BOSTON—The Green Monster. The T. Paul Revere and the Old North Church. There are a lot of things that are a part of Beantown’s long and storied history—including The Lenox hotel, the 117-year-old flagship property in Saunders Hotel Group’s portfolio.
Certainly, it’s not the only Boston property under the company’s operation. Other hotels in the portfolio include Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro; Boston Common Hotel & Conference Center; and the Comfort Inn & Suites Boston Logan International Airport. And Daniel Donahue, the company’s recently named president—he most recently served as VP and general manager of The Lenox—noted that it’s those roots that make Saunders so well equipped to care for the city’s hotels.
“Our roots are deep in Boston,” he said, noting that Saunders Hotel Group is a fourth-generation family-owned business. In his opinion, it’s that word—family—that gives the company an edge. “I’ve worked for big management groups, brands, corporate-driven hotels,” he said. “Making that leap from that corporate environment into a family environment, I knew I wanted something with a little bit more control of the day-to-day, knowing our choices could be made in real time; a choice wasn’t dictated from some boardroom thousands of miles away. It’s decided day in and day out, shoulder-to-shoulder, with an owner right next to you.
That agility is key in operating in the hotel space, he noted. “Everything these days is in real time. You do something great for a guest, people know about it through social media. You fall short, they know that too. These days, your report card is every day, hour by hour,” Donahue said.
“Our culture is centered around an environment that creates a desire for guests to return and an environment that creates a desire for employees to want to come to work,” Donahue continued. “The two are not independent of each other; they’re very much symbiotic, and there’s a need for a balance of both.”
Culture is something that is paramount for Donahue. “As I transition out of the day-to-day operations and have a little bit more of an oversight [role], culture is the number one thing I safeguard the most,” he said, pointing to two mantras that have served as guiding principles in his career. “I’ve never sold a cheeseburger from the office. Being in an office doesn’t really promote hospitality. While you need to do office work, you need to think very strategically to do that. The second one is that the guest experience will never be exceeded by the employee experience,” he said. “How our employees feel about coming to work and being at work is paramount to how the guest will feel.
Guests, said Donahue, want a few basic things—a comfortable bed, a good shower, WiFi. “But, especially in the last 10 years, people want service, they want to be looked after. We’re very fortunate in Boston that the average rates are maintaining and growing,” he said. “That’s an obligation to deliver a product that meets that rate and an experience that meets that. The challenge is, at the end of the day, what’s our job? To run a business and run it successfully. To do that, you need to create an environment for the guest to want to return. How you do that can’t be mandated from boardrooms a thousand miles away. I don’t think that’s realistic. You need to curate an experience that will not only create the desire for the guest to return, but for them to want to talk or write about it. We’re 117 years old—we’re not the newest and shiniest, that is true, but we do offer genuine service that people who work here care and want you to come back.”
While the company and its hotels have a long history, it’s still looking to the future. “We’re developing a property on the North Shore at the gateway of Essex County. It’s 150 rooms, about 300 apartments and—this word is overused, but I’m going to use it—it’s a lifestyle place where there’s apartments, the hotel, an indoor/outdoor pool for the hotel,” said Donahue, noting that the hotel will be 90 ft. above street level, offering panoramic views of Boston and the Atlantic Ocean. “It’ll have a few restaurants, a bank, a bakery and Kane’s Donuts, a family owned place here in Boston.” Saunders Hotel Group will manage the Essex Landing Hotel, which already broke ground, when it’s complete.
“Then we’re working on a project in Brighton with New Balance,” Donahue continued. “We’re building a hotel with them over the next year or so. We have a lot on the horizon. We have a very good directive. In Brighton, we anticipate over the next six-12 months to put a shovel in the ground, we hope.”
The company is also looking at how it can improve operations in its existing hotels. “I’ve been in the business long enough that if you walk into a place, you know what kind of experience you’re going to get. That, to me, is ultimate. The sense of arrival is the most important thing to give to a guest,” Donahue said. “As we look at what’s next, we have a huge amount of return guests. They’re already greeted two or three times before they even get to the front desk; how can we get them not to have to go to the front desk? They’re going to be looked after; let’s clear them from the front desk, get them a tool where they can go to the room [directly]. Then, if you do that, if you take that interaction away from the front desk, what can we do better with the guests who are with us for the first or second time who we aren’t so familiar with? What more can we do to wow them to come back? We have to change that front-desk barrier. We’re really going to look at that.”
But regardless of the technology the company chooses to implement, Donahue stressed that “this business is people taking care of people.
“I used to worry about sharing with people why we’re successful. I don’t anymore because it doesn’t take a lot of work, but it takes an extreme amount of dedication from a team that’s committed,” he continued. “Our strength is in our agility. We have a good team that’s energetic, young. I’ve been very lucky to have most of my management team with me for the 10 years I’ve been here. It’s exciting to grow together and create some new experiences. Culture is only as good as the people who run it.” HB