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|Heather Ault-Durant, GM of InnSeason Resorts The Falls at Ogunquit|
by Brian Welch
|Heather Ault-Durant, RRP, is the general manager of InnSeason Resorts The Falls at Ogunquit, located in the friendly seaside village of Ogunquit, Maine. She grew up in Hampton, N.H., a vacation destination for New Englanders, so you might say she was raised around the vacation atmosphere. Heather started working at the Hampton House Hotel during summers in high school and college.|
“Each summer, I would watch the same families reserve the same rooms for the following year. As a high school student, it didn’t click what was really happening when these families returned year after year. Now, I know. They call that vacation ownership.” said Heather.
Heather is married to Greg Durant, her childhood next-door-neighbor. As she puts it, “I guess you can say I truly married the boy next door. We live in Newmarket, N.H., and I have a three-year-old son named Colton Robert, a golden retriever named Adeana and a Siamese cat named Lyla. All keep me running.”
Heather tells us that at one point in her life she wanted to be a psychologist. “Come to think of it, there are some days I think I am! Balancing the needs of vacationers and the needs of employees with their own set of family needs tends to lead one down the psychology path. As well as the owners, it’s important that the resort staff receive the support and guidance of their employers,” she said.
“I make time daily to connect with any staff members that I see to be sure they know they are part of something larger than just a job or a paycheck. Resort staff members have a variety of backgrounds, and plans for their futures are just as varied. I’m open to discussing any part of this travel industry that they want to learn about,” Heather told us. There are a few staff members in particular that like to take 20 minutes occasionally and pick my brain about financials and how budgets work. I watch how their faces change when a certain budgetary formula clicks into recognition and understanding. For me it follows the ‘teach a man to fish’ principle.”
The Falls at Ogunquit is a part of the InnSeason Resorts family. “InnSeason prides itself on being the largest vacation ownership company in the New England area. We provide guests an enjoyable ‘Northeast Experience’ to all who visit. The Falls at Ogunquit is a 77-unit resort within walking distance to a beautiful beach,” Heather said. “Ogunquit is the quintessential small seaside village in Maine. The coast of Maine is about the ocean cliffs and the lobster, walking the famous ‘Marginal Way’ footpath, fishing, watching the waves crashing and the sea mist hitting you, lounging with your feet in the frigid water and stopping at the Shack to dig into a two-pound lobster dripping in butter. That’s the true Maine experience. The Falls at Ogunquit delivers that experience. InnSeason Resorts has the name-brand background that is so valuable to this association. Our owners are ensured a quality product and vacation. The backing of a strong brand name is crucial.”
Heather has been general manager of The Falls for the last six years. She oversees all daily operations with a goal of balancing excellent service while minimizing the financial impact on the HOA. “We recently partnered with Vacation Resorts International (VRI) as the management company for InnSeason Resorts, so this has been a great added value for our association. VRI’s expertise coupled with our excellent reputation as an InnSeason Resorts property provides a promise to our guests and owners that we remain committed to providing the best owner and guest experience possible,” Heather said.
“The executive team at The Falls at Ogunquit has been very successful in stretching our dollar. I have one of the most talented chief engineers I’ve ever worked with. His ability to fix, build, and create has saved our association critical dollars. Empowering this team to make decisions while still adhering to a financial commitment ensures me that each department manager understands where the revenue comes from and what it truly costs to be a successful property. It’s important that everyone is focused on providing excellent service while keeping a sharp eye on costs. We don’t want to overspend budgets and cause deficits,” Heather told us.
Heather has been designing yearly programs directed at increasing repeat off-season business by partnering with specialty restaurants and art galleries. These packages are specific to a certain kind of clientele. Their Italian wine weekends and cooking class packages are some of the most successful. “My customers have the ‘all inclusive’ mindset for weekends, not ‘a la carte.’ The specialty weekends are designed with a schedule of events booked. Guests arrive on a typical Friday and attend a cocktail party in the evening. On Saturday they have the day to meander. Saturday evening guests arrive at the designated restaurant for the specialty dinner,” Heather said.
“All our wine and beer weekends are coordinated with a regional wine representative or brewer who attends all gatherings. Guests have a mini ‘class’ on a particular style of that maker and spend the entire evening together. One of the tricks I use on a specialty weekend is that all tables are family style and all guests wear name tags. After a flight tasting they all become fast friends and the room booms with jokes and laughter. Sunday mornings are a lazy day to enjoy the pool, go to brunch or relax. No need for rushing on Sunday in Maine.”
Events at The Falls are promoted through social media. “I blog and ‘Facebook’ continuously about our resort, reminding our guests, and anyone else interested, that we’re here in the winter and this region of the country is spectacular. My philosophy is building relationships and I teach the staff that solid relationships with guests year after year lead us all to better rewards. This philosophy makes a striking effect on the housekeeping staff. There’s a difference between just ‘servicing a room’ and genuinely ‘taking care of a family’ who is on vacation,” explains Heather.
Heather previously worked with Olshan Management Company at the Hilton Hotel on Marco Island, Fla., as their food and beverage relief manager. She would cover all outlets in the food and beverage department during the senior manager’s day off. Her days would vary from overseeing a beach-side banquet to inspecting the room service cart before it left the kitchen.
She then worked for Olshan Management as the beverage manager for The Holiday Inn in Fairfax, Va., where she redesigned an outdated lounge that had become a poor revenue producer into a high-energy country and western nightclub where the money literally danced in through the front door. “I’ve always been a hotel nut.”
According to Heather, her total and undying love of vacations brought her to the travel industry. “But if I told you the truth about how I found vacation ownership, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Fate brought me here. I finished my last year of college later in life. After I got my degree from Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., I began sending out resumes to resorts in New England. I had one stamp left. I held the New Hampshire guide book, closed my eyes, and pointed to a page. I hit ‘Pollard Brook Resort in Lincoln, N.H.’ I went to work for them two months later as the resort’s guest services manager,” said Heather.
Pollard Brook is an InnSeason Resorts branded property now, but back then its primary owner was Dennis Ducharme. The general manager at Pollard Brook was Jeff McIver, and Heather said Dennis and Jeff led her down an educational whirlwind where her sole focus was increasing owner usage as well as the customer satisfaction index scores. “We were driven to get dues-paying members vacationing, telling their families how fabulous Pollard Brook Resort was. I needed to keep that momentum and financial revenue constantly streaming in. So, it was a stamp and a little fate that brought me here. That was 11 years ago and here I am,” Heather told us.
“I love to watch the weekly progression of vacations. Each are a little of the same, each a little different. My office window faces the front door and parking lot. I see everything. On arrival day I see them stretch out of the car, a bit cranky and their nerves on edge after traveling. By the second day their shoulders are a bit relaxed, the mom has a book. By day four the mom is laughing, the kids are splashing in the pool and the dad is napping. By day six Mom and Dad are kissing, and the kids are off with the friends they made. Then I watch them all pile back into the car with their trinkets and sun tans and head back to reality. Those are the things that make me know I’m doing it right.”
When we asked Heather what she likes least about her job, she said, “Well, I guess everyone doesn’t like some aspect of their job. What’s hard for me is when I can’t change a guest’s unhappiness with our product. The Falls at Ogunquit can’t be everything to everyone. That’s a reality we all face in this industry. We’re limited in our space and our amenities could never compete with the luxury of a sprawling resort overlooking the shores of Maui. But, I have to say that in my 22 years in the hospitality industry, I’ve never seen a staff as dedicated to a good vacation as the one here at The Falls at Ogunquit. It’s truly amazing. The front desk is so eager to help people. Our philosophy here is that we love to vacation. We’re the best at taking care of folks, but for some guests it comes up short. Those days are tough.”
For all those aspiring resort managers out there, Heather has some advice. “The young professionals starting out should expect to be stern, fair and above all, appreciative of their staff. You should also make sure you have a calm demeanor, a big smile, and good running shoes.”
If she didn’t work in this industry, Heather said she would like to have her own business. “If I didn’t work in the vacation industry I would own a specialty wine and cheese shop. I love wine, exotic cheese and French bread. I’m a foodie. I really enjoy a good glass of Cote du Rhone and having my feet up.”
Looking ahead, Heather says she thinks the future is going to make resorts step up their A game. “Travelers in 2010 and 2011 are looking for deals and value. People are travelling, but they have many, many choices now. We, as a society, are inundated with email blasts on travel specials. If I don’t carve out my specialty – my niche – my resort won’t survive. Added value is key. The Falls at Ogunquit adds value by adding activities for the family, additional room supplies, and only accepting employees who have a passion and personality to match the needs of our guests. A resort is only successful when you employ people who care. Home owner associations need to be on top of the customer requests to ensure their guests’ return.”
How does Heather define success? “Professionally, it’s repeat business. It’s a clear result of the resort doing it right. No question. If they come back, they like you and they’re willing to pay you for it. Personally, as I said, I have a three-year-old. Sometimes success is getting through an entire meal without the dog getting most of my son’s dinner. But my true success is when I come through the door after a long day and that little boy gives me a big smile and hugs me. That’s the good stuff.”
www.innseason.com/fallsatogunquit and www.facebook.com/thefallsatogunquit