How Solara Hospitality is the elevating its customer service game

For Clancy Cipkala and Andy Briggs, the formula is pretty straight forward: Create a hospitality atmosphere of light and warmth and take care of the associates who are on the front lines of delivering your brand’s mission to the people. Cipkala, Senior Managing Partner, President and CEO; and Briggs, CHA, Senior VP and Managing Partner, have established a formula that continues to manage award-winning properties defined by a team known for their expertise, compassion and commitment to excellence.

By continually setting itself apart by providing delightful and memorable guests experiences, Solara has become a go-to source for hospitality management, overseeing Marriott-branded properties, including Residence Inns, TownePlace Suites and Courtyard hotels in South Carolina. Under the leadership of Cipkala, Solara has developed more than 30 hotels in the Southeast United States, pulling in numerous brand and state awards, including the “2017 South Carolina Hotelier of the Year” and “Hotel of the Year” within the Marriott and Choice brands.

The Solara brand is a testament to the management duo. Cipkala began his career with Ryan Homes as a sales manager and then spent the next five years at Ford Motor Company as a Zone Manager and Product Marketing Manager. He was VP of Sales and Marketing for a hotel management company that handled 25 hotels in the Southeast, as well as a full-service, in-house advertising agency.

His counterpart, Briggs, started his 26-year career in hospitality as a banquet waiter at the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center in Boone, North Carolina. Certified by American Hotel & Lodging Association as a Certified Hotel Administrator in 2006, 2011 and 2016, he has consistently served on boards as a director or an officer on the local and state level for tourism and lodging. For 15 years, Briggs has served as GM at several award-winning properties within Hampton Inn by Hilton (3 consecutive Lighthouse awards), Courtyard by Marriott (Diamond, Platinum, and Gold) and Residence Inn by Marriott (Platinum) before becoming a General Partner.

Commercial Construction & Renovation sat down with them to get their take on today’s unique hospitality landscape and what the future holds moving forward for the Solara and the industry at large.

Give us a snapshot of Solara Hospitality.
We are small in size but large at heart. We are completely motivated by treating our staff with the utmost respect and sincerity. I feel this separates us; we want them part of our team as much as they want to play for us. We have two riding philosophies:

“We believe in being the light and warmth of hospitality while taking care of our associates; that sets ourselves apart and gives our guests a delightful experience at our hotels.”

“Helping people love and remember their experience.”

What kind of consumers are we targeting?
All of our guests want to be treated with true genuine hospitality. We cater to both the long- and short-term business travelers. Our suites offer separate spaces to sleep, work and lounge, and allow our guests to pursue both their personal and professional passions while on the road.

How does the overall design of your place cater to consumers?
They are looking for functionality, which means making it as easy as possible to travel when they are out of town.

As for design, it really depends on the market that we are in. For some of our projects, we have built extended stay hotels that have full kitchenettes and more space for the longer-term guests. For some of our projects, we have amenities for someone staying one or two nights like a full bar or a full restaurant.

On the upgrade side, we continue to upgrade our high-speed internet to cater to guest needs. All of our hotels are going to keyless entry. And with COVID-19 concerns, our housekeeping and food and beverage standards have changed to accommodate guests.

What kind of adjustments have you made to cater to customers?
Keep our staffing levels at a point where there is as minimum impact on quality and service, if any.

What kind of conversations are you having with your employees?
Just letting them know and reassuring the staff that things will get better, which they will. Stay optimistic. We talk to our associates every day though our daily huddles and daily stand ups.

What is your short-term strategy?
Do the best job we can in taking care of our guests. Same with long-term.

What is the best piece of advice you can offer others in regards to what is happening right now?
Take care of your staff and work harder than you ever have in your life. We will get through this.

Hotels have not changed much. They have to be value conscious, ease of travel, all the internet and Wi-Fi capabilities. That’s what today’s consumers are looking for.

Is there a location that really shows how the brand interacts with the community and customers?
The Residence Inn in Lexington, South Carolina, across from Lexington Medical Center because we see to the needs of the people of the hospital.

Walk us through how and why your locations are designed the way they are.
They are designed in order to maximize the size of the land, the size of the room and to be as visible as possible to the guests.

Give us a rundown of your market’s layout.
50% leisure and 50% corporate.

What is the biggest issue today relating to the construction side of the business?
Construction prices continue to go up both in materials and labor. With the situation of COVID-19 and the uncertainty from both banks and the brands on building, those prices could come down.

Talk about your overall construction and design strategy.
With the sites that we pick, we typically go with a prototypical design from the brand that we are going to go with. That being said, we always put added features to enhance the guest experience. A great example of this is putting a larger pool area in North Charleston, South Carolina for guests to enjoy during their stay after they have enjoyed the historic sites of Charleston throughout the day.

Talk about sustainability.
We continuously upgrade our properties, as we are seeing what guests are expecting—things like Wi-Fi and keyless entry. But we also make sure to do complete renovations on our hotels every seven years to stay current and fresh.

What trends are you seeing/expecting?
If you would have asked me this a few months ago, I would have spoken about enhanced Wi-Fi and efforts to “go green” or some enhancement in the room. But after COVID-19, everything is not just focused on cleanliness, but on how our hotels are making sure we have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic appropriately.

We also see more hotels closing, but we are confident that the economy will be better soon so they can reopen. As developers, we have to be mindful of potential niche brands coming into the market.

We are optimistic for 2021 and for corporate travel to start again, and sustain 2019 levels by 2023.

What type of opportunities do you see moving ahead?
Being able to offer an experience where people love and remember the experience they had is important.

We are continuously looking for land in areas that don’t seem opportunistic. Clancy has an eye for a raw piece of land and sees the potential in what is going to happen in the area and then I research it. So far he has always been right.

In the near future, our goal is to keep as many hotels open and operating efficiently as possible.

What type of optimism is out there?
Currently, with how the economy is, we are looking at more regional type of tourism to happen. We are optimistic for 2021 and for corporate travel to start again, and sustain 2019 levels by 2023.

What is the secret to creating a must visit location in today’s competitive environment?
Hotels have not changed much. They have to be value conscious, and demonstrate or show ease of travel with things like internet and Wi-Fi capabilities.

What are today’s guests looking for?
The guest is looking for a memorable experience, whether it is us remembering their birthday, ensuring that their breakfast was to the temperature they liked or that our associates are wearing masks because of COVID-19. They want an experience that leaves them satisfied. We want the experience to be so memorable that they only think of us when their travel plans involve where our hotels are.

Describe a typical day.
As active owners and operators, we are at our properties on a daily basis. I could be at one property going over P&Ls with our GMs, and later that afternoon at the construction site inspecting trusses or going over plumbing fixtures for our property.

What is the biggest item on your to-do list?
Staying open and finding business. Finding travelers. And as we are currently building a hotel, making sure construction continues to go smoothly. For our open and operating properties, it is about continuing to bring in guests.

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One on one with…
Clancy Cipkala & Andy Briggs, Solara Hospitality

What was the best advice you every received?
Good things happen to people that work the hardest (Clancy).

Mine actually came from Clancy. He told me to move to Columbia, and let’s develop a hotel company that takes care of our associates and takes care of our guests.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Watching associates grow with our company as we have continued to build hotels and grow our portfolio. These are the same associates that have been with us from when we started many years ago.

What’s the best thing a client ever said to you?
You have the best staff of any hotel I have ever been to.

What are the three traits every leader should have?
The ability to listen to other people. You do not know everything. You have to go with your gut; typically it is correct. And trust your partners. That’s why you have them.

What do you do for downtime?
Watching sports.

What is the true key to success for any manager?
That goes back to our mission statement. We want them, whether it is associates or guests, to love and remember their experience with us.

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Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at mikep@ccr-mag.com.

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