General manager Allen Highfield talks quite coolly about opening the Montage Healdsburg resort during the coronavirus outbreak. But it’s all been an exercise in taking it by the week, the day, the hour. There’s no way that premiering a luxury, five-star property during a global pandemic would go off without a hitch.
“We were scheduled to open on Dec. 12, which was the day California went into the [most recent] shelter in place,” Highfield says of the eventful kickoff. “We had practiced service for 30 days, trained our staff, and unfortunately the first day we were supposed to open the hotel, we had to furlough based on the rules and regulations of California.”
While hospitality properties from restaurants to resorts strategized to reopen as COVID-related restrictions eased across the country, Highfield and his team were mobilizing to swing the doors open for the first time. The 130-room property, which is set on 258 acres in the wine country of Sonoma County near the famed Russian River Valley, initially slated the opening for November 2020. Of course, COVID-19 pushed that back, first to December, then eventually to Jan. 28. By the last week in January, Highfield and the rehired staff were more than ready to see guests arrive.
And guests did. The phones were “ringing off the hook,” he says, for rooms that go for $1,000 per night.
Highfield first came to the property in October 2019, when walking around what would be the general spaces for the hotel, like the lobby and restaurants, required a hard hat. He was excited. He had opened two hotels before and had spent the past five years at Montage Deer Valley, one of the brand’s most highly awarded properties. As employee No. 1, he got to work on programming and staffing.
On March 20, everything halted when California Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a shelter-in-place order for the entire state as the coronavirus outbreak first hit the U.S. Construction stopped. Highfield joined meetings via Zoom. Five weeks later, when construction resumed, protocols made normal building procedures more difficult. Social distancing, temperature checks, and masks became routine. But unexpected delays occurred if one crew member suspected infection; everyone would have to quarantine for days and test. Surprisingly, though, they managed to make up the lost time and only pushed back the opening date by about three weeks, from mid-November to December.
Where the real challenge would lie is in the staffing. Highfield’s role includes the hiring of hundreds of employees, from his head of food and beverage to the personal trainers for the fitness studio. He aimed strategically, he says; he didn’t want to onboard team members only to lay them off, since it was clear that the coronavirus would not be going away. But he also needed to ensure that every guest still received the “high-touch” Montage experience. That meant housekeeping and chefs, receptionists and managers would be mandatory, but he could hold needs for amenities with restricted access owing to pandemic protocols, such as the spa therapists and banquet servers. He would ultimately launch with only 40% of his pre-pandemic intended hires.
“You have to understand your forecast, so you can employ people in a way that they can get full-time hours, pay their bills, and feed their families,” Highfield says. “You need to make sure that everyone feels that they are being respected. That is super important.”
Beyond the hiring strategy, Highfield also hit another unexpected challenge while curating his team: the sheer number of candidates. Since the pandemic ravaged the hospitality and events industries, he received an “unheard of” response for open positions. At one point, he had more than 800 applicants for three jobs.
Though it was emotionally difficult to listen to the experiences of some of the candidates, he says he did find an applicant pool skill set like never before. For example, his food and beverage director, Raphaël Piveteau, worked at a well-known New York City hotel that closed temporarily in 2020. Before the pandemic, he likely didn’t think about moving his family across the country to pastoral Sonoma County. But he now lives in Healdsburg. Doug Kaminski, the director of sales and marketing, left a 20-year career with Four Seasons to relocate from Chicago to Sonoma, where he has vacationed for nearly two decades. A handful of top restaurant staff fled San Francisco for a more socially distanced existence in the country. “People like them wouldn’t have thought about Northern California before,” Highfield adds.
Roster filled, Highfield looked forward to the Dec. 12 opening, but not without another curveball. Two days before the hotel would debut, Sonoma Country issued a mandatory shelter-in-place as coronavirus numbers increased in the state. It would remain in effect until early January. Highfield had to do what he least wanted to do: furlough staff, from the restaurant to the management team. To keep them engaged, he hosted weekly family meals where they could touch base with each other and pick up a hot meal.
When the orders lifted, Highfield saw the booking numbers explode. Clearly, he thought, there is a pent-up demand to get away from home. Much of the initial traffic came from the Bay Area, just a 90-minute drive away, and it was largely due to word-of-mouth advertising and social media postings. He reoffered positions to the furloughed staff and went through service practice again for a Jan. 28 opening. Finally, the doors would open.
He is now preparing to hire nearly 100 additional staff; room bookings have steadily increased for the past six weeks, at a higher rate than even the team had predicted. The outdoor dining area of the restaurant is nearly always full. He’s spoken with families taking their first vacation with a newborn and the over-65 set proudly wearing “I’m vaccinated” badges in the lobby. He’s looking forward to hosting a small corporate event at the end of April—a sign conferences and retreats may be coming back—and the property has booked weddings into 2022. (Kaminski adds that these sales have been promising given that they have done no real advertising for weddings. “We don’t have wedding images yet!” he says of putting together a traditional promotion.)
Part of the allure of the Montage Healdsburg is that it’s naturally socially distanced. Rooms are set in pods of two or three bungalows across the property, and many of the on-site activities are outdoors. Guests can borrow bicycles to ride to the town of Healdsburg; engage in an archery competition; hike in the nearby hills; go horseback riding with their children; or simply sit alfresco with a glass of wine. Even the events business makes use of the great weather: The property has 16,200 square feet of outdoor space for weddings and social gatherings.
They follow strict COVID protocols, like mandatory mask rules, and offer to meet guests at their comfort level. Prior to arrival, the staff personally calls each guest to gauge what level of human interaction they want, whether that’s daily housekeeping or a completely contactless check-in where they skip the lobby altogether. Plus, guests have free access to One Medical during and after their stay.
“We have the advantage of the way the resort was built; the buildings are separated, not stacked in one big building,” Highfield says. “That makes guests feel comfortable. It means the employees feel comfortable. And that has helped us as we start to come out of some of these restrictions and build our business.”
With so many options to entertain their guests outdoors, Highfield feels confident in the success of the Montage Healdsburg. “People feel much more comfortable in travel,” he adds. “We are in a great position.”
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