CHESTER, PA—If anyone’s idea of the Jersey Shore has been gleaned from reality TV, Eustace Mita and Josh McCallen want to set you straight.
The duo, chairman/CEO and president/COO, respectively, of Icona Resorts, tout their three properties in that market at 180 degrees from the wild goings-on depicted in the area’s now defunct eponymous television series.
Industry veterans for some 15 years, the pair founded Icona in 2013 and now have owned and managed hotels in Avalon, Lower Township (Diamond Beach) and Cape May, NJ.
“We see this model as ‘life-giving.’ We want people who work with us and people who visit us to know their own dignity. This is really a heartfelt version of hospitality and exactly what today’s person needs,” said McCallen in characterizing the ethos of the company.
“We wanted our name to be our mission,” said Mita, noting Icona is a combination of icon, which he cited as a sacred place, person or thing—and the “a” from aloha, which he said encompasses warmth, welcome and love.
“So, we said we wanted our hotels to be sacred places that bring peace to our guests so they could have a heavenly experience and feel the warmth, welcome and love of all of our people,” said Mita. “That’s how Icona was born.”
While McCallen began his hospitality career a quarter-century ago overseeing a landmark hotel in Austria, Mita wasn’t always a hotelier. He served as president/CEO of HAC Group LLC, which provided CRM and web services to automotive manufacturers and retailers before Reynolds and Reynolds, a provider of automotive dealership solutions, acquired it in 2000.
Mita has been active in real estate development for some time. (Both he and McCallen also are principals in Achristavest LLC, an integrated company with strategic partners that concentrates on residential waterfront and hotel development.)
Mita acknowledged his role as a real estate developer via his Mita Management LLP often found him tearing down existing hotels (e.g., Grand Hotel in Diamond Beach, which started as a Holiday Inn in the 1970s, and that Achristavest acquired in 2003), replacing them with condos, until an epiphany of sorts occurred four years ago.
“In 2013, we decided we love hospitality, so instead of knocking them down, we stopped our condominium development to focus on the hotel business,” said Mita. Since then, Icona Resorts has been bringing new life to properties. In its first year, it opened Icona Diamond Beach, a 108-key reinvention of the independent Pier 6600 Motor Inn that Mita purchased for $10 million. TripAdvisor ranked it at that time as number 178 out of 200 area hotels, according to the CEO.
Determined to apply solid business principles to aid the property, Mita hired a management company to handle Diamond Beach. But after a year, the Wildwood Crest property only advanced 10 slots to 168.
“So I said to Josh, ‘Let’s start our own management company [they also took over F&B operations that had been outsourced]. Thus, in 2013, Icona Management was born,” said Mita.
The hotel is now ranked number one in the area, according to TripAdvisor and ranked number seven on the list of top American hotels in TripAdvisor’s 2017 Travelers’ Choice Awards. U.S. News and World Report ranks it as number one in Best New Jersey hotels.
After its Diamond Beach buy, Icona Resorts purchased the Golden Inn in Avalon—15 years after Mita first saw it—for $25 million (plus $18 million for rebuild) and The Palace Hotel in Cape May for $5 million (plus $5 million for revamp), converting them and flagging them as the 156-key Icona Golden Inn and the 56-key Icona Cape May.
Both also are now ranked number one in their respective areas by TripAdvisor, having been ranked seventh of seven and 34 of 39, respectively, at time of purchase by Icona.
“What’s more telling is all three of our hotels are rated in the Top 10 in the State of New Jersey out of 1,008 hotels,” said Mita. “So you know it’s not a fluke.” All three hotels are positioned as luxury properties and are open year-round.
The CEO noted three critical elements are the driving forces behind what makes the Icona team tick and the properties thrive.
“You have to have a passion for people—if you don’t you’re in the wrong business. Number two: You have to have a heart for hospitality because hospitality by its nature is to serve, not to be served; and for us, hospitality is a ministry, a vocation like a policeman, a doctor. And we train all this with our people, whether you’re the dishwasher or the general manager,” said Mita.
Launching a new hotel company, a management arm and opening three successful properties in four years would be considered an accomplishment overall by industry standards and Mita is eager to see such success replicated up and down the East Coast, although not necessarily via ownership.
Icona is starting a timeshare division using Diamond Beach as the launchpad with a team already in place. “Next year, we hope to develop villas and houses where people can receive our same level of service on contiguous land around our beautiful hotels,” said McCallen. The COO said another major target is “developers with multipurpose projects who need a wonderful hotel part—that’s been one of our newest, fastest-growing sections.”
Also on the front burner is managing for others. “Good bones, a supreme location and being a place of peace” are what Mita said he needs, noting Icona can also design, develop and build.
“We want to third-party manage…that’s where our best prospects for growth are. We also think that’s the best prospect for developers who can point to us and say: ‘How did they do it?’ We can point to our achievements and say, ‘We can do this for you.’ But we would like them to take on the Icona brand name. We’re not just building a management company, we’re building a brand,” said Mita. “Our goal is to get to 100 hotels under third-party management with the Icona brand, with the majority of them being on the water.”
“We’re trying to build this the old-fashioned way,” said McCallen. “The right way. People first. Quality product. Quality service.” HB