Personalized Experience -As mentioned throughout our chat, I think a personalized experience is absolutely key to a wonderful guest experience that brings people back. Feeling like a hotel or restaurant is going out of their way to make your stay and experience memorable is a type of hospitality that isn’t easily forgotten. We recently had a guest stay with us at The Pink Palm who was celebrating her birthday but traveling solo. When we realized that, we invited her to a special dinner with some of our team, complete with bottles of champagne and singing happy birthday to celebrate. It was not only memorable for her, but really special to all of us. It’s why we do what we do.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent Pelton.
Brent Pelton is an employment law attorney in New York and founder and CEO of American Beech Hospitality Group, which includes the American Beech Hotel and Black Llama Bar in Greenport, NY, Aqua by American Beech in Aquebogue, NY, and The Pink Palm Hotel on St. Thomas, USVI. Each of the carefully designed, luxury boutique hotels, as well as the Black Llama Bar, provides guests a unique experience that embraces the property’s history and locality, with curated amenities, activities and culinary offerings.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My history in hospitality goes back to my teen years. I grew up in Iowa, where my first job at 15 years old was as a busboy at Rastrelli’s restaurant in Clinton. I was promoted and continued as a waiter in high school, and then worked in catering and events while I attended the University of Iowa before moving on to law school in Portland, Oregon. After graduating I pursued my law career, relocating to New York and working for a big firm before starting my own, focusing on employment law and wage recovery on behalf of employees. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of success in the field, and after twelve years I really wanted to pursue some type of interesting side hustle. I started looking into properties as investments, and came across Stirling Square in Greenport, New York, a neighborhood on Long Island’s North Fork that I really loved. I was initially intending to lease the space out, but when I stood behind the bar I realized I really wanted to see through my own vision for the space. I pulled a team together and we opened the doors to what is now American Beech one year later, leaning on my previous experience in, and love for, hospitality, as well as the attention to detail and discipline I honed as an attorney.
Following American Beech came Aqua by American Beach, also on the North Fork of Long Island, and now our newest property, The Pink Palm, in St. Thomas, USVI. Hospitality incorporates all of the things I love: people, real estate, experiences — it’s really the best of everything. I’m thankful for my days as a busboy and waiter as without that experience, I’m not sure my path would have led me here.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’m not sure there’s just one story, but I think overall the most interesting part of a career in hospitality is the people you meet. We have a very personal approach at our properties, so we really try to get to know each of our guests that stay with us. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and walks of life, and you hear some really interesting stories along the way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we were building our first property, American Beech, we initially didn’t build enough rooms!
We underestimated the hotel portion a bit while overestimating the restaurant, so we had to build additional rooms throughout Stirling Square after the fact to accommodate the guests. Having experienced this, when building Aqua by American Beech, we made the focus solely on the hotel, with dining only available to guests. With Pink Palm, we focused on the hotel first, then dining just for guests, but do plan to roll out a full food and beverage program available to the public. We learned it’s about striking a balance, getting clear on what the top priority is, and realizing every property is going to be a bit unique.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am fully of the belief that building a strong team is the foundation for any business’ success. I’m really proud of the team at American Beech Hospitality and how we’ve grown together — both as individuals and as a company. Ryan Farrell, who is now the general manager and leads the bar programs at all of the properties, has been with us for more than eight years. He started as a host at the American Beech restaurant and worked his way up to bartender, then bar manager and beyond. Another team member, Stephanie Carballo, has been with us for six years as the hotel manager and has been instrumental in operations. My former partner Alex Vinash led the design of the properties. Even though he is no longer involved in the company, he brought a really strong, beautiful design sense and style to the projects that American Beech Hospitality is now known for, and we work to continue that sense of style. Being able to build a team that allows for continued growth for all is more important than just about anything.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
It’s not necessarily a new concept or innovation, but instead getting back to some of the basics that have gotten lost at bigger hotels and chains over the years, including the concept of giving guests a personalized experience. My view of hospitality has always been to treat guests like you’re welcoming a friend to your vacation home. We get to know them, try to anticipate their needs, and make them feel at home instead of like just another numbered guest passing through. Aside from that, we also strive to provide a sense of place through design and decor. Nothing is cookie-cutter, impersonal or entirely out of place to the area and neighborhoods we’re in. When we renovate and update the properties, we keep certain elements that pay homage to the original structures and areas, and work to complement and highlight the community versus just doing our own thing entirely.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
We’re bringing personality back. Unfortunately, oftentimes the guest experience at larger hotels, and even some smaller ones, is just bland; it can feel like the hotel is just a place to lay your head and the destination is really the focus, but the two shouldn’t be so separate. The hotel should not only add to, but be a highlight of the trip, and feel like its own representation of, and complement to, the destination. As mentioned before, we strive to provide a sense of place through our design and decor, as well as through experiences offered. For instance, at our North Fork hotels we partner with local wineries for guest experience packages and offer activities like s’mores under the stars, paddle boarding and more, which really capture and highlight the essence of the area. On St. Thomas, we incorporated native plants throughout the property and are working to offer nature walks to guests so they can learn about the island’s vegetation.
We also strive to feel like an old friend that guests can come back to visit time and time again. We want to know your name. We recognize that our guests work hard to get some time away for rest, relaxation and fun, and they deserve to feel special and catered to while staying with us instead of feeling like just another person passing through a business. American Beech Hospitality brings a level of thoughtfulness and attention to detail to every aspect of our properties and guest experiences.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
I think the pendulum has swung in two ways — there are some hotels opening that are more individualized and personalized, and some that are going the other direction to being a bit more mainstream and standardized across the board. I think from a business perspective, some are seeing that guests cherish their travel experiences now more than ever and want something really special, and others view more generic, standardized properties and procedures as an “easier” way to operate. For us, we saw that our customer really demands that personalized experience, and we’re happy to lean into that in any way we can.
I also think there’s also something to be said about how COVID changed the economic and real estate landscape in terms of opening and maintaining a hotel. There has been a tremendous increase of hotels backed by big investors and private equity, whereas prior to COVID there were a lot more independently owned and operated properties. It’s a big shift in the fundamentals of the industry. The touchpoints are different between something that is backed by private equity or hedge funds versus something that is independently owned, and the end goals are usually different, too. Independently owned hotels are not necessarily looking for an exit strategy, and that difference in the end goal trickles down to the day-to-day of how things operate and the guest experience. There’s something special about a stay at an independently owned property, so the ones that are independently owned are leaning into those aspects that make them stand out.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I would say a perfect vacation experience feels personal and effortless. I really value feeling like I’ve gotten a truel sense of the place when I come home, and of course, great food and beautiful views.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Travel is absolutely about connecting — with yourself, loved ones, and the places and environments you’re traveling to. We offer guest experiences like nature walks, bicycles, kayaks, paddle boards, massages, stargazing and more, all highlighting the specific aspects of the areas we are in and offering moments of tranquility and connection. We also look to respect and protect those environments, minimizing use of single-use plastics, serving sustainably sourced food as much as possible, and partnering with organizations like the Surfrider Foundation which works to protect and preserve the world’s oceans and beaches.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Personalized Experience
As mentioned throughout our chat, I think a personalized experience is absolutely key to a wonderful guest experience that brings people back. Feeling like a hotel or restaurant is going out of their way to make your stay and experience memorable is a type of hospitality that isn’t easily forgotten. We recently had a guest stay with us at The Pink Palm who was celebrating her birthday but traveling solo. When we realized that, we invited her to a special dinner with some of our team, complete with bottles of champagne and singing happy birthday to celebrate. It was not only memorable for her, but really special to all of us. It’s why we do what we do.
2. Decor & Design That Gives a Sense of Place
Also mentioned previously, it’s really important that the hotel feels “of the place” instead of feeling like a generic design that could be lifted and planted anywhere in the world. Both American Beech and The Pink Palm are historic renovations, and we worked carefully to keep some of the original elements of the structures to retain their charm while making modern updates. We design our properties to complement their surroundings and highlight their histories, whether that’s with complementary color palettes, native plants throughout the grounds, or gentle placements of historic photos of the buildings and neighborhoods.
3. Great Food & Beverage
A beautifully designed hotel is great, but if the food and beverages aren’t up to par it can only get you so far. We use seasonal and local produce whenever we can throughout our menus, keeping that thread of connection to the locale. Changing our menus seasonally provides something new to look forward to with each stay, while signature dishes build nostalgia and keep guests looking forward to their favorites upon their return. If you have a great food and beverage program, guests will feel more at home as they don’t have to leave the property everytime they get hungry, allowing them to fully soak in the experience of the hotel, and even become more familiar and friendly with the staff. This goes a long way in building loyalty among our guests.
4. Activities to Embrace Destination
Keeping with the theme, having activities that allow the guests to connect with destination and concierge services that can easily arrange these activities makes a world of difference. The North Fork is known for its lively summer scene, wineries and waterfront, so partnering with local vineyards for tours and tastings, providing paddle boards and kayaks to enjoy our private waterfront at Aqua Beach, s’mores under the stars, and bicycles to explore the villages encourage guests to get the most of their stay. In St. Thomas, The Pink Palm will offer informative nature walks with local guides to learn about the native plants, live local music, local art gallery recommendations, concierge and taxi services to the amazing beaches that are ranked as some of the best in the world, boat charters, snorkel trips and more.
Guests are on vacation, and they should feel as such. While we always want our style of hospitality to feel comfortable and approachable, never stiff, we do train our staff to anticipate our guests’ needs and make them feel at ease. We also troubleshoot anything that comes up during their stays as quickly as possible. At American Beech and Aqua Beach we’ve decorated rooms at last-minute notice for spur-of-the-moment engagements, and have even dug through a dumpster after a guest accidentally threw out a ring. On a day-to-day basis at The Pink Palm, we offer breakfast delivered to the rooms in wicker picnic baskets filled with local fruit, coffee, pastries and yogurt. If starting your day with breakfast on your own private outdoor patio with beautiful Caribbean views, and without lifting a finger, isn’t effortless, I don’t know what is.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In every community we are part of, we partner with local organizations to give back. As mentioned earlier, we partner with the Surfrider Foundation to protect and preserve our oceans, and we also partner with the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation (CAST) on the North Fork to help low-income individuals and families in the area. We’ve been partnering with a few organizations on St. Thomas as well, and look forward to continuing to strengthen those relationships. Our gates to the property were made by My Brother’s Workshop, an organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education, and job placement to at-risk youth on the island. On more of an informal level, we just strive to be good people and act with integrity and from a place of kindness, getting to know our neighbors and working together to listen and understand how we can better the communities we are a part of.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Protecting and preserving the environment is such an important cause that affects all people. We are all inhabitants of the land and benefit from its resources and beauty, so we need to make a collective effort to preserve those resources and beauty, working to make things as sustainable as possible. At American Beech Hospitality, we’re only as successful as we are because of the natural beauty of our locations. Aside from supporting environmental causes through organizations, we also make an effort to operate our own business through this lens. One example is how we have never built on barren land and have focused on adaptive reuse of existing and historical buildings, working to help revitalize exciting downtown areas and providing an authentic travel experience versus clearing land and starting new construction.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can check our our properties on Instagram: @AmericanBeech_Official @aqua.beach.hotell @pinkpalmvi @blackllamabar
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!