what it could be.” Building up a team over the years, Stone learned to take all criticism with a grain of salt as she worked to set reasonable expectations and then surpass them.
Echoing her success in Lake Placid, Stone encouraged her team to push TripAdvisor reviews as a marketing tool. “There was a lot of negative in the beginning because you can't turn a property around that's been neglected for 30 years in six months unless you have $100 million,” she said. When guests left happy, the team requested positive TripAdvisor feedback and continued building on its strengths, offering tours of filming locations, creating a ropes course and implementing farm-to-table meals in the dining room. The gambit worked, and not only did budget earnings exceed 100 percent, but the property reported an increase of more than 21 percent in revenue and 181 percent in website traffic, surpassing the team's original goals. In October 2018, the property was named Hotel of the Year by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association and Stone was named Hotelier of the Year.
The Benefits of Brandless
Stone’s successes at both High Peaks and Mountain Lake were both possible, she said, because of the independent natures of the properties. That independence, she said, gave her the ability to be “extremely creative” in her problem-solving, and to avoid a complex chain of command when it came to making decisions. “You can solve a problem—and the more creative it is, that just becomes an adrenaline rush for me.”
The independent nature of Mountain Lake also affected the way Stone viewed the property’s success. “It was never about profits going back to a corporation or an asset-management company,” she said. “This wasn't about profits. This was about saving jobs and creating an economic engine in one of the poorest counties in the state of Virginia.”
Attracting and retaining a professional, talented management team in a rural resort setting is a challenge. I'm not in a metropolitan area where there's talent everywhere that I can go get.
Success: It's not been about going out and bringing managers in. It's been finding those that have been loyal, dedicated line-level hourly or supervisor-type folks. [When you see] their commitment to your organization, to the mission that we're on, seeing they're already committed to what you're doing—make the commitment to invest in them and give them the leadership training that they need. Have them buy into being a long-term player in a leadership role.
Advice for GMs: If you're going to do anything worthwhile, it's going to be difficult and challenging. It takes more than tenacity and perseverance. You have to make a conscious decision to ignore the negative noise. Don't waver, even if you're the only person who can see where you're going and what you're going to become.
Heidi Stone's Secrets to Success
Care deeply about your people: I do an annual leadership retreat for my management team and it has been pivotal every year. We identify where we need to focus and, as a team, address those things. As a team, we're helping each other achieve what we need to achieve and we openly talk about the difficulties that we have. We're in it together like a family.
Know where every dollar is going: When I got here, there were so many service contracts that were in place. I delved into every single contract, every single dollar, every single line. Some of the service contracts hadn't been looked at in 30 years. The elevator contract hadn't been renegotiated or talked about since 1986. People will take advantage of you. Vendors will take advantage of you. I kicked out almost every vendor this property had and renegotiated. I have a whole maintenance department. They took on a majority of that so-called work that was being done and brought it in-house and immediately [we] slowed down the bleeding.
Everything matters: Everyone knows what their budget is. Everyone knows what the goals are. Everybody knows at any moment exactly where they're at with their payroll, their revenue and expenses. It's critical when you're running a small boutique hotel. There's nowhere to hide anything. Everything matters.
Mountain Lake Lodge Owner: Mary Moody Northen Endowment | Operator: NA | Guestrooms: 100 | Opening Year: 1936