Joe Velasquez is a true hospitality veteran. He’s spent time with major hotel brands: Marriott, Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and more in both the resort and lifestyle segments. He’s repositioned hotels on both coasts, coaching them through multi-million-dollar renovations and traveling across the globe in sales and marketing roles. Now, the Philadelphia native is taking on a new challenge: director of sales and marketing at Georgia’s Château Élan Winery & Resort.
What made you want to get into the hospitality industry?
I used to spend my summers in Central America, where my uncle was the general manager at the Intercontinental Hotel in Panama City. As a little boy, I would hang out at the pool, and he would come out and buy me lunch. I thought, “Wow, what a great job that is!” I think that’s how hotels got in my blood. Now I realize there’s more to hotels than just buying people lunch, but I think that’s what really attracted me to hospitality. And the reason I’ve been to all resort destinations with warm weather is because as much as I enjoy my Philly roots and my Philadelphia Eagles, I do not like shoveling snow. I’ve been lucky enough to be in warm weather destinations for pretty much my entire hotel career.
What are some things that set the Château Élan Winery & Resort apart from other properties you’ve worked at?
What I always say about resort properties is you usually want to have the green or the blue: the “green” meaning golf, and the “blue” meaning the ocean. I’ve worked at outstanding golf resorts, like the Fairmont and the Ritz-Carlton. This property has the green in that we have wonderful courses of golf, but we also have a full functioning winery. We’re the largest winery on the East Coast. We produce our own wine, bottle our own wine on property and it just adds a unique element to the hotel. You pull into the front of the hotel and you’re driving amongst the grapevines on both sides and then you have this property that sits on 3,500 acres of land with spa villas, golf course villas and the Chateau Inn all along the property — you have three very distinct types of room product.
The Château Élan Winery & Resort was sold in January 2018 to Wheelock Street Capital and is now undergoing approximately $30 million in renovations. What sorts of challenges are you experiencing with the renovations and with this new position?
The renovation is being done very tactfully and in different segments. We are staying open through the renovation process, so we want to make sure the guest experience is not affected in any way. What’s unique to me about this property is that it’s a pure destination sell. A lot of the hotels that I’ve been at before were more city-center hotels. With this property, we are close to Atlanta, but we are a 45-minute drive from the city, so it is a destination that doesn’t get a lot of walk-in traffic. We really rely on the group segment and most of our walk-in traffic is on the weekends. [The challenge is] balancing that transient customer with the group customer.
Have you ever gotten to meet one of your favorite Eagles players, given all of the different hotels you’ve worked with?
When I was at the Ritz-Carlton in Maui we hosted the NFL owners meeting, and I got to meet just about everybody I wanted to meet. I met Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Eagles, I met Andy Reid, who was the head coach of the Eagles, and I met Ron Jaworksi, the former quarterback of the Eagles. I also got to meet some of the Eagles’ competitors. I went in the gym one day and Troy Aikman (the quarterback from the Cowboys) was in there working out. I introduced myself as an Eagles fan and he turned to me and said, “Joe, how does an Eagles fan get all the way out to Hawaii?” I told him, “You know, I’m working in hotels and it got me out here, but I remain loyal to my Eagles.” So that was a great experience. The industry has really given me an opportunity to experience some cool things, a lot of stuff to brag to mom about.
What’s coming next for the hospitality industry?
The industry has been in an upward swing for probably about seven years now as a whole, nationwide. I’m hopeful that the run continues and that nothing happens with the economy, and that the industry continues to flourish. It’s an industry that I still love waking up every day and coming to work.