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Group to sell King hotel
Benchmark, JMI set to finalize purchase of hotel within a week; old partners to run ski hill.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: August 15, 2012
As a new management team swarmed the hotel Tuesday, Snow King Resort President Manuel Lopez said the lodge’s sale to JMI Realty should wrap up within seven days.
JMI Realty — a subsidiary of an investment company owned by the John Moores family, of San Diego — is purchasing the hotel and commercial space in the nearby Grand View Lodge. Current owners, including Lopez and Jackson innkeeper Clarene Law among others, will sell the lodging operation and keep a variety of assets, including property and the Snow King Ski Area.
The ski hill will run “pretty much the same as last year,” Lopez said.
JMI has contracted with Benchmark Hospitality International of The Woodlands, Texas, to run the hotel. The company has more than 30 years’ experience in lodging management.
Snow King’s long-standing owners have been unable to finance necessary renovations at the 204-room hotel that opened in 1976, Lopez said. Snow King Holdings, the umbrella name Lopez used for 11 companies that have run the resort, also found itself in the middle of an expansion project when the real estate economy went south.
Owners have struggled to find a solution, contemplating the sale of various assets and turning over the ski hill to a nonprofit before settling on the latest plan. Parties did not disclose terms of the deal.
“The main thing is the hotel needs a lot of money,” Lopez said.
Over the years, owners even considered tearing down the landmark and rebuilding.
“We felt the best thing to do was a big renovation,” Lopez said of the eventual conclusion, although financing remained an obstacle. “Even if we were to keep it, it needs a professional management company.”
That led Lopez to Benchmark, a company he said has a good reputation in the industry. The company operates properties under individual names, not under franchise monikers.
Benchmark saw the challenges, Lopez said, and brought in JMI Realty. In a separate deal, Benchmark and JMI completed a purchase-management deal this spring for The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe in California.
Lopez and his partners (see box below) didn’t immediately jump.
“We had to see who else is out there,” Lopez said, “and we ended up back with them.”
The new owners are ready to invest “in excess of $20 million” in renovations, Benchmark COO Greg Champion said Tuesday. He was one of about 20 Benchmark employees at the hotel this week as part of a transition team.
“We don’t want to disrupt the business that’s here,” he said.
There are no plans to shut the hotel down.
Snow King’s new general manager, Craig Waterman, said he expects the project will take two years. Waterman, new with Benchmark, said he has specialized in transitions such as the one Snow King is going through, but has found his home.
“I’m permanent,” he said. “I was looking for a home, so this is good.”
He said it will take a while to move his wife and three children to Jackson from the Phoenix area.
Champion said the Snow King business model, which has groups and conventions as at least half of its business, works well for Benchmark and JMI. The property itself also has potential.
“The bones of this building are incredible,” he said of the hotel. But Snow King can’t charge top-tier rates for its aging rooms.
Rooms today rent in the $200-a-night range, Waterman said. With improvements, that will increase, “and it will be worth it,” he said.
Champion said Benchmark’s assets are its employees.
“We like to keep everybody whole or do more for them than in the past,” he said of the company’s transition philosophy.
Champion said he had worked for Benchmark owner and founder Burt Cabanas for 30 years and operates on one piece of Cabanas advice: “Do the right thing.”
In addition to the ability to handle convention and group business in downtown Jackson, Snow King has other assets, including its location in Jackson Hole, Champion said. He understands the cachet of the valley.
“I’ve been coming to Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee skiing, the first time when I was 15,” he said. “I had my first legal beer sitting on a saddle” at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
Such local flavor figures in Benchmark’s ethos, he said.
“We do what’s right for the location,” he said. “Part of our business culture will be to be immersed in the local community.”
Benchmark will work with Lopez and his partners. Snow King Holdings will continue to run the ski area on property leased from the U.S. Forest Service and the town of Jackson. The partners own about 48 acres at and near the base of the ski hill.
They retain the lease for the ski shelter, operated in the Snow King Sports and Event Center. They also own four unsold residential condominiums in the Grand View Lodge and concessions contracts with broadcast and telecommunications companies that have installations atop the mountain.
Snow King Holdings also retains about 90 percent of the development rights associated with the resort’s master plan. That entitles owners to develop about 450,000 square feet of buildings, Lopez said.
Partners want to install a zip line, terrain parks, ice climbing and a bike park. Snow King Holdings has talked about more snowmaking and an alpine coaster. The group just secured a paragliding service, Lopez said.
Top on his list of priorities is finding a recreation manager “pretty quick,” Lopez said. “We want this person to bring these plans forward.”
Snow King Holdings will operate out of the log building, known both as the Kelly Cabin and Murie House, just west of the hotel.
Benchmark and Snow King Holdings will integrate their operations through the Snow King Resort Master Association, Lopez said. A seven-member board will guide coordination on matters including security, grounds maintenance, marketing and other common interests.
Guests should not have to know they are dealing with one business or another as they move from hotel to ski area, Champion said. An integrated website should roll out soon.
Waterman said guests should quickly notice subtle changes, including technology improvements. “That’s so vital to the visitor today,” he said.
Benchmark wants its employees to “be the difference” in a guest’s stay, he said. “That’s one of the core principles.
“I think it’s important that we have some fun,” he said about the work environment. “There’s got to be good energy.”
Lots of work lies ahead, Waterman said. “I hope everybody can be patient with the process,” he said.
This article was corrected to reflect the proper location of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe.