From Whitewalls To White Gold: Marketing Hospitality
Keith Degrace, of Atlantic Host Inn in Bathurst New Brunswick, got an early start in hospitality services.
Keith started his hospitality career by washing guest's cars for fifty cents. He made his pitch while guests parked overnight at his father's roadside cabins. White wall tires, which were popular at the time, were an upsell at twenty-five cents extra. Ice for guests at the cabin door were not a problem, because he would earn a tip in delivery of ice buckets to guests.
"I grew up surrounded in hospitality thinking. I worked after school, on weekends and holidays doing what needed to be done. I was hospitality-oriented all my life. I learned so much from my father Danny at the time. His ways have stayed with me all these years," says Keith.
Today, those early lessons in hospitality govern everything Keith does. He looks for ways to serve his customers with better services. He is the personal host of the multi-faceted, Atlantic Host Inn. Keith, and his customer team focus on the Atlantic Host as the best choice for every type of hospitality activity.
"Where we are, located in Northern New Brunswick, we have to do it all for our guests. We create reasons to come here. Our promotions range from business events, to seasonal ATV/UTV/snowmobile runs. We target those travelers looking for a place to relax, so we cater to every type of guest's needs".
The northern New Brunswick Trail system passes by Atlantic Host's location perched on the tree lined riverbank of the Tetagouche River. This month, a new 500-foot span, trail bridge was completed. This important trail connection now encourages more trail traffic to pass by the Atlantic Host for refreshments. The strategically-located Atlantic Host is located on Northeast NB's principal North-South highway Route 11. Both the popular leisure sporting trails and the commercial traffic volume are within easy sight of the Atlantic Host building complex.
"We often have a parade of different vehicles in the parking lot ranging from luxury highway to exotic looking off-road trail vehicles. We encourage everyone travelling by to come and relax in our facilities, says Keith."
The late Danny Degrace's original roadside cabins grew to become Danny's Inn and Convention Centre. Keith's elder brother, Robert Degrace operated the Danny's Inn until this year (2016). Robert is now retired and Danny's is under new ownership. Bob and I always had friendly competition, and we got along well in managing the business side of family ownership.
As soon as Keith graduated from university, he returned to Bathurst with ideas. In 1969, he launched the Big D Drive-In. Server delivery of meal orders to a customer's car window was an immediate hit with young and old alike. Customers angle parked under an awning extension from an A-frame building housing the kitchen. The bold colors of the Big D became a destination attraction for customers.
Over the years, many of Big D’s customers ordered the Degrace family signature treat. The now famous "Danny Burger" with a side or french fries. Key ingredient is the artful smothering of the burger meat in the family's secret recipe sauce. The Big D later expanded in 1978 into the Miramichi region, south of Bathurst. Same bold design, same popular food success.
Today, the Big D Drive In business is owned by Richard Dobson, who is also a UNIPCO member. Richard was the original Big D manager with Keith when it opened. The Big D Drive In business and food formula remains a popular destination for a unique dining experience.
This type of creative twist thinking on hospitality foreshawdowed what was to come. Keith spent most of his hospitality career using marketing innovation and unique promotions to draw in customers. Customers come because of the marketing idea, and they stay for the food and personal service details.
Keith's marketing ingenuity, and the family's business achievements were tested by a sudden market change. The announced new Route 11 would bypass west of the City of Bathurst and nearby Danny’s Inn in Beresford. The new routing decision would isolate Danny's Inn and the Big D from highway traffic at the time. The Degrace family business plans were announced in 1974 for a new Atlantic Host Inn. The new complex opened in 1979, at one of the two Bathurst region access exits for the new highway bypass.
Atlantic Host opened with 56 units and a full service dining room. It quickly grew to the 100 room units of today with convention and group touring facilities. An expanded food service accommodates bus tours and regional business conventions. Growth was not an accident. Keith and Atlantic Host are known for Province-leading hospitality marketing ideas, if not energy for keeping everything fresh.
"We developed a strong business clientele for room nights during the week. But, we noticed our rooms nights fell off on the weekends. So, we created the White Gold promotion to bring in the recreational market for winter tourism. We added snowmobile parking and garage areas to cater to their unique trail travel needs. Our winter sales volume is almost matching our summer tourist business volume. We continue to grow this attraction business”, says Keith.
"We just added a large entrance canopy so guests can enter protected from the elements. It is a great addition for guest comfort. We are continually refreshing rooms and public areas. We work at constantly reinvesting and renewing our facility for our guests," says Keith.
"We have a staff of 60, and many have been here since day one. A staff member retired recently after 45 years, and he started with me at the Big D."
"Both Bob and I joined UNIPCO at its beginning. We joined as independent small businesses, because we are outnumbered by larger hospitality chains. It is not only the product purchasing and better pricing that is an advantage from UNIPCO. This Is combined with the quarterly financial rebates. UNIPCO membership means so much to our bottom line at the end of the year. Just as important to me is the valuable affiliation with other operators in Atlantic Canada. There is so much to know and learn from other operators, says Keith".
Keith served a term as President of Restaurants Canada, and is a member of the Honorary Fellows of Restaurant Canada. (www.restaurantscanada.org/honorary-fellows/) . In addition, Keith has served on several local and regional hospitality and tourism Boards of Directors over the years.
As to the future, Keith says he is looking for more ways to go after the market and bring it into his lobby for check in, and in dining room for menu sales. Right now, he is promoting to large success, a weekend breakfast promotion serving 400-500 early risers. The attraction is a $3.99 basic breakfast with one choice white or whole wheat toast. The next up promotion is a redo of classic Eggs Benedict, complete with a special recipe Hollandaise sauce.
“We are getting great customer feedback on the breakfast promotions. The popularity and volume of guests on the weekend is astounding”.