Affirmation | Holiday 2015 Rambling

A rambling by Dennis Quaintance, CEO & CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer) | Holiday 2015

Four years ago Nancy and I took a bit of a mini-sabbatical. Mostly we walked from inn to inn in the UK, averaging around 15 miles a day, loving our wonderful quiet time together. (I’m the luckiest guy in the world to get to share my life with Nancy…I have to pinch myself!) Our intention, beyond the joy of wandering around England together, was to contemplate our careers, consider alternative future paths and imagine how we’d like the next chapter of our lives to evolve. We occasionally do this to ensure that we don’t end up 90 with regrets. We noodled a bunch of ideas and concluded that we wanted to continue playing hotel and restaurant in much the same way as we had been. Central to this plan was the idea that we wouldn’t add too many new hotels and restaurants — if we added too many, our roles would change, and we probably wouldn’t have the time to do a lot of the stuff we love. (None of this is to say that we think that people who grow their businesses quickly are wrong. They are not. It just isn’t an authentic “path of heart” for us.)

We started this process by asking: “What experience(s) would I like in the career dimension of my life, and what experiences might bring joy?” (If you enjoy something, it is likely that you’ll do it well.) Then we explored what might be the deep-down drivers of those ideas to ensure that they were attached to our macro intentions of getting to experience ourselves, and each other, as being loving, compassionate and “of service.” Then we eliminated ideas that might have been grounded in fear or rooted in some shallow ego attachment. (BTW: We use this same method for all kinds of things, from deciding where to go and what to do on a vacation to how to furnish and decorate a room.)

After this sabbatical we came home completely content that we’d employed an optimal process that had led us to a path we were both enthusiastic about. But as time passed, we occasionally found ourselves conflicted about whether to add many more restaurants and hotels or not. It was tempting to fall for what I call implied American peer pressure that says “more is better,” and “maximum is optimal” — even though we know full well that optimal is optimal. (It brings to mind Eliza Cook’s poetic line: “On what strange stuff ambition feeds!”)

So, in a rather roundabout way, that brings us to how Nancy and I found affirmation and got more firmly grounded on our idea of adding just a few new hotels and restaurants in the coming years. This past summer, during our annual getaway, which was two-thirds our thirty-second honeymoon and one-third a busman’s holiday, visiting great hotels and restaurants in Europe to broaden our frame of reference, we had experiences that deeply affected us. Nancy and I both were emotionally and rationally moved in a way that caused us to lock in on the plan we had hatched rambling around England years prior.

Here’s what happened: We visited Austria, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Hungary. In a sort of magical way we found our people — our peeps, our compadres, our brothers and sisters in spirit — people like us doing what Nancy and I love to do. We found affirmation to the Nth degree when we saw enthusiastic proprietors endeavoring to be of genuine service to their guests and colleagues (just as we aim to do), joyfully playing roles similar to the roles we play. They were hotel and restaurant owners who were in the thick of things every day. Probably not coincidentally, theirs were the places we enjoyed most! These days we don’t find that as often here in the U.S. and hardly ever with places in our category or size. There seems to be a dynamic that I don’t think science and business schools fully understand yet: When proprietors are close to the day-to-day action and sincere about personally taking great care of their guests (customers) and colleagues, the places are more effective. It must be true that, as our great friend, mentor and partner Mike Weaver once shared with us, “The owner’s footprints make great fertilizer.”

Why? Not sure, but here is a stab at a potential reason. Nancy and I think that restaurant and hotel guests notice things that they don’t notice that they notice, so we need to notice what they notice that they didn’t notice noticing (and what they did) so we can make sure that it, whatever it is, large or small, is positive. (Need to read that again?) We reckon that our sisters and brothers who lead the places where we noticed such a wonderful differencehave the same mind-set (and surely they have an easier way to explain it!). As I write this, I’m thinking a lot about the word proprietorship. To me proprietors see their establishments as extensions of themselves, more than a balance sheet line item. They also get that it isn’t about them, it’s about getting to work with a great group of colleagues who share their enthusiasm and values. Here are a few of the places where we most noticed this elusive proprietorship phenomenon:

Karakoy Rooms, Istanbul, Turkey: Genuine Care
This is a charming, tiny hotel over an excellent, reasonably priced restaurant, Karakoy Lokantasi. We were there three days before we understood that two of the people in the center of things were a wife/husband proprietor team who own the hotel and restaurant. There wasn’t one detail overlooked…from décor to comfort to flavor to genuine care. (The sidewalk tables were a special treat!)

Restaurant Nicole at the TomTom Suites, Istanbul, Turkey: Authenticity
We dined outdoors on the rooftop, enjoying fantastic views of the city and the Bosporus. Husband and wife chefs Kaan Sakarya and Aylin Yazicioglu knock it out of the park; she does the sweets and he handles the savory dishes. That she has a M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Cambridge and he trained further west in Europe, including at a little place in Paris called Tallevent, might tip you off that this place ain’t ordinary. The all-Turkish wines paired with each course were great. Near the end of our meal, both chefs shared some time with us, and they were as charming and authentic as their food.

Hotel Arlberg, Lech, Austria: Soul-Stirring Service
In Lech, Austria, an amazing ski resort with great summer hiking, we were staying in a lovely third-floor flat accessed by a spiral staircase at Furmesli Apartments. We slept with the windows open, drinking in the rich mountain air and letting the cowbells serenade us to sleep. Whew…we loved it!

After three days, and just a week prior to our flight home, we caught a “hiking bus” to the beautiful, remote Formarinsee Lake. Our plan was to follow the Lech River back to Lech, but two miles into our nine-mile journey home, Nancy stepped from a glacial erratic rock onto a gritty patch and her foot slipped. Another rock stopped her slide, but that sudden stop severely broke her ankle. Luckily for us, five wonderful German women we had had a brief conversation with back at the lake happened along. They turned out to be our sheros. Marie, the shero with the best command of English, took charge of telephone communication. The others held a space blanket over Nancy to keep her in the shade, carefully applied a cooling spray to her ankle and generally comforted her with their warmth and kindness.

After about an hour and a half, an impressive rescue helicopter landed nearby, and the pros quickly stabilized Nancy’s leg before getting her loaded in. Dr. Rhomberg, a third-generation orthopedic surgeon, met the helicopter in Lech. (I guess it makes sense that small ski resort towns can support three generations of people who fix broken bones.) Five hours later, Dr. Rhomberg and his mother had put a seven-inch plate with eight screws on one side of her ankle and two longer screws on the other side. They couldn’t have been more competent, polite, goodnatured or accommodating. We spent the night in the clinic, which was more like a boutique hotel. After the accident, the twisting steps to our flat were too risky on crutches, so I went off to find a place with a lift. I started at the Arlberg Hotel, where two days prior we had enjoyed a fantastic dinner in the garden. At that dinner a genuinely helpful fellow named Willie and his colleague, Eve, got right much of our attention by suggesting some amazing Austrian wines and offering advice that we could tell was sincere. Given that we’d come to trust Willie and Eve, I went to find them to ask if they’d introduce me to someone in the hotel who might be as helpful as they had been. Willie marched me over to the hotel and asked hotelman Michael to take good care of us. And boy did he! Michael was incredibly thoughtful and considerate. He showed me several rooms, and we collaborated on which one might be best given Nancy’s limited mobility. Later, more than once, he used his personal car to help us get over to the clinic for PT.

Long story short: We spent the next five nights at the Hotel Arlberg, and we ate every meal there…with the people whom we’d come to like and trust. We felt that the entire hotel — not just the people but also the place — existed to serve us…not in a royal obligation sort of way but in a “we are glad to be your host” way. It really was like being a guest in someone’s home without the guilt of overstaying your welcome. Here are just a few examples of things that were extraordinary at Hotel Arlberg:

  • The food was amazing. The menu changed enough and had enough breadth that we didn’t tire of dining there even after so many meals.
  • They always had a table set for us, along with a special stool and pillow arranged so that Nancy could keep her leg elevated.
  • One afternoon, the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Schneider, had his Maserati Quattroporte parked out front when we came down for Nancy’s scheduled ride to the clinic. He said, “I’ll take you today.” He didn’t have to do that, but he wanted to. It was our perception that he enjoyed taking us as much as we enjoyed the ride. And he picked us up an hour later (probably after a mountain road joy ride for himself — that’s what I’d have done!).

This genuine care stirred our souls and re-affirmed our plan to focus most of our energy on our current responsibilities. We hope that our continued focus on being active proprietors will result in deep, genuine camaraderie with our colleagues and wonderful experiences for our guests. Maybe our guests will notice a positive difference that they did not notice that they noticed. (Smile!)

Back in Greensboro: Bringing It Home
When we got home, partially because of Nancy’s immobility, we spent a month staying at the O.Henry and Proximity. We got to experience these wonderful hotels and restaurants like never before — we really felt like guests, not staff members or even proprietors just visiting. It was a great way to compare them with the fine establishments we’d visited overseas. We loved our stays and dining experiences…and we did notice a few things that were inconsistent with our intentions (rest assured that attention is being paid to those). What we were left with more than anything is how lucky we are to get to work with such fantastic, dedicated people!

So, there you have it, yet another rather aimless Rambling that I enjoy sharing and I hope you enjoy reading.

Dennis W. Quaintance