Published in Travel Agent Central, May 7th, John Stone
Julian MacQueen, founder and CEO of Innisfree Hotels, lost seven Gulf Coast hotels in one night to Hurricane Ivan in 2003. In 2005 the entire Gulf Coast felt the tourism impact of Hurricane Katrina. In April 2010, hotel phones instantly stopped ringing when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill became the worst news story on earth.
Nearly two years later, in February 2012, MacQueen was named the 2012 Business Leader of the Year by the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. Last October, his Holiday Inn Pensacola Beach Resort—only six months after opening—won the 2011 Developer of the Year Award from the Inter-Continental Hotel Group (IHG) over hundreds of other competitors. Innisfree—the largest employer on Pensacola Beach with almost 1,000 employees—is currently building Pensacola’s newest business center at the Pensacola International Airport, including a Hyatt Place Hotel it will open, own and operate in 2013. Innisfree also owns six beachfront hotels in Pensacola and in Orange Beach, Alabama, seven limited service hotels in the Southeast, two RV resorts, and a “Jet Center” service facility at Pensacola’s regional airport.
How did hotelier MacQueen master these disasters to become a key figure in what could potentially be the most successful tourism year in Pensacola’s history in 2012? “We haven’t had locusts yet,” he responds, only half in jest while seated in his Hilton Pensacola Beach conference room. MacQueen says he “camped out” in the hotel’s H2O restaurant, providing interviews to swarms of reporters who stayed for weeks following the 2010 oil spill. “I told my employees that we have been through this before and we are going to do whatever it takes to survive.”
MacQueen employed teams of hotel volunteers to clean Pensacola Beach of oil sludge deposits within 48 hours of their arrival on the beach, and he proudly displays pictures of the snow white beach sand that followed. The oil never returned after the cleanup. The company used “aggressive revenue management, paired with an emphasis on efficiency, productivity and excellence in service” to build a property portfolio currently valued at more than $300 million.
He calls the corporate culture at Innisfree the real winner of his awards. The company, which he founded in 1985, has average employee tenures of 17 years and a mission of “having fun.” The company has a director of culture, Jack Guilleibeaux, and follows a published corporate mission statement that says: “To be a model corporate citizen inspires us to outperform our peers by engaging in innovative problem-solving that improves the way we serve our customers, treat our employees, and conduct our day-to-day business.”
MacQueen, who, like his company’s President Harlan Butler, is a Chartered Hospitality Administrator (CHA), is a commercial pilot who owns and flies the same 1943 Grumman Widgeon flying boat used in the TV show Fantasy Island. He has been invited to fly the plane to lead off the Pensacola Beach Air Show this July 14 as a warm-up to an annual performance by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, based at Pensacola’s Naval Air Station. He is also a board member of Independence for the Blind of West Florida, a nonprofit entirely devoted to educating the blind and visually impaired in the region.
Innisfree generously promotes Pensacola-area restaurants outside its hotels in its guest information materials. In March, Hilton Pensacola Beach Executive Chef Dan Dunn joined four other area chefs and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward to present Gulf Coast cuisine at a festive dining demonstration evening at New York’s James Beard Foundation. Last November, MacQueen and Dunn rappelled over the side of the 18-story Hilton in a fundraising event for the local Boy Scouts of America.
The 275-room Hilton, 206-room Holiday Inn Resort and the 181-room Hampton Inn stand shoulder-to-shoulder on Pensacola Beach as a remarkable example of the success of Innisfree Hotels and their owner against all odds. MacQueen believes the $180 million BP advertising campaign, resulting from its culpability in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is giving the Pensacola and Gulf Coast region more national exposure than ever before. He is optimistic that when Southwest Airlines announces new city pairs later this summer in connection with its recent acquisition of AirTran, Pensacola will be high on the list of destinations receiving service from new originating cities. He has high hopes that Southwest can help drive his efforts to lead Pensacola from its traditional role as a drive getaway for the Southeast region into a national vacation destination.
Pensacola Beach has the unique feature of enabling hotel guests to watch the natural spectacles of a sunrise and sunset each day (weather permitting) over the east and west Gulf horizons from a single location. One comes away from hearing the Innisfree story wondering whether MacQueen’s hospitality team had any hand in planning it that way.