Jacqueline Volkart leading Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove as it expands its guest list; targets business, leisure travelers
Jacqueline Volkart, a more than 15-year veteran of hospitality management, has the distinction of being the lone female general manager among Miami's luxury hotels. As general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, one of only two boutique hotels within the Ritz-Carlton company, she oversees a staff of 180.
Ms. Volkart has traveled the world — sharing with others her vision for personalized service and passion for caring about community. Born in Switzerland, which she calls a "hospitality country," Ms. Volkart has had the opportunity to work in many hospitality markets but says she "loves Miami." In the 10 months since returning to Miami from Puerto Rico, after an earlier stint at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, she has overseen renovation of the hotel's 115 rooms and suites.
She not only attends to the hotel's guests but also caters to its 220 condo residents.
Ms. Volkart is steering the hotel toward green certification and heading efforts to implement energy-saving changes. Amidst a weak economy and dropping tourism numbers, Ms. Volkart says the Ritz-Carlton is encouraging more business and leisure travelers as well as locals to visit, with attractive guest packages and lunch and brunch specials.
Ms. Volkart shared her hospitality experiences and industry insights with Miami Today staff writer Risa Polansky at the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove.
Q: What has been your career path?
A: Switzerland is a hospitality country; we have many hospitality schools. I was very fortunate to study at the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, which is a very famous hotel management school.
Growing up, truly, everybody was a guest in our home. Everybody came by. We always had events at my house, small events, large events. People from all around the world were always coming and visiting. Therefore, I said, "I want to go and explore the world also." So I had many opportunities to live in different places all over the world, with different cultures, different languages.
I think hospitality is the right choice for me. I think hospitality — the way I grew up — teaches you so many things, from service to culinary management, how to organize and execute, and how to be the role model for everybody.
Q: What brought you to Miami?
A: Detours; many different detours. It's my second term around [in Miami]. After hotel management school, my first actual job in hospitality was in New York at the Drake Swiss Hotel. In New York, it was very cold in the middle of February so I needed a vacation. I went to Cancun, Mexico. I went back to visit a friend and they offered me a job, so I moved to Cancun. I was there at the Hyatt, at the Marriott, almost 16 years ago.
I opened up the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. I was there a long time; I loved it. I loved the culture, the food. I met my husband there and from there we moved to the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne.
From there I went to the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park in New York, then back to nice warm weather at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then 10 months ago, I came back to Miami.
Q: How does the Miami market compare to some of the others you've worked in?
A: I truly believe this is a melting pot of everybody from around the world. It's so beautiful, so many cultures. We try to cater to everybody, make sure everybody's happy and that they come back. I want my ladies and gentlemen to engage with everybody, so we can gain many customers and keep customers.
Q: Who are your customers here at the Coconut Grove location?
A: During the week, it's business customers as well as meetings and conventions. On the weekend, we're a beautiful spot for international travel. Coconut Grove is such a beautiful part of town, with all the restaurants, galleries.
Within walking distance, you're in the heart of Coconut Grove. We have a spa at the hotel, the Boutique Spa, with six treatment rooms, for someone who needs a getaway to relax. Indoors, it's really beautiful, overlooking the balcony and the courtyards. We have a beautiful Sunday brunch.
Q: Within the Miami market, how is Coconut Grove different from Key Biscayne and other submarkets?
A: We're very fortunate in Miami that we have the conference centers, the two what we call the Big Sisters, and the beach, and there are more resorts. Coconut Grove is more like the boutique, a hidden property, for people to get away, people who like to go to town, to try the new restaurants, to go shopping.
We have a lot of guests — many from Latin America — who come for the shopping. They come to live the Miami life. We even have guests who come from the areas around Miami, just to get away for a weekend.
Q: How is the competition, with a lot of hotels and the Fontainebleau Miami Beach reopening?
A: It's a whole new setting this year, as everybody knows, and everybody has to really treasure every single guest, and make sure every single guest is happy.
Q: What is the Ritz-Carlton philosophy?
A: We have our own credo cards and our own standards. One is that we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. It's truly a big piece of our philosophy and I strongly support it. We give every guest a warm welcome, using their name, offer hospitality in compliance with their needs, and a fond farewell using their last name.
Q: What type of marketing do you use to attract customers?
A: It is to be in the marketplace and be in business, and to be in contact in all the different markets. And we're trying to do new things.
Q: What new things have you done in the 10 months you've been here?
A: Coconut Grove is the arts center of Miami, lots of galleries. We have gorgeous sculpture on the property; we just put them in yesterday.
We like to give young artists a chance to show their pieces. So every three months we change the sculpture, to really be part of the community and help young artists get started.
Last fall, we renovated all the guest rooms. We have 115 guest rooms. We also have 220 residences; that's why the property looks so big. It's a whole complex. We renovated all the guest rooms, the suites, the hallways. That was a long renovation. It's gorgeous; beautiful rooms, very nice colors, stunning.
In the community, we also build community touch-points. The one we work most closely with in Coconut Grove is Shake-a-Leg. We work with them in community work as well as Good Hope Equestrian Training Center.
We also work with the Children's Home Society of Florida. We did a beautiful teddy bear tree for the Children's Home Society. We had more than 100 teddy bears that we sold to our guests and residents, and with the money we got together, we brought the money and the teddy bears to the Children's Home Society. It was beautiful; it was beautifully done.
Last year we also applied for and received certification — for the first time — for the Florida's Green Lodging Designation Program, to be a green hotel. I think it's very important to be green, and it attracts new guests, because they like to go to green hotels. We got the certification in December and we're very proud. We have the Green Team working every day to make sure we can add more elements.
Q: What type of elements makes the hotel green?
A: A lot of recycling and a lot of engineering, from the light bulbs to the air conditioning filters. There are a lot of things.
Q: Has it paid off?
Q: Have you had to come up with new strategies to adapt to today's economic conditions?
A: Finding revenue is always first — finding new revenues, new events, things we can do to capture some more guests. If you come to brunch twice, it's $52. For luncheons, for 2009, we do the lunch for $20.09. We have three-course luncheons — very attractive — for $30.09, for the whole year, to bring some customers, to be out in the marketplace, to find new guests and new revenues.
For 2010, I don't know. It's a very defined top line and you have to watch your expenses.
Q: What strategies have you used to lower expenses?
A: We watch the hours; we close the restaurants two nights a week. We close the laundry. These are things that are part of the house that you can do. We try to do everything possible to cut back, that won't affect the guests.
Q: How is the hotel performing in these times?
A: So far this month [February] is not too bad and we all know that in Miami the average rate is going down; therefore, there's less revenue. But what I think everybody out there in the community has to do is to go out, to spend money.
In a hotel, so many ladies and gentlemen work; it's a big staff. If people go out and sleep in hotels, we'll have business. If people take meetings in hotels, we'll have business. You can keep everybody employed and keep the economy going. But we have to get people back to hotels to spend money.
Q: What have you done to encourage that?
A: We do have packages for business travel, nice packages, as well as for our meetings, that include things like breakfast, coffee break, or dinner. We have fantastic packages to attract people to meetings here. Everybody has to meet, in good or bad times.
Q: What bright spots do you see for the hospitality industry?
A: People still get married. There are still anniversaries; there are still birthdays. Social events still take place. We do a beautiful job in culturally authentic weddings. Miami is such a melting pot; people come from all different places from around the world.
We can cook food from each family's side and use all their traditions to create an authentic ceremony.
We have a little herb garden outside because we think everyone loves their home cooking and wants to try new things. They see cooking shows. Being able to cut your own beautiful herbs from your own garden makes the food even more tasty and it makes the hotel smell even more delicious.
Q: Are there needs in Coconut Grove that should be addressed in order to benefit businesses?
A: The Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce has done a fantastic job to re-enliven the whole area. There's still a lot of work to do. Everyone has done a fantastic job to get the community to work together as a team, to fill the empty spots. The more restaurants that are open, the more boutiques, the more galleries, more people will come to Coconut Grove.
Q: Is the Ritz-Carlton part of the new business improvement district in Coconut Grove?
A: We're not in the boundary, but I know it's very important to keep the whole city in good shape, safe and clean. I've been very involved with the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, a fantastic event. We do the kickoff breakfast here to start the whole thing, and then we do the closing night when the winners are announced.
Q: Are there other events the hotel is hosting?
A: We try to bring the fun events, cooking events.
Q: Is this a place where people can come for a meal?
A: Anybody can come and eat here. The restaurant is open and it should be the home for everybody. We'd like it to be a neighborhood spot. Valet parking is complimentary if you eat here. I think many guests don't know that. If you come to brunch, if you come for breakfast, we will validate your parking.
Q: How do you distinguish yourself from other hotels in Coconut Grove?
A: I think we are fortunate in that, for such a small town, we have a lot of hotels. We all work together; all the general managers are very close. We meet once a month. We are a very, very close network.
Q: What are you able to do collaboratively?
A: One thing we were able to do last year is the Coconut Grove brochure which everybody can use. Everybody had a different insert. It was a nice piece that each hotel could not afford to do on its own. Together with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, we could do it. It really looks great.
We totally help each other out. If somebody has a position open, we know which talent is out there.
Q: How do you find talent for this hotel? Is Miami a good place to draw employees from?
A: I think in this new economy it's a fantastic place to draw from. Miami has so many talents for me, hospitality professionals. I think the talent has improved tremendously over the past years; there's a lot of talent here. It's just a matter of picking and choosing.
The Ritz-Carlton has a beautiful selection process. We go through different interviews to really choose the finest of the finest.
Q: You are the only female general manager in Miami's luxury hotel market?
A: In the luxury market, yes. We are a five-diamond hotel. But hospitality is about whoever likes to be in the hospitality business.
Q: There is a controversy about tourism funds being used to build a baseball stadium? Does the hospitality industry have that issue on the radar?
A: Not in the meetings I've gone to. Of course, any dollar is well spent in hospitality education as well as advertising. But the baseball stadium brings guests to Miami. Any sports facility will. On Key Biscayne, it's the tennis facility. It brings people. We're going to have the Super Bowl again next year.
Q: Has your guest demographic changed with the economy?
A: It hasn't changed that much, it's just a little bit less of everything. That's why I strongly believe we need to encourage companies to go out and not be afraid to hold meetings.
Meetings create jobs and jobs create revenue and then the economy starts coming back. We need to hold meetings and events again. You need to be able to recognize your top people. Every company should do that.
Q: What are some of your goals in the next few years?
A: To find some new businesses, to find some new venues. I think there's still a lot of business in Latin America, so we will delve into that market.
Q: How do you do that?
A: A lot of connections and sales efforts into those countries.
Q: What are the busier and slower times here at the hotel?
A: Pretty much the season is December to April. I think Miami has done a fantastic job to keep year-round clientele, especially in July and August. You can still find beautiful weather, even in the summer. It's an easy spot for everybody to come to, especially the meeting community.
Even in Coconut Grove, we're only 10 minutes from the airport. You can spend the night before you go on a cruise, because we're 10 minutes from the port. So we try to gain some cruise-ship business.
Q: Has that been a successful element of your business?
A: So far it has not been, but we are trying it.
Q: Are the residences also part of your responsibility as general manager?
A: Yes, it's the whole complex. I have a fantastic residence team and we have wonderful residents. The owners who live here enjoy our restaurants, our lobby bar.
Q: How is the occupancy in the residential section?
A: The units are all occupied. We have a lot of residents who live here year-round. It's not just a vacation spot; they live here. Many, many owners live here full time.
Q: In addition to the hotel's involvement, are you yourself involved in the community?
A: I'm part of the chamber of commerce and two business councils. I go to the meetings sometimes of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. You hear what's happening.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: I love tennis. I love to play tennis and I love a lot of sports. Being a European, I love soccer and football, and skiing in the winter months. Being here, I miss that.
Q: How long was it between the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton and the Coconut Grove Ritz-Carlton?
A: A little longer than four years.
Q: How did the community change during the time you were away from Miami?
A: The skyline changed and it's still changing every day. I was very impressed. When I came back, I could not believe how much construction had taken place. It's unbelievable, especially at night. I've never seen a city with so many cranes.
The skyline — when you drive from Key Biscayne and back, or from South Beach — it's a beautiful skyline. Miami is magic. It's such a clean city, and it has so much to offer. Brickell is a wonderful area, very clean and green. Our location is perfect here. It's 10 minutes to the airport or the seaport, 20 minutes to South Beach.
Q: Has the building boom affected the hotel?
A: Some travelers who used to be hotel guests, obviously bought condominiums, so that has had an impact. Sometimes guests like it so much here that they buy something. Some companies have done that, too. We are a business hotel, truly. And on the weekends, it's more the leisure guest.
This is an excerpt from the weekly profile article published in Miami Today. To read the entire article in full, order this issue or subscribe to the print edition of Miami Today.