Q&A with Donald Ponniah

Donald Ponniah became the new general manager of the Grand Traverse Resort

& Spa in July. Previously he led the Los Angeles Hilton, and has also led resorts and hotels in British Columbia and Yosemite National Park.

BN: When you first arrived, what was your impression of the resort? What did you see?

DP: When I came it needed some changes, mostly in terms of senior management level, because they were in a mindset that the economy is bad, so it's going to be tough. I just say, No, it's a beautiful resort. This resort can be run better and still make money even in tough times. It needs some changes in attitudes and how we conduct business to bring in new, creative ideas to get the place going in the right direction, so we changed some leadership here and brought in some fresh blood and challenged people to think outside the box. We're making it a premier resort, as it should be.

BN: Would you say the affiliation to the Grand Traverse Band and Turtle Creek Casino are pluses or minuses?

DP: Pluses, because people are looking to enjoy their stays. Traverse City has all seasons for all people, with the water, the beautiful dunes, skiing, hunting, outdoor activities, and the casino is a big plus because people want to have some fun. They're cautious in their spending, but they do want to make the most of their disposable incomes.

BN: The resort has had several ups and downs in the eyes of locals over the years. What message would you deliver to locals?

DP My message is that we are going to make sure that the quality of food and beverage and service and rooms are up to a four-diamond-resort standard. We want to make sure the locals come back. To give an example, our brunch at aerie is back, and at a much reduced price. For the golf community, we are going to keep the price really compelling. We believe in and need the local community. One of the things I'm committed to is buying local, and we're already doing with some farmers and wineries. There will be more of that. I want people here to be proud that the resort is supporting the local community and featuring our great products.

BN: Tell us your top one or two priorities.

DP: The first priority is service. We are training people aggressively now … we want people to know that when you come to the resort, we will exceed your expectation and earn your business, not expect it. The other is product improvement. The bottom line is you will get a quality room or food for your dollar. You will have a beautiful experience here.

BN: What about the cost of flying in and out of TC? I know this is a passion of yours.

DP: One of the first things I said to myself was, This is a beautiful place, but it's outrageous to charge these high prices from key airline hubs. I also noticed there not enough flights. Then I heard the same thing from my customers. So quickly I made an effort to talk to area leaders to make sure something gets done about this. TC's economy depends on tourism, and this is the first thing to attack. I'm working hard with business leaders and elected officials to get something achieved on this, not just for the resort but for the entire community.