The Donald

ACME – Last summer Donald Ponniah left his job as general manager of Hilton Los Angeles North to come to the orchard-dotted hamlet of Acme, just outside of Traverse City, and take over as president and general manager of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. Before that, he'd never been to Traverse City, let alone heard of it. He wasn't even looking for a job.

But a challenge? Bring it. That's why he's here.

"For the past 15 years companies have hired me to turn places around that aren't functioning properly," says Ponniah. "So far I haven't failed with any property. The only thing that will stop me is an act of God. That's my only enemy."

Ponniah's never-say-die attitude and track record made him the obvious choice for leadership of the resort, which – despite its skyscraper stature, championship golf, spa, luxury amenities and neighboring casino – has long battled a reputation as a red-headed stepchild of northern hospitality rather than its beacon.

Once it had wooed him, The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, which has owned the Resort since 2003, set Ponniah to work. The band gave him two clear directives. No. 1: increase revenue. No. 2: create jobs.

Operation Resort

Ponniah is on a mission – make that many missions – to get the property operating as a premier, four-diamond resort. "The Tribe is very much committed to putting money back into the Resort," says Ponniah – something he says hadn't been a priority under previous leadership.

Would he say the Resort has been somewhat of a sleeping giant on the outskirts of Traverse City? Well, maybe a bear. "It went into hibernation," he says. But it's waking up now. "There are a lot of fires on the grill. That's the way I like it."

The GT Band's Tribal Chairman, Derek Bailey, and the new tribal council are very pro-business, he says. "They want to make sure the community is taken care of and get more jobs … other opportunities in Michigan and beyond where the tribe can be an economic force."

To that end, the Resort will soon announce a vice president of business development. "We're going to move fast and furious," says Ponniah. "There are lots of opportunities, and the timing and price is right."

Ponniah won't talk particulars, where or when, but he does talk possibilities: possible management of other hotels, a winery … even cattle or poultry farming are a possibility. The latter might sound strange, but to Ponniah's way of big thinking, it makes perfect sense. Of the Resort's efforts to buy as much local food as possible, Ponniah says simply, "The only issue we have is there's not enough."

In any case, whether the ideas are hospitality related or not, all are options on Ponniah's table, and all have one essential in common: They're potentially additional revenue sources.

"We're not waiting for the government to create jobs but instead are pro-actively looking at business enterprises and thinking 'outside the box," he says. "We're looking at joint ventures that can infuse capital."

Ponniah's already been much more visible – and vocal – in the community than past Resort heads. He's been at the forefront of one issue that impacts many people who live and work here – the affordability, capacity and connectivity of air travel in and out of Cherry Capital Airport. He says the Resort has lost at least a dozen bookings from groups that were very interested until they found out how complicated and costly it was to get here.

He has hired airline consultant Tom Rockne (who last worked in town for Passageways Travel) to get a direct line to airline leadership. Ponniah says so far, some headway is being made with Delta Airlines, and talks continue with American and United.

Ponniah has also upped the Resort's sales intensity, increasing sales staff out in the field, for selling both the resort and Traverse City. "The Resort is not just for the Resort. We do it for the entire community."

The Resort is developing a new mobile app to get the Resort in front of customers much more instantly and effectively.

And in the coming months, Ponniah's pushing the Resort toward another goal: achieving the ISO 14000 environmental management system standards certification. Plans in motion: to reduce solid waste by 10 percent, energy use by 5 percent and increase purchases from local vendors by 5-10 percent.

The certification process will cost the Resort more than $30,000. "But it's the right thing to do," he says, "and it will bring us more business."

"Hard Charging" Leader

Ponniah minces no works about why the resort chose him. "I'm candid, and the Resort needed some leadership," says Ponniah. "I didn't come here looking for a job. I had other great offers, especially in Asia. I took this because the tribe is committed to doing something great in Michigan and beyond."

And Chairman Bailey likes what he sees so far. "I believe we got much more than we bargained for when we hired Donald Ponniah to run the Resort, and I'm glad he's working for us, not the competition," says Bailey. "The changes he has made have energized the Resort staff. His abilities include a clear vision, strong will, and hard-charging leadership style."

It's that leadership style that some like, and, inevitably, some don't. "[He's] a hands-on manager who looks at every detail in every department and has little tolerance for mediocrity," adds Bailey. "He gives praise when it is due, yet doesn't hesitate to point out problems and solutions, whether it is an issue with underperforming staff or an issue with a particular part of the facility."

Ponniah's strategy is simple: look, listen, make changes. And don't waste any time doing it.

A handful of senior management staff – some of whom had been at the Resort for two decades or more – are gone. Ponniah's take: "We got some fresh blood."

The Resort and the Locals

The Resort first opened in 1980 as the six-story Grand Traverse Hilton Hotel with 240 rooms. Six years later, The Tower opened with 186 rooms, a Gallery of Shops, and the Trillium Restaurant & Lounge on the 16th and 17th floors, respectively.

The first skyscraper on the region's horizon created some mixed emotions around town and was the beginning of a relationship with the local community that Ponniah readily admits has been largely distant and dysfunctional.

What does Ponniah see today, nearly eight months after his first day on the job? "Progress," he says. "That service and quality matters. And we're improving how we interact with the community … in the past the community was pushed away. It was not included in what we conducted here. We want it to be a part. We want the locals to come back."

He saw the first signs of that during the holidays. For the first time in 28 years, the resort once again created its grand Gingerbread House display in the lobby – using 800 pounds of gingerbread, 200 candy canes and more than 300 sugar decorations. "We had locals who hadn't been here in 25 years saying, 'This is just like when I was a kid!'"

Progress might well be the theme and verifiable result of Ponniah's tenure thus far, but he'll be the first to admit the outlook isn't all gingerbread and candy canes; plenty of challenges remain in his path.

"Traverse City is still one of those places that people don't know where it is," he says. It's why he thinks the Pure Michigan advertising campaign is so critical, even though its funding was seriously slashed for this budget year. This year the Resort will spend $800,000 alone on sales and marketing.

He wants to see more emphasis in Michigan's political arena on the importance of tourism to the state. And, he says, for Traverse City to be a truly top hospitality destination, it needs the labor pool to support it. "We have difficulty finding qualified, willing workers," he says.

So, if he's a fix-it guy – and a very fast-acting one – it begs the question: How long will this guy stay?

As long as Tribal chairman Derek Bailey will have him, says Ponniah.

"I'm here for the long term because the tribe wants to expand business ventures," he says. "Derek Bailey is a visionary leader. He looks at things from 100,000 feet above … it's one of the reasons I came, and why I'm staying. He really cares about the people. I'm gonna stick with him. He's a great guy to hang around." BN