Rick Duarte: General Manager of Sundara Inn & Spa

My NativeAdVice:

How did you get into the hospitality industry

To say I was born and raised in it isn’t too far from the truth. The back room of the kitchen in my grandfather’s little Mexican restaurant in Pico Rivera, California, was my day care center from age three until I started kindergarten. It seems I was destined for a career in hospitality, especially the food and beverage industry. My first job was as a dishwasher at a steakhouse in my hometown of Hacienda Heights, California. I moved quickly through the back-of-the-house ranks to prep person and then on to meat cutter (I was the youngest meat cutter in the company at age 18). I also worked as a cook at night, then bussed tables and then added waiter to my resume. My mother worked for Bank of America and wanted me to be a banker. I went to college to study business administration and finance at night while working during the day at the Bank of America real estate loan center as the payment processing manager. Bank of America subsidized my education as long as I worked for them. I liked what I did but I didn’t love it. I found myself spending my weekends working in restaurants or night clubs for friends who needed help. As I entered my senior year of college, and against my mother’s wishes, I left Bank of America and, with a friend, opened a new restaurant and night club for an emerging restaurant group formed by many of the managers for whom I had worked in my early days. From that moment on I was committed to being in hospitality and I have never looked back. My bio includes stints in nearly every position available at nearly every type of hospitality property – restaurant, night club, hotel, country club, resort – but never a spa. That is, until I was offered the opportunity to be general manager of Sundara Inn & Spa back in May 2007.

Tell us about Sundara Inn & Spa. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the hotel?

Sundara was the vision of Ms. Kelli Trumble, a native of Wisconsin Dells and former tourism director for the state. She wanted to create an adult-only destination spa in this resort community that would be rooted in Ayurvedic wellness, influenced by the energy balance of feng shui principles, and guided by organic and sustainable practices. The goal was to create a sanctuary from stress.

My vision is to stay true to the roots of Sundara while also being cognizant of the ever-changing needs of guests and open to ever-changing trends in the industry. It means reinventing ourselves and never resting on our laurels while making certain we maintain the spirit of Sundara that made it beloved by guests since the day it opened in 2003. My ultimate goal is always to create a unique experience that is Sundara’s and Sundara’s alone that, in turn, offers guests an escape to call their own.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Sundara Inn & Spa's success?

Sundara presents a very tactile, visual, emotional and, in many respects, spiritual experience. Our guests expect us to align ourselves with partners of like mind. To that end, we seek out partners that have a compelling story to tell about what they produce and why they produce it, thus creating an emotional connection with guests. This philosophy may not bring us partnerships with the greatest name recognition but it does result in partnerships that enhance the lives of our guests. We have found this to be most evident with two of our partners – VOYA and Hydropeptide, both family operations not looking to be the biggest but the best.

On the marketing side, we study which media outlets produce the greatest brand connection and hone in on those. Social media is playing an increasingly important role in our marketing.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

I have found there is a fine line between fad and trend in the spa industry.  For example, most recently many spas added a Haamam to their spa, at great expense I might add, and we were being pushed to follow suit. As I was not familiar with an authentic Hammam experience I did some research and experienced the service at a number of stateside resort spas. What I found was a great divide between what I had read and the experiences being offered at spas. I was further convinced of that disconnect when I was able to experience an authentic Hammam in Morocco. I realized then that a Hammam would likely not be successful in our region because the majority of Americans would not feel comfortable with the true level of nudity and touch required.

As to trends we believe hold merit, the most consistent trend in the last five years would have to be anti-aging and the pursuit of new ways to live younger longer. Guests are eager to try anti-aging treatments covering a wide spectrum, from natural anti-aging to manufactured products. Think micro-current non-invasive facelifts to hydrofacials to stems cells to natural collagen to mineral applications to supplements. I predict the anti-aging trend will give rise to other treatment trends well into the future.

Life motto?

Look at every challenge as an opportunity and every opportunity as a challenge to emerge even better.

Sundara Inn & Spa's motto? 

Energize Your Soul

Your greatest success as GM of Sundara Inn & Spa? Most difficult moment - how did you overcome and what did you learn?

While some may point to the plus column in spreadsheets as their greatest success, I consider my greatest successes to be tied to the successes of the people with whom I work. I have a reservations manager who started at Sundara as a reservationist at age 18, no college education, feeling she couldn’t climb the corporate ladder. She was quiet, meek, and didn’t want to make waves. Over the course of two years, she grew professionally, became more confident. I took the opportunity to ask her what she wanted in life, what she wanted to achieve. She told me she wanted to be a manager but felt certain it would never happen because she didn’t have a college degree. I was quick to tell her that I knew a lot of people with a diploma and it didn’t make them great managers and I also knew a lot of people who didn’t have a degree but had great street smarts and a great work ethic to match and went on to achieve much higher levels in their careers than they ever thought possible. We worked together on a plan and strategy to get her to reservations manager, which she achieved, and she’s taken her department to new heights in the process. I helped guide her and mentor her, but she was the one who set her sights on what she wanted and achieved it! Now at only 25, she has become my go-to person for many things.

My most difficult moment came early on in my tenure with Sundara when I had to make some very tough decisions in order to put Sundara on a path of growth in profitability. I had to cut, adjust, define and standardize many things. The staff and wage reductions were personally my greatest challenge. It’s only natural that employees would feel resentment, anger, animosity and distrust, so it was a double-edge sword of trying to keep the organization healthy while also knowing you are affecting people’s lives. While I knew the changes were vital, it didn’t make it any easier. I developed a plan to give all who would be negatively affected enough notice so they could make their own decision whether to stay or leave. In the end, we lost no line staff even though their pay structure was changed. Today Sundara is on much stronger financial footing and the team is strong too.

Your advice to an aspiring hotelier?

Always know that your greatest source of information as to how you, your staff and your property are performing is right there in your operation - it’s your guest.  You needn’t pay a “consultant” to tell you what you need to improve on. Your guest either already has, will or can tell you for free or relatively free. A mentor of mine once told me, “It’s very simple. Guests vote with their feet. If they don’t like what you are or what you have become, they will walk out the door and never come back. The trick is to get their input before they walk out.” If you want to know how you are doing, make a point to invite guests to lunch several times a month. The information you get will be very valuable.

This same approach works well with line staff as well. If your mid-level managers are not bringing issues to you, then walk the halls, listen for common threads of concern, and start to investigate. More often than not the only action required is to simply serve as the mediator between staff and manager to help them work through an issue.

But the most important advice would be to remember you are never too old or too experienced to learn!  I learn something every day from the staff, supervisors, managers and especially the guests. Once you think you know it all, your fate in this industry is close at hand.

Describe the ideal experience at Sundara Inn & Spa.

To spend two to three days with the most important person or people in your life to experience the Sundara version of the 3 R’s – Relax, Rejuvenate and Reconnect.

How important are architecture/design to the success of Sundara Inn & Spa?

The soaring organic-style architecture, the feng shui interior design, the setting deep in a pine forest, they all help define the Sundara experience. Yet I believe it’s the energy and good intentions of our staff that have made us successful.  The employees are the soul of Sundara, they are the mortar that holds together all the bricks that create the Sundara experience.

How do you motivate your employees?

Every employee is motivated in different ways; you can’t simply treat them all the same. You have to take the time to understand what inspires each person to perform at their highest level. It may be a just a thank you or public recognition for a job well done, while for others it’s more closely tied to money and time.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?  

Sushi and a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2009 or 2010

What literature is on your bed stand?

I am dyslexic, so I do not read much, only what I have to, because it isn’t enjoyable, it’s truly a chore. I do listen to podcasts or books on tape, including pop culture documentaries about my rock idols like Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Lately, I have become interested in design and architecture and have subscribed to digital and print editions of magazines covering those fields. 

Role model - business and personal?

Business – I would have to say the Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, they just do everything to the highest level.

Personal – my father, he was a great man!  You won’t find his name on a building or in a book but he taught me an incredibly important lesson on how to be a good communicator. He taught me that no matter the situation, those around you are likely feeling just as shy, scared or out of place as you, so be the first one to extend your hand and start a conversation to put them at ease and you will make life easy for yourself and for them.  I always said that my dad could go into a room with a 100 strangers and come out with a 100 friends! Having been taught that lesson has helped me tremendously in my career in hospitality.

Current passion?

Mentorship! I have been fortunate in my life to have three great mentors and I feel it is my duty to give back and pay forward.

Favorite travel destination?

Anywhere there is sun, sand, not many people and NO kids! I would have to say my favorite destination of late is India. I traveled there in 2013 to attend the Global Spa & Wellness Summit at which His Holiness the Dahlia Lama spoke. The state of Kerala in India in particular was absolutely awe-inspiring. It is rich in history, ceremony and tradition and its people are giving in a way I have never experienced. Most had not much more to give than a smile and kind word but they would have given you all they had. I would like to experience more of India in the future, especially northern India and the Himalayas.

What's next for Sundara Inn & Spa?

We are continually exploring new ways to be the best version of Sundara that we can be, always staying true to our mission of wellness in all we do. Good reason to stay tuned!