After stints with independent hotels and big-name brands including Starwood, Westin and Hilton, Fred Sawyers landed at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel
in Florida. His more than 25 years in the hospitality industry have prepared him for his new role as general manager overseeing 1,800 employees at the 2,265-room property. Aside from leadership roles in a handful of hotels, Sawyers’ resume also includes executive roles at the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Sawyers took time to reflect on his experiences and discuss his future at Swan and Dolphin, the largest property he’s managed.
You’ve been in the industry for almost three decades. How have your past experiences with properties helped prepare you to oversee a resort of this size?
This is my largest property from a standpoint of room count as well as acreage. Before joining this property, I was overseeing almost 2,000 rooms. Everything you do in your career prepares you for the next step. Being in New Orleans post-Katrina was certainly a very complex scenario that required the rebuilding not only of the hotel but the industry itself. It required coordinating efforts with the CVB, convention center and hotel association to get [meeting planners] to understand what survived in the destination and what we were doing to rebuild.
What are the different challenges between running a hotel in New Orleans and heading a Disney property?
There are plenty of meeting planners who have this image of New Orleans as a place that is only for adults and is all about Bourbon Street and adult entertainment, so it is ironic that I’m now battling the misperception in reverse. What I’m finding out about Orlando and Disney itself is that there is a lot for adults. You look at our property and you’ve got a spa component and some remarkable food and beverage outlets that give you a world-class experience. Within walking distance, you’ve got Epcot, which to me is really a Disney theme park adults can enjoy, and Disney’s BoardWalk, where you’ve got a piano bar, dance hall and the ESPN Club. It’s a lot of really great entertainment for adults. It is our mission to educate people on everything a destination has to offer, and my experience is that once we get meeting planners to a site visit here, they immediately see this.
You previously served as chairman of the New Orleans CVB. Is your approach to working with meeting planners different at a CVB than at a hotel?
I think the approach is similar, because the first thing you have to sell a meeting planner on is always the destination. But in this case, the destination is our 89-acre resort. When talking to meeting planners, the key is to ask good questions to understand what it is that they are trying to accomplish with their event or meeting, and then let them know precisely how you can fulfill those needs.
Disney is a well-known brand that seeks to separate itself from other types of resorts. How do you plan on enhancing the guest experience?
The real pleasure for me has been to see how great the service levels already are at the resort. When it comes to enhancing the guest experience, the key is personalizing service. As a Starwood property located on Disney property, we blend the very best of the Starwood benefits and programs, like the Westin Heavenly Bed, with a level of service for which Disney has set the bar, [as well as] Disney touches like our character breakfast and “extra magic hours” at the parks.
Are there certain groups the Swan and Dolphin Resort is targeting for events?
Our resort and meeting space was designed for the group market, using input from both the association and corporate markets, so it flows extremely well. We have the space for the largest of association meetings, the ability to self-contain smaller meetings, and the service and expertise required for the corporate market. For us, it is about increasing that penetration going forward. I also think there will be more opportunities in the future to do more with the international market as the world keeps getting smaller.