A Wild, Fun Hospitality Ride

Omni’s Dan Surette is on a mission to elevate the power of the personal touch

man wearing blue suit, leaning against wallFor Omni Hotels & Resorts Chief Sales Officer, Dan Surette, hospitality has been an exhilarating, winding journey across the country, up the ladder and into the realm of the personal. The Johnson & Wales College (now University) alum blames his mother for pursuing a hospitality management degree. At a pivotal moment, she said, “You’re a people person, you like being around people, and you sort of gravitate to that business.” The rest, as they say, was historic synergies.

A collision with a human resources director while he was still an undergrad Wildcat and working the front desk at a little hotel in Mansfield, Massachusetts, led to a road trip in August of 1986 in a two-door Ford Escort with no air conditioning to the oasis of PGA National in Palm Springs Garden, Florida.

On our Zoom call, Surette was emphatic about pointing out that this was a big deal. “When you live in New England, nobody leaves. Your sister lives two blocks one way, your grandmother’s over there. Everyone sticks around,” he says.

Surette, not for the last time, broke with tradition. “I fell in love with the job,” he confessed.

Thanks to some well-timed mentors, young Surette made his way into sales and learned to play golf. When asked more than 40 years later about his game, he fessed up to a 12ish handicap and ownership of the irons peeking out behind his head on the monitor.

Three years later, Surette’s action-paced hospitality journey took him to what until 2021 was Marriott Wardman Park, a 1,500-room convention hotel in Washington, D.C. that was a Sheraton at the time. “I was off to the races,” he said. “That job really opened my eyes to the world of meetings and events and trips and travel and I fell in love with it all over again.”

Next came global sales at Hyatt, which he called “a phenomenal experience.”

Four years after that, he found himself on the leadership track at Nikko Hotel (Now Grand Hyatt Atlanta, Buckhead), followed by a short stay in Dearborn, Michigan.

Are you seeing a pattern? Soon, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide came calling and made him an area leader. The man who had never lived West of the Mississippi called Colorado home for a year-and-a-half before circling back to head a group of hotels back where he started in New England.

Surette had the highest praise for his Starwood Experience. “That was a company that was always thinking about what is next,” he said. “It was fast and furious, but the training was transformational.” All these years later, he credited the mentors he met along the way with helping him see the big corporate picture.

Six years ago, when the Marriott merger happened, Surette decided it was time for a change. That is when he joined Omni, a smaller, family-owned company with a collection of convention, resort, city center, historic and new properties that was poised to start building a string of signature developments. The flurry of recent openings includes, of all things, the construction of a massive Omni PGA Frisco Resort at the new home of the PGA of America headquarters in Texas, marking Surette’s full circle from where he started.

“You can’t make it up; this has been such a wild, fun ride,” he said.

Dan did not take the ride alone. He jokes that after moving his family so many times, his two children don’t know what to say when people ask where they are from. “I’m so glad they were able to be a part of those communities and see different things and I’m fortunate I have a spouse who was incredibly supportive,” he added.

Now that he has settled in Dallas and Atlanta, his grown son and daughter play golf with him and he and his wife, a tennis player, have tried their hand at pickleball.

The Journey Forward

Looking back, Surette is grateful to everyone who helped along the way, but far from finished. “I still feel energized by this business today as much as I ever did. At this point in my career, it is time for me to help others. I want to put my arm around folks and ask, ‘where do you want to go?’”

Surette acknowledged that, “Kids today are different than the kids when I was growing up; the world has changed. But people are still as interested in hospitality, still love it for the same reasons.”

Hospitality, as Surette describes it, is not a straight line. It can encompass everything from sales and operations to food and beverage. People can come to the industry from many different backgrounds and still thrive. He was intentional about going to hospitality management school, but has welcomed employees with medical, philosophy and technical backgrounds and watched them flourish. “You don’t have to work in eight cities to grow your career the way I did. This is a business of effort, hard work and caring. We need people who want to take care of people—it’s a people business.”

Surette loves seeing interns, trainees and business coming back after Covid. “Travel is a part of our lives that we all missed and that we’re not going to take for granted anymore. We realized quickly that although there are a lot of efficient transactional elements emerging—automatic check-in, electronic keys, online reservations—but face-to-face is different than virtual and we are going to differentiate ourselves through personal service and creating experiences.”

That is why training at Omni has evolved to encompass eight modules delivered over time that stress the importance of anticipating needs and delivering memories. “The buildings help you do that. Omni PGA Frisco boasts 13 food and beverage venues, a two-acre putting lawn; it’s the nicest thing we’ve ever done. But if we don’t have the associate culture bringing that to life, we are missing out. It has to be personal.”

Hotels for a Cause

Legend has it that in 2016, Peter Strebel, then chief marketing officer with Omni, saw someone struggling with food insecurity while driving to work. In the 20-minute commute that followed, he came up with the idea for Say Goodnight to Hunger to donate a portion of every booking to benefit Feeding America to support food banks in the communities where they do business. Meals were being donated through the program in three weeks’ time.

As of December, 2023, the program will have donated its 25 millionth meal in seven years. Many of those meals were packed and distributed by associate volunteers. “That’s pretty impactful,” Surette said.

For associates in need due to natural disasters, accidents or emergencies, Omni Circle has donated more than $7 million in the last seven years. “It is probably the most moving thing we do each year when associates answer the bell [to give to their peers],” he said. “It goes back to that culture of local market leadership. We have an obligation to serve and take care of our guests. But let’s also take care of our communities. “We’re serving leaders. It’s just a part of who we are. And it’s the right thing to do.”

The Era of Elevation

Blake Rowling recently stepped up to lead TRT Holdings, the parent company of Omni, succeeding his father, Robert “Bob” Rowling, who built the brand over 27 years. The brand is moving counter to where most of the industry has gone with franchised and investor-owned assets and a focus on quantity of product in each market. “We are in the game for the long term,” Surette said. Working with new Omni President Kurt Alexander, who replaced Peter Strebel when the long-time leader moved into the chairman role, the company has been keeping busy cutting ribbons on luxury, convention hotels across the country. Consider for inspection:

Omni Oklahoma City Hotel: opened in 2021, 605 guest rooms, 76,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, AA 4-star rating, signature Bob’s Steak & Chop House and OKC Tap House two-story sports bar, rejuvenating Mokara Spa & Wellness.

Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport: opened in 2021, 1,054 guest rooms, 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, AAA 4.2-star rating, upscale Coquette Mediterranean restaurant and French-style boulangerie in the lobby, full-service Breve Spa.

Omni Tempe Hotel at ASU: opened in 2023, 330 guest rooms, 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, AAA 4.1-star rating, Lucero rooftop bar and restaurant, Library Rules coffee shop, 24-hour fitness center.

Omni PGA Frisco Resort: opened in 2023, 500 guest rooms, 127,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, AAA 4.2 grating, Trick Rider steak and seafood restaurant and a Lounge by Topgolf, full-service salon and Mokara Spa featuring Texas Oasis packages.

The 800-room Omni Fort Lauderdale Hotel is taking shape in Florida.

Newly announced at the time of the interview was a 550-room Omni Raleigh Hotel in North Carolina across the street from Raleigh Convention Center expected to open in 2027.

At the same time, some legacy properties are being renovated, including a $150-million investment at The Omni Homestead Resort, one of the oldest resorts in the country at 250 years of welcoming travelers.

“These properties are destinations themselves, even if they are across the street from a convention center [as Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport happens to be], there is something for everyone all week long,” Surette said.

Many of these developments are the result of partnerships, including PGA America, NFL Minnesota Vikings, NFL Dallas Cowboys and MLB Atlanta Braves. “We are never going to design a hotel that doesn’t have meeting space. We know that where we are strong is when have a mix of meetings, events, catering and leisure and business travel and none of it is cookie-cutter. We are not one size fits all,” Surette said. He sees associates as consultants working with meeting professionals to meet their individual goals using all the resources of a property.

“We need to challenge ourselves to continue to evolve how we take care of our guests and our customers,” he continued. “Covid, while terrible, forced us to change how we did business by introducing efficiencies, safety measures, and technology improvements. I hope making people sit through six-hours sessions is in the past. We have to evolve how attendees learn to keep the conversation fresh. I’m kind of excited about what’s coming up. Can ChatGPT augment programs in a positive way? We need to find new ways to help make connections and create experiences.”

Then he stopped and reflected a moment. “The best years for me are right in front of us,” he said.

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