Street Talk A Delicate Fix

The Mansion on Turtle Creek is one of the world’s great hotels. The problem? Its profit margin. The solution? Watch the pennies.

JIM BROWN HAD NEVER GOTTEN HATE MAIL BEFORE. BUT ABOUT a year into his new job-as president and chief operating officer of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts–the kind of correspondence normally associated with the end of a personal relationship began showing up on his desk, each one a jumble of anger, hurt, and confusion. They had a simple question: Why?

Rosewood, the parent company of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, had merged with Maritz Wolff & Co., a real estate investment firm specializing in luxury hotels and resorts such as Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. The 50-50 joint venture meant Rosewood now had the capital to compete aggressively for management contracts on luxury properties around the world. But that’s not what longtime patrons of the Mansion bar were questioning in their notes to the company’s new chief.

They wanted to know why Jim Brown felt compelled to ruin the cocktail napkins.

Napkins-and matches, too-that once said “The Mansion on Turtle Creek” were now emblazoned with a corporate logo, “Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.” To patrons the new message seemed to say that the Mansion wasn’t special, that it was just another hotel in the ever-growing chain of Rosewood properties. Brown, a Canadian who spent almost 25 years at Four Seasons. working his way up to senior vice president of worldwide operations, knows all about the luxury end of the hotel market and the attention to detail required to keep the well-to-do content. Indeed, he says, “’The success of the Mansion isn’t any one thing; it’s three things: details, details, and details.” But even Brown was surprised by the passion his minor changes provoked. Nevertheless, he was undaunted. His mission is to transform The Mansion on Turtle Creek from a loss leader for Rosewood into a-pr?L_ mier profit producer. And once again, success in that mission boils down to details. Only this time the details can be counted in pennies. For all the Mansion’s popularity, for all the accolades awarded both the hotel and restaurant (Mobil Travel Guide’s prestigious five-star honor and AAA’s five-diamond, among them), the Mansion has never turned a sizeable profit. That has changed.

Now that Rosewood has made the transition from Dallas company to Dallas-based international company, perhaps only unsentimental outsiders could come in and cut costs at the company’s flagship. Not that the Mansion no longer maintains its legendary. near-fanatical attention to serving its clientele. But the hope was to make changes so small the clientele wouldn’t notice. “Nobody likes change,” says Brown, the Jerry Jones of the Rosewood operation: the outsider who came in to replace Atef Mankarios, the only chief executive officer Rosewood had ever known. “But the hospitality business is a living business. You have to change and adjust to what’s going on. If you don’t, you’re not going to remain successful.”

Within six months, the offending napkins were replaced with plain white linen napkins. But Brown insists he wasn’t responding to the hate mail. The evolution reflected yet another cost-cutting exercise. “We were going through these like crazy,” he says, picking up what is apparently a leftover Rosewood napkin.

Other changes were less noticeable. Or at least that’s what Mobil seemed to be saying when it recently awarded the Mansion its five-star honor (the fifth for the restaurant and the tenth for the hotel), The fastidious scouts from Mobil once again were pronouncing the Mansion as one of the best hotels in the world.

Just as importantly, the Mansion is posting more than just a marginal profit (Brown calls it “a substantial increase”) for the first time in its 21-year history.

“The last two years have been the most successful at the hotel, not only from a profitability point of view, but from a volume-of-customers point of view, their willingness to pay for the services they’re getting, and repeal turnover in the dining room,” says Brown. “All those indicators tell me we’re going in the right direction.”

As Jerry Jones himself used to say, nothing succeeds like success. The days of what amounted to crowd control have given way to an inclusiveness that makes it possible for anyone to experience the Mansion. The new regime has repositioned the hotel and restaurant to make the entire place more accessible, something the old guard was loath to do. Indeed, until Rosewood merged with Maritz. no one had really considered inclusiveness to be a viable business strategy for a five-star hotel and restaurant.

At the New Mansion, weekend packages regularly open the doors to a paying customer who isn’t exactly complaining about the fact that the price of a glass of wine has been reduced by 10 to 40 percent.

“I’ve always felt we needed to move on,” says Dean Fearing, virtually the sole survivor of the Old Mansion. “If I’m going to stay here and retire. I don’t want it to be, ’Here’s Dean. He’s been here 30 years serving that lobster taco. Nothing ever changes.’”

The affable chef, who has been with the Mansion since 1985-the year he introduced Southwest cuisine and, overnight, became “Dean Fearing”-has good reason to embrace the new regime. The Mansion’s new profitability has resulted in a $300,000 renovation of the kitchen and plans for a redesign in the dining room. To hear Fearing tell it, these are the best of times at the Mansion. He is refocusing the menu on the same Southwest staples that put the Mansion on the international culinary map. He is launching (by year’s end ) a line of signature food items, such as tortilla soup. And he is taking his act on the road with off-premises catering.

“We’ve been whipped a little bit,” he concedes. “When you’re the Mansion and you’ve had a couple of changes, it’s easy to think. ’Oh, the whole place is caving in’ because people want that, don’t they? They want something to happen; they want Troy Aikman to break an ankle. There’s this perception that the Mansion has just burned to the ground.”

The departure of former managing director Jeff Trigger, who left a year ago for the Driskill hotel in Austin (taking with him the guts of the Mansion operation), was Fearing’s opportunity to make some changes he believed were long overdue at the Mansion. Especially in the bar.

Before Trigger’s successor, Ray Jacobi, had the chance to show up for his first day of work, Fearing called him at home and quickly discovered he had a sympathizer, Jacobi. formerly Ian Schrager’s COO, is arguably the hippest managing director the Mansion has ever known. Before he was hired, he met with the Hunt family and assured them he could “carry the Rosewood flag” and that “the transition would be seamless.” But he was in complete agreement with Fearing that the Mansion bar needed to attract a younger crowd. To that end, they changed the music (from showtunes to country and pop). They are in negotiations with Lucchese about outfitting the wait staff in cowboy boots (They’ve ye! to convince the staff that a black tie-and-boots uniform is a good thing). And they lowered prices on the wine list.

“Why should the Mansion restaurant charge X dollars for a bottle of wine when our competitor can get it to the table for half the price?” says Jacobi. (Old Mansion answer: To keep out the Nobodies. New Mansion answer: To attract Everybody.) “You don’t want to gouge your customers. and we’ve been very sensitive to that.”

The Mansion was barely over the cocktail napkin controversy when it faced another (Fearing-induced) crisis in the bar. Patrons who had made their peace with the new linen napkins were confronted with yet another change. In the name of attracting a younger customer, Jacobi and Fearing replaced the Mansion’s signaturebarmix (roasted almonds. Brazil nuts, cashews, and sesame sticks) with roasted pecans, tortilla chips, and salsa.

But it wasn’t just the missing snack mix that had patrons upset (although Fearing says there were “definitely big rumblings” about that). It was the presentation. Specifically: three-tiered wrought-iron centerpieces that were custom-designed for the Mansion, but look to some like they came out of a Sears. Roebuck catalogue.

“We wanted to do something that would create more of a ’Wow!* when you come into the bar and lounge area,” says Jacobi. “Dean does the Southwestern Cajun pecans in the kitchen; we use his salsa and chips. So the minute you sit down-Boom!-that goes on the table. Now, that’s a huge upgrade from what we had before. That’s a Wow!”

“What we’re trying to say,” adds Fearing, “is there is a younger crowd that’s coming into the Mansion. So it can’t be that high-grade trail mix. That’s not what they want. And people staying in the hotel-there’s a sense of our region when they go into the bar with these killer pecans, the greatest charred-tomato salsa. That’s different for the Mansion, yes. But that’s also what needs to be done to carry on into the future.”

When Fearing and Jacobi are told that Jim Brown doesn’t like the chips and salsa and roasted pecans, they fall silent.

Well, Fearing says, responding to the matter specifically, although he could be speaking of the Mansion-the New Mansion-in general: “Not everyone’s going to like it.”

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