Russ Bond loves to chat about the rich history of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club.
He'll tell the story of how golf legend Walter Hagen hit balls off a friends's watch and the men built the luxury resort where they landed. Or about the cypress ceiling beams that termites left undamaged during 18 years the Vinoy was fenced in and locked up.
But the resort's soft-spoken general manager remains rooted in the here and now of a business where conditions change constantly.
In his eleventh year running the Vinoy, Bond deals with day-to-day details like finding enough kitchen help to planning for an expanded spa and keeping up with talk about where a new stadium for the Rays might be located. He talked recently with the Times.
Hotels nationally report an uptick in corporate meetings and conventions as the economy improves. Are you seeing that?
We're seeing corporate meetings coming back. They had been going with heavy appetizers instead of a full dinner and a couple of drink tickets instead of an open bar. They'd stay less time or bring less people.
We're starting to see them spend for extras. They'll allow a half day for golf or spa treatments. Revenue is nowhere near 2007 levels. But 2010 was better than 2009 and 2011 will be better than 2010.
Any other signs the economy is perking up?
It's harder to find staff. Several critical areas are starting to dry up. Whether (the job market) is better or not, they're feeling like it's better. They're not taking that hotel job and waiting for a factory job. All the kitchen positions are harder to fill.
What's your customer mix?
In an average year, 60 percent of our business is group and convention. We absolutely need that kind of base to be successful. We get some business (travelers), people visiting Ceridian, Progress Energy, Raytheon, Home Shopping Network — that's probably 20 percent.
The rest are leisure and events, like the St. Anthony's Triathlon, Taste of Pinellas and baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals are here for Fourth of July and we have 100 to 150 room nights we think are connected to that.
Speaking of baseball, you obviously have a big stake in where a new stadium for the Rays might be built, especially since the visiting teams stay here. How far away from downtown St. Petersburg is too far for you?
The closer the better. In Tampa, there's too much competition. It would be absolutely devastating to us. Toytown and Carillon would give us a good shot at fans and some teams. And I totally agree we need a new stadium. I hope the reality is you could get people in this area to fund it.
Will you get business from the Republican National Convention in Tampa next year?
Three or four weeks ago, the (Republican National) committee members were saying if (Pinellas hotels) had signed a deal to commit 80 percent of their inventory, they were going back and wanted 90 percent. They didn't think they had enough.
How much competition do you get from the beach hotels?
If the beaches get hungry, we can starve. They lower their rates, and that affects everyone. Leisure travelers come here because the product on the beach doesn't meet their expectations, they can't get in or they don't want to pay the price. In season, comparable beach properties — Sandpearl and the Don CeSar — get $50 to $60 more per night.
Do you ever run a shuttle to the beaches?
We tried two years in a row and it (carried) two to five people each weekend. If you're coming here you probably have a car, and there's good access to the beaches.
Your lobby renovation starts next month and should be finished at the end of September. What happened to plans to build a larger spa?
With current economics, the logical thing to do is expand our current day spa to between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet. We would incorporate natural light from above and take advantage of un-utilized and under-utilized contiguous space.
Best-case scenario, we would start sometime later in 2012. But there are no promises. Our owners (FelCor Lodging Trust) need to study the market recovery before making this kind of investment.
Contact Steve Huettel at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.