From The Blog

Sanctuary Celebrates Milestone

Vijay Singh, general manager of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Kiawah’s elite resort hotel, loves his job. “It never feels like work,” he says. “I am a people person and I like interacting with staff and guests. I love doing the little things that make people feel good about a place. I can be a teacher to new up-and-coming managers. I live in
Charleston and work at the Sanctuary and get a paycheck for doing what I love. It can’t get much better than that.”

The Sanctuary turned 5 years old on August 20. As one of only about 30 U.S. hotels—half of which are flagships for major chains—to win the coveted Mobil Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond ratings, it ranks in the top 5-10% of destinations for luxury leisure travelers. Singh notes that few properties can offer all the components of The Sanctuary – beach, golf, spa, a fine hotel – and a local community that supports it. “The residents are very proud of what we have here,” he states.

Singh’s vision for the hotel is three-fold: to provide top-notch luxury accommodations and impeccable service to hotel guests, to provide a “clubhouse” for island homeowners, and to be a part of the greater Charleston community. “We want to be seen as one of the great luxury resorts in the world,” he says. The ratings and reputation of the The Sanctuary attest to his success. The relationship with residents—both full and part-time—is also positive, but still a work in progress.

“When I was hired by Prem Devadas [managing director of Kiawah Island Golf Resort during development and construction of The Sanctuary], one of his first statements was, ‘The residents will be your bread and butter,’” Singh recalls. “He wanted homeowners to experience the hotel so that they would bring their families and friends and spread the word about it. We still cater to island homeowners. All the decisions we make take into account the residents and how that decision will affect them. We want them to come into the hotel and make it their own place. For example, we are looking at how to encourage residents to use the spa. At Christmas, a slow time at the hotel, we have a beautiful Christmas display. The Christmas décor is as much for the local community as for hotel guests. We want to give them a place where they can entertain and feel the Christmas spirit.”

Singh welcomes comments and suggestions from residents. “The residents here are not shy. They tell me, ‘This is what you need to do. I am happy to hear from people; I would rather hear it than not.” With residents in mind, hotel management rescinded the same-day only meal reservation policy for non-guests that the hotel instituted a couple of years ago. Singh explains that while paying hotel guests expect to be able to eat when and where they want, management doesn’t want Kiawah homeowners to feel unwelcome. “We have enough themed restaurants now that Tomasso, our authentic Italian restaurant at Turtle Point, is open.

We also have the Atlantic Room at the Ocean Course. Both have been well received, so we have plenty of places to send guests,” says Singh. Singh’s vision includes supporting the greater Charleston area, as well as the local community. “We partnered with the Ronald McDonald House and we are funding cancer research at the Medical University of South Carolina. Two years ago we began an initiative to get our junior leadership involved with the city of Charleston. We have done cooking demonstrations, and a food and wine festival, and we are planning a fashion show at Jasmine Porch as a fund-raiser for a women’s welfare organization. In the future we anticipate doing a fund-raiser for the animal shelter.” Even in the economic downturn, community support remains a priority.

The Sanctuary has not been spared economic concerns this year. Overall occupancy is about 50% so far, compared to the average of almost 70% in past years. “Our average daily rate is still strong for leisure travelers,” Singh reports, “but business is a separate segment. Across the industry, groups are down 35-40%. Not that many groups are having meetings now. Business slowed last October and has slipped all year.” However, he manages to look at the bright side. With groups reserving fewer rooms, the hotel has been able to increase exposure to leisure travelers. When The Sanctuary opened, the clientele was 40% leisure travelers and 60% groups. In the last year or so, the mix has been closer to 50-50, which Singh thinks is an ideal mix.

Still, groups are critical to the hotel’s success. With 255 rooms, the Sanctuary is small enough to be a boutique style hotel, but large enough to attract corporate business. Staff seeks to attract high-end groups that use 100-150 rooms. “Anything above 150 rooms becomes a convention, and we don’t want that feel,” says Singh. Each group receives the attention given to an individual guest. For example, whereas many hotels have groups choose from a variety of set menus, every menu for every Sanctuary group is custom designed by the chef in concert with the meeting planner.

Advertising is not a significant source of group bookings. “It’s largely word-of-mouth in the corporate world,” Singh explains. “The sales staff is constantly knocking on doors and following up leads. A lot of our business are repeat leisure guests as well as groups.” But this year, fewer groups have been able to commit the funding for meetings. “We have discussions every day about how to accommodate groups financially. Meeting planners try to negotiate for lower rates, but there is a level we cannot drop below if we expect to meet the expenses for the booking. Independent hotels compete at a different level from the chains. We can’t drop our rates to get ‘heads in beds.’ ”

While a chain hotel might transport staff away to a hotel doing better elsewhere, keeping The Sanctuary’s senior staff together is important. “We have a solid senior leadership team. They understand the hotel and the nuances of the community,” Singh says. He continues to offer learning and training opportunities to staff at all levels.

“We send our staff out to see other properties, to get new ideas and learn what they do. Our Executive Chef Robert Wysong goes out every month or so. If he sits down with a top-rated city chef, he can see what is happening at a high level, see the cutting edge culinary work—ideas for unique bar food, or great things someone is doing with pastry. On the room side, we send guys to see a W Hotel, for instance. It’s modern, very different. They might see things that don’t fit here, that are not what we want to do.” Junior staff moves around within the hotel. Most promotion is from inside as well, although about 10% of staff are outside hires. Singh has plenty of experience with major chain luxury hotels. He worked for Ritz Carlton for 15 years, moving 11 times in keeping with the Ritz philosophy that a promotion should be accompanied by a move in order to continually infuse properties with “new blood” and fresh ideas.

He grew up in New York, where his father worked for the United Nations, then attended the University of North Carolina as an economics major. He was working for the UN himself, doing corporate research on third world countries, when his research on Sheraton led him to an announcement of a management training program. He applied on a whim, was accepted,
took a 60% pay cut, and never looked back, having found his perfect career. He was working at the Naples, Florida Ritz Carlton, another five-star/five-diamond hotel, when coincidentally, he met Donna Devadas, wife of Prem, at the same time that Prem heard about him and asked him to interview for a position at The Sanctuary. He shortly became the first Sanctuary employee, as food and beverage manager. He held that position for two years before becoming hotel manager for a year and then general manager about two years ago once that position was created.