This growing mountain town attracts outdoor enthusiasts, college students and business and leisure travelers from around the world, and Little America Flagstaff GM Fred Reese says his hotel is ready to accommodate all of them following a complete renovation.
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona—Flagstaff has long been known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, but Little America Flagstaff GM Fred Reese says the city in Arizona’s northern half has become so much more than that—and his hotel is ready and able to accommodate the growing and changing traveler to the area.
Earlier this year, the 45-year-old Little America Flagstaff completed a 2.5-year complete renovation, a project Reese called “exciting,” given the hotel’s growing presence as a venue for meetings and events, as well as the opportunity to upgrade every part of the hotel.
While the most recent renovation included all 247 guestrooms, plus upgrades to the lobby, meeting spaces, gift shop and Silver Pine Restaurant & Bar, Reese said the hotel has been continuously making positive changes since he joined the property in 2007 as director of sales and marketing. He transitioned to the GM role one year later.
In the years since Reese has been at the helm of Little America Flagstaff, he has managed everything from grounds improvements—the hotel sits on 500 acres of private Ponderosa Pine forest and has extensive hiking trails, an outdoor pool and other outdoor activities—to growing the hotel’s meeting-space footprint to more than 13,000 square feet. And now that more travelers are coming to Flagstaff for a variety of business and leisure activities, he said the hotel is in great shape to attract those guests.
“Our two priorities now are to continue to drive business in the restaurant and drive more meeting and convention business,” Reese said, noting that the hotel’s mix of 31% group and 69% leisure is something he and his team have worked hard for and continue to cultivate.
It can be tough to differentiate in a growing city that attracts everything from Grand Canyon hikers to Asian businesspeople, but Reese said he sees nothing but opportunity.
“Since I’ve been here, the city has added five hotels with about 600 rooms, as well as the High Country Conference Center,” he said. “It’s always been a big tourist destination in the summer, but now things are pretty much year-round in Flagstaff.”
With the Arizona Snowbowl nearby, a local airport with more direct flights on the horizon and a downtown full of craft breweries and independent restaurants, Reese said Flagstaff has become “that great, local experience” all hoteliers want.
“We’re on the map as a great destination now,” he said. “It used to be Flagstaff was just the jumping-off point for the Grand Canyon, but now people are finding out they can stay here. We have a great downtown scene, lots of food and history, so we can be a good base camp.”
For that reason, Reese said he and his team spend a lot of time thinking about what’s next for the hotel, and that those conversations always come back to creating experiences leisure and business guests can do on-property.
“Maybe it’s mountain biking or zip lines or challenge courses or ice skating,” he said. “We try to do more and more in-house experiences for everyone. It’s exciting to try to come up with ideas to drive more local traffic in here, drive families and grow the leisure market.”
Flagstaff gets its share of international inbound travelers, too, Reese said, and it’s something his team is very aware of as it’s going after new business.
“We’ve always had a lot of British, German and French visitors, but now we’re starting to see more Asian travelers, from China and Japan,” he said.
Reese brings branded and independent experience to the job, calling his return to the hotel in 2007 as “a homecoming” since the Northern California native received his undergraduate degree in hospitality management from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In the years that followed, Reese worked in California, Phoenix and Utah at properties affiliated with Hilton and Marriott International. When he and his family decided to return to Arizona, he took a transfer with Hilton to the El Conquistador Tucson, finally ending up in Flagstaff at the Little America in 2007.
Now, he said, it feels like family at the hotel. That’s not a coincidence, since the Little America Flagstaff is family-owned by the Holding family, which own eight hotels in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, California and Arizona. Three are branded under the Little America name, and Reese said the hotels are very much independent but united under the ownership vision of founders Carol and the late Earl Holding, now run by Stephen Holding. Earl Holding, who died in 2013, also owned Sinclair Oil Corporation, Sun Valley Resort in Idaho and Snowbasin Resort in Utah, which his family business still owns.
“They’re hands-on with all their properties, and the keyword is ‘family,’” Reese said of the hotel’s ownership. “I have people working here that have been here 30 years, and the (owners) give hugs and know people by name. You don’t see that a lot in a big brand when you’re so far removed from the owners. The Holdings always want to put out the best product, and they leave no stone unturned.”
He said the process of going through the recent renovation reminded him of how happy he is to be part of a family-owned company of independent hotels.
“I love that our owners are hands-on and that we have access to them,” he said. “I love that when we made the decision to renovate, we could move on it. We have brand standards but they’re our brand standards—the red tape is what we don’t have to deal with here. We have autonomy. Our owners allow the GMs to manage their properties; they trust us to make the right decisions and take care of customers.
“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “Put out a wonderful product, offer great service and really take care of your guests—treat them like they’re guests in your house.”
The influence of the Holding family has had an impact on Reese’s management style, and he said the family culture at Little America is what attracts new employees and retains long-time veterans.
Having Northern Arizona University—his own alma mater—nearby is great, too, Reese said.
“Students are a great labor force for us,” he said. “This school is among the top ranked in the nation and we’re lucky.”
Still, he said, labor is an issue, like it is for most hotels across the country. To keep the hotel attractive as an employer, he said offering great benefits is a top priority. The hotel offers a $2 all-you-can-eat employee lunch, full medical benefits, a tuition reimbursement program and a 401(k) retirement program. Additionally, the hotel offers what Reese calls the “R&R program.” After five years of employment, workers can take an all-expenses-paid vacation at any of the hotel group’s properties.
As for himself, Reese said his management style is to be involved and lead by example—something he learned from company founder Earl Holding.
“I have no problem rolling up my sleeves and getting dirty,” he said. “You’ll see me in the dish pit. I like to do construction on my home, so it was great when we were doing the renovation,” he said with a smile.
“Mr. Holding coined a phrase—you get what you expect by what you inspect,” Reese said. “We shortened it to ‘inspect what you expect,’ which means don’t just tell people what to do, but follow up and show them and make sure it’s being done. I believe in finding the right people, training them and then letting them do their job. Be there as a support person and don’t ask them to do anything you don’t want to do.”
Editor’s note: Little America Flagstaff paid for travel expenses and accommodations. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Little America Flagstaff had no influence on the coverage provided.