When Stephen Prakash took over as general manager of Seaview resort in Galloway Township, the historic compound known for its charming hotel, wedding venues and hosting the ShopRite LPGA Classic, had lost the tournament and was struggling so badly for so long that owner LaSalle Hotel Properties brought in new management, including Prakash.
Two years later, the LPGA has returned, LaSalle has unloaded the property and nearby Richard Stockton College bought it, spending nearly $10 million to refurbish the hotel lobby and suites, revamp the golf courses and establish a satellite gallery to the Noyes Museum of Art as the school will use the century-old compound to expand its hospitality and tourism programs. The hotel is managed by Dolce International, for whom Prakash works.
Prakash, 55, is a veteran of the local hospitality industry, most notably as vice president of nongaming operations at Caesars Atlantic City. Before that, he helped run properties all over the world, arriving in South Jersey from his native England 28 years ago.
The Press of Atlantic City sat down recently with the Hammonton resident to discuss Seaview's recovery and future plans - and the same for the regional hospitality and tourism industries.
Q. What made you want to get into the hospitality business?
A. I was not sure what I wanted to do after I finished high school. And my parents thought I would be good at that — at hotel and restaurant management. So I got a job at the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester, England, and loved it, and then went to college, and here we are 30-something years later.
Q: When Dolce International offered you the job as general manager of Seaview, were you aware the property had been struggling?
A: I was aware. A couple of years ago, the whole world, the whole national economy was struggling, so I think I felt at the time that this property didn't have any more struggles than anywhere else in the country. So I knew it had its challenges, but I was very, very excited by Dolce. I thought they had a wonderful business model. They run 26 or 27 upscale resorts and conference centers in North America and Europe. I just thought their attention to detail, their focus on the business and conference market, meetings, was very much in line with my values, so I was thrilled to take the opportunity when it was presented to me.
I've always loved this property, always thought it had great potential. I held events here during my time with Trump and China Grill Management, and for whatever reason -- maybe the historic nature of the property -- I was very interested when the general manager spot became available. I've worked a number of historic hotels and resorts: the Biltmore in Miami, Coral Gables, Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C. ... I ran the Belo Mansion (& Pavilion) in Dallas. Maybe it's the English-British heritage. I just sort of love these old, historic, iconic properties.
Q: Is there a balancing act in terms of accommodating the student and maintaining the guests' needs?
A: (We) are very excited about the students wanting to come here to work and learn. They are excited, they're interested, they ask great questions, they want to learn, they want to be part of Seaview and Dolce in the short- and long-term, many of them. So it's been great.
We have a number of them at the front desk, in golf, in retail, in a number of different departments. And they're all learning and asking questions. Our management team is lecturing them, guiding them, being involved in a number of different projects with them.
Q: Do you find (the golf courses) are maintaining the same customer draw?
A: I think the golf business, like most businesses, has been hurt by the recession. Business is clearly down from the high mark as for everything, including the regional economy. It's come back strongly. We have a great product that we're very proud of. Truthfully, when Dolce took this over two years and two months ago, the golf courses -- along with a number of other things -- were in need of significant upgrade, repair, maintenance capital infusion. There was a lot of deferred maintenance that Troon (International, golf management company at Seaview) has quickly jumped on board with. And then with the recent capital infusion for equipment, drainage, irrigation, some selected tree removal of cart paths on the Pines, the course has never been in better shape. Probably, never ever been in better shape.
Q: You were vice president of nongaming operations for Caesars. A casino resort has gaming revenue and other, different sources of revenue that can sort of balance one another out when necessary. Is it kind of like that (at Seaview), but on a smaller scale?
A: Yes, all these revenue streams are interdependent. Someone who stays here spends money in the spa or the retail store. Someone who comes here for a meeting might play golf even if it's not part of the meeting. So they are all dependent and independent revenue streams.
So it's just a matter of looking at the current business and saying, "Where are the opportunities?"
Q: Picking up on something you said about how long you've been in the business, you were working on Memorial Day. You work weekends, long hours. Why is it worth it to you?
A: You know, if someone had told me the hours before I got into this business, it may have discouraged me. But once I got in the business, I was learning, I loved it, I moved up pretty quickly. And it's sort of been a way of life for me.
I was food and beverage director at Casa De Campo in the Dominican Republic. Lived on the property, and every time I came out of my little villa, there was a problem, an opportunity, a challenge. I was there sort of 24/7, 365 days a year.
I think what is rewarding to me is the number of people's lives I touch. It sounds a little corny, but I meet all different types of guests, clients, groups, team members that are very interesting; they all have different needs.
My days fly by. There is never a dull moment. Every single day is different. I never look at my watch other than if I have to get to an appointment. My days just fly by. I guess I am just so used to it, I think I would be bored at a desk job. I can probably think of 10 or 12 different things I did before I met you. And each one was exciting, different, new -- and rewarding.
Q: How do you see Seaview evolving over the next 10 years?
A: Seaview will be a recipient of any increase in business in the local economy. So we definitely have our place at the table there.
I think our (golf) courses will only get better, and the reputation will get better. So I think the golf courses will really enhance the property. We looked at our food and beverage offerings, and we talked of maybe a name-brand restaurant or a celebrity chef-type restaurant.
I think Stockton will put more capital into the property over the next number of years.
And then I think they will grow the hospitality program. And we, in turn, will spend a good amount of our time helping develop our students, coaching and mentoring them. That's good for me because I'll get to choose the best of the best, having worked with them for a number of years. And it's good for Dolce because then as these students get ready to graduate and have worked at Seaview and maybe someone wants to go to Atlanta or the Napa Valley or somewhere else where we have a property or a resort, they can start their manager career with Dolce. So I think we're all excited. The sky's the limit.
And I think fine-tuning, improving, augmenting are the right words. I don't see a complete change in the business model.
Q: Is there anything you can see happening trend-wise in the regional hospitality industry during the next several years?
A: I bumped into a few people recently that use to go to Rehoboth (Beach, Del.) to the outlets. It was a ladies' weekend, and they would go from Cherry Hill to Rehoboth. Now they go from Cherry Hill to The Walk (outlet shopping mall in Atlantic City). Hopefully, they will stay at Seaview.
It's not the first person who has told me that. They used to get the ferry across or drive over the Delaware Memorial Bridge. And now, (their mindset is): Why go there when The Walk has everything we need, plus other things? Rehoboth doesn't have the dining we have here regionally.
So I think the region rebounds wonderfully, whether its one year or five years, I'm not sure, but I think Atlantic City has its best days ahead.
One thing that probably is missed (about) the regional competitor is that, yes, it does cut into the Atlantic City market. But you're also growing the market. And many, many people in Pennsylvania that now have a casino -- or slot parlor or whatever it may be -- 30 minutes away from their home who had never experienced gaming ... (are) now trying it recreationally. It's weekend entertainment. They had have never considered coming to Atlantic City, and now they in turn will want to expand their horizons and come.
So the regional competition has exposed gaming to a wider audience and, I believe, has grown the market. It's not been a complete cannibalization. Everything they have in Pennsylvania, these revenue numbers they have, they're not purely from Atlantic City. It's not dollar-for-dollar that the business has moved.
Q: And what do you hear from guests here or people you know who are guests at other places regionally, in terms of what people want that's maybe new or different than maybe 10 or 15 years ago?
A: I think amenities: the shopping, The Walk, The Pier at Caesars, Harrah's with all its amenities including The Pool, Borgata. I think you've completely broadened the client base for the region. You go to Atlantic City for a lot more than the gambling.
My daughters and their friends go to Atlantic City to dine, to shop and to go to a club or something. I ask them when they come back, "Did you gamble?"
"Oh, no, we didn't gamble."
They've probably been (there) 15 or 20 times last year, and I probably heard of gambling once. I'm not sure that would have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. In fact, I'm sure it wouldn't be the case. So they are certainly appreciating the new dining options and other nongaming options.
Q: So that's offered now, and people want it because it's there. But was that something people were asking for prior to expanding all of those options?
A: No, 15 years ago it was gambling. Whether it was a day-tripper or high-roller on a weekend, it was things to bring gamblers in. Ninety percent of our revenue came from gambling, and very little came from selling hotel rooms or retail or dining.
And I guess 12, 15 years ago, we started paying attention to the Las Vegas model. Obviously, they were bringing in 50 percent or more of their revenue in from nongaming, from shows, entertainment, shopping, retail, etc.
There were no celebrity chefs in Atlantic City 10 years ago. None. Back in 1996, probably the most innovative food-and-beverage concept was probably the Fantasy Reef (buffet) at Harrah's. Now look: You've got Wolfgang Puck, you've got Il Mulino, Carmine's, The Palm, Red Square.
Q: How do you think that affected the effectiveness of cross-promotion enticing people to stay here because it is just a drive away?
A: Not everyone wants to stay in a casino. Not everyone on a weekend can get a room in a casino. So, yes, as I said earlier we will be a recipient of the resurgence in the economy that is coming ... hopefully, not in the not-too-distant future.
A lot of people want a nice, relaxing day at Seaview, some golf and then, maybe on Saturday night, they'll go into Atlantic City, spend six hours there seeing a show or dining and gambling and then come back here to a relaxing environment.
Contact Emily Previti: 609-272-7221 EPreviti@pressofac.com