Wrapping up our National Small Business Week celebration here at Navy Federal is a spotlight on renowned entrepreneur and Navy Federal Business Services member Julian MacQueen, CEO and Founder of Innisfree Hotels. Julian’s hospitality career started four decades ago with a summer job as a bus boy. He founded Innisfree Hotels in 1985 and since then his operation has grown rapidly into one of the largest hotel management companies in the southern United States.
I had a chance to catch up with the owner of several properties, including his latest, the Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach, which is scheduled to open this spring.
Jim: Please tell the readers a little bit about yourself and why you decided to open The Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach.
Julian: I started working in the hotel business in 1966 quite by accident. I was 15 years old and didn’t want to go home after our family vacation, so I asked my parents if I could remain at the beach rather than return to Birmingham, Alabama. To my surprise, they said I could stay, as long as I got a job. So I hitchhiked down the road and found the Jack Tar Beach House in Destin, Florida. The chef who interviewed me thought I was a polite kid and made me the mascot for the college crowd. The next summer I came back as a waiter, and the following year I was promoted to dining room manager. I graduated from the University of South Alabama with a degree in Psychology and 8 years of hospitality experience. All these years and hotel openings later, I’m happy I stayed in the field. Since I was born, my family had always vacationed in Destin, Florida. Each year, I marveled as we drove over the Brooks Bridge leading into Fort Walton Beach. As you experienced your first glimpse of the beautiful white sand and emerald water, you would be staring directly at the site that is now the location for the Holiday Inn Resort. I believe this is the best location for a beachfront hotel on the entire Northwest Florida Gulf Coast. This part of the beach has not seen new hotel construction for more than 20 years. With a good design and excellent management, we should become the market leader after our first season.
Jim: Leading up to the Grand Opening, what has been your biggest challenge so far?
Julian: By far the biggest challenge in developing this site was negotiating the Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) with the United States Air Force. Because it marks the first public-private lease of Air Force land, the process extended over four years. The concept was born of the idea that the Air Force could generate revenue on underutilized land that maintained a strategic purpose for our military. Innisfree Hotels negotiated an innovative design, which would allow the receiver to remain in use from a new perch atop the resort. So when you visit the Holiday Inn Resort and you spy a giant, whimsical beach ball on the roof, you are actually looking at the Air Force receiver. In addition, we have set aside 4,000 room nights each year so military servicemen and women can enjoy a first-class resort experience at a discount price that may otherwise be out of reach. In addition to this benefit, we will pay a percentage of all revenue to the Air Force designated exclusively to capital Improvements to boost morale and welfare on Eglin Air Force Base. In advance of the percentage rent, Innisfree Hotels already has made a $1 million initial payment to the Air Force, which will be used to improve Eglin’s living quarters and recreational facilities. This has been one of the more gratifying aspects of this development.
Jim: What advice would you have for an individual looking to open their own hotel or resort?
Julian: Opening a hotel is a very complex endeavor. On the surface it seems fairly straightforward. It involves great knowledge and several dissimilar skill sets. You must know the value of real estate, be an interior designer as well as a good financier. You must be good with people, including guests and staff. You must also know your market. At the end of this cascade of expenses, there must be something left over to ensure a good rate of return for the capital invested. When I opened my first hotel, I worked as many of the positions as possible to keep payroll to a minimum. After moving the hotel into a profitable position, I would set aside a large reserve to prepare for the unexpected. Then, upon studying market fluctuations for several years, I would begin to spend some of the money I made to invest in human capital.
Jim: What are your hopes and goals for the Holiday Inn Fort Walton Beach over the next five years?
Julian: It is my hope that the Holiday Inn Resort will exceed 100 percent of its market share the first year of operation. If we can meet this goal, then we will begin the design for a second hotel on the site. With the large infrastructure paid for by the first hotel, the additional property should have less financial burden and therefore become more profitable than the first.
Jim: Share with readers why they should visit the Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach on their next vacation?
Julian: The Holiday Inn Resort will offer the first new hotel experience on Fort Walton Beach in many, many years. Its gulf front location is within walking distance of the best local shopping, restaurants, nightlife and attractions including the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and Emerald Coast Convention Center. One of the key features of the Holiday Inn Resort is the $1 million poolside experience. Our zero-entry swimming pool is undoubtedly the best on the beach, featuring a lazy river, cascading waterfalls and two hot tubs, as well as an indoor pool. For families with children, we will host seasonal activities such as interactive pirate and mermaid shows and ‘Dive-Inn’ poolside movies. Inside the hotel, our 12 Kid Suites will feature private play areas with bean bag seating and video gaming. As with all Holiday Inn properties, children eat free. The new hotel will feature the very successful dining concept first introduced at Innisfree’s Holiday Inn Resort on Pensacola Beach. Riptide’s Sports Grill provides individually controlled televisions at each booth, so parties can watch the sporting event of their choice, or tune in to children’s programming when the adults want to socialize. More than 20 TVs in the restaurant will create an exciting sports viewing environment. Pair these amenities with balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, a boardwalk to the beach and 2,500 sq. ft. of event space, and we firmly believe we have the best new hotel experience on the Gulf Coast – for families and business travelers alike.
From start-ups to thriving companies – we commend our small business owners for the hard work and dedication they sustain day over day.
National Small Business Week may be over for 2014, but at Navy Federal we treat every week like National Small Business Week. We are here to help you achieve success. So feel free to visit your local branch, call or checkout our website, Navy Federal Business Services for more information. Let us help you turn your innovative idea into a thriving business and career.