General Manager of the Year

Karen Whitt, general manager of the Regent Palms, has a high profile in the important luxury travel advisor market.
Karen Whitt, general manager of the Regent Palms, has a high profile in the important luxury travel advisor market.

There’s no typical day for Karen Whitt, general manager of the Regent Palms Turks and Caicos in Providenciales, but one of her key goals each morning is to engage with as many resort guests as she can.

“I like to make my way through the dining room at breakfast; that’s a great time to meet guests, when they’re starting the day and they’re not really in a hurry,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. Engagement, in fact, is a recurring theme for Whitt, who was voted “Top General Manager Worldwide” by the readers of Luxury Travel Advisor in our annual Awards of Excellence program.

Case in point: One needs only to speak briefly to Whitt to realize that she’s passionate about interacting with her team at the hotel, with the Turks and Caicos community and with her very large fan base of luxury travel advisors. In fact, advisor outreach is at the top of her priority list.

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“It’s critical that you relate to your clients on a personal level and the best way to do that is through their travel advisors,” says Whitt, who has been the general manager of the Regent Palms Turks and Caicos since February 2011. During her tenure, the resort has been consistently recognized as a leading resort in Turks and Caicos and among the top resorts in the world by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure.

“It’s very important for us to get to know luxury travel advisors on a personal level,” she says. “We want them to know us, to see the type of people we are. We want them to understand the vision and the tone and the atmosphere of the resort because it does all start at the top, right? The person at the top kind of sets the tone for the experience.”

For this reason, Whitt can be found at the major luxury travel shows where she knows she’ll be able to engage with advisors directly. To show her appreciation for their business, she’ll also host dinners here in the States for about 10 to 12 advisors at a time; she was most recently in Dallas doing just that.

The Resort’s Penthouse Living Room. Throughout the year, it houses VIPs who have high expectations from the Regent Palms.
 
The Resort’s Penthouse Living Room. Throughout the year, it houses VIPs who have high expectations from the Regent Palms.

“It’s not a sales initiative, we’re just hosting a dinner,” she says. “We talk to them, we listen, if they want to talk business, great, if they don’t then that’s fine, too, because what we’re really trying to do is say ‘thank you’ for their support.”

The resort also hosts a robust number of advisor familiarization trips; on average, it’s 12 a year with eight to 12 participants at a time who get to experience all the aspects of the Regent Palms, and beyond. Whitt feels it’s important for advisors to see as much of the entire island as possible and encourages them to conduct site inspections at other resorts. She’ll also host them at restaurants throughout the island so they understand its overall culinary offerings.

“I have very strong relationships with a lot of travel advisors,” Whitt tells us. “They’ve come to know us and to trust us. It’s also very important to us that we get their constant feedback; that helps us do new things every day. The most important thing is that they are our partners and we value those relationships, we hold them very dear. We try to do everything we can from the outreach perspective to make sure they know this.”

On property, Whitt, who had a marketing and communications background before going into hotel operations, prefers to take a non-traditional approach to motivate her staff. For example, she knows that everyone can relate to music; just one example of how she might start a morning meeting, say, during the very busy high season when everyone might be feeling a bit worn out, would be to play India Arie’s “A Beautiful Day,” whose lyrics start out with, “Life is a journey, not a destination. Let’s make this a wonderful, let’s make this a powerful, let’s make this a beautiful day.”

This, however, was not a sit-down-and-sing sort of activity; Whitt had printed the lyrics on paper and passed them around the room so the team could first read the words, then sing along with the video.

“It worked quite well,” recalls Whitt. “It really did what I needed it to do; it made everybody stand up and dance, and that’s how we started the meeting.”

Ensuring she has this close link with those on property is a key to her success, and the resort’s.

“Staying connected with my team is the most important part of my day, because they are really the heartbeat of everything,” she says. For this reason, as is the case at many hotels, the day begins with a morning briefing, pulling in all departments to review arrivals and departures; they’ll also review any issues that might be outstanding from the previous day. “Red alert” concerns, which comprise issues that might require follow-up from a senior manager, as well as potential weather issues or social happenings at the resort that could impact the guest experience are all part of the round-robin review briefing.

 
His Excellency, Turks and Caicos’ Governor Peter Beckingham and his wife, Jill Beckingham with the Regent Palms’ Karen Whitt at this year’s “In the Pink” fundraiser.

Because guest expectations at the Regent Palms are so high, Whitt’s team is well-chosen, based on skill set and experience. But perhaps even more vital to their DNA is a can-do personality. “You can teach skills but you can’t teach love for the industry, that positive attitude, that good spirit,” she advises. “It’s also so important for us that we’re a team. We work very closely together, we communicate and we over communicate with each other. No one is isolated or independent, we try always to work together and we support each other.”

Such requirements can actually pose a challenge when it comes to making new additions to the resort’s team.

“To be honest, it’s not easy to find the right people to fit into our group because they have to buy into our vision, they have to be as passionate about it as we are,” says Whitt. “You’re not delivering something from a textbook or an SOP manual, so it really does have to be from the heart. And I’m just so thankful and so blessed that we have people here who fit into that criteria.”

As a result, Whitt is able to report that she has no fear; she feels she can handle anything at the resort because she has the right people by her side. “Even if I can’t do it myself, I have confidence that someone on my team possesses the talent; it’s really a well-rounded group,” she says.

A family vibe also exists at the Regent Palms. “We work hard and we play hard together, we really do,” says Whitt. “We all know each other quite well. I know every single staff member by name and I know a lot about their families. There’s a sense of belonging, I think, with everybody that works here.”

She says it’s vital to engage with her staff and to ensure they are happy. “It’s only then that they are best equipped to provide the best customer service,” she says. “When things go wrong, I take a breath and remind myself of the incredible team I am surrounded by. I feel my employees are a direct reflection of me and I trust them with our vision. I always try to speak in such a way that they want to listen and I listen in such a way that they like to speak.”

Along those lines, she’s launched fun initiatives at the resort, including a program called “Regent’s Got Talent,” a staff-produced talent show in which everyone participates. Each December, all of the hotel’s departments compete against each other in Olympic-style sporting events. In spring, the hotel’s staff and their families are invited to a children’s Easter egg hunt at the resort.

Such thoughtful annual practices, coupled with those creative methods of launching morning meetings (think singing or dancing or having a surprise guest run into the room with lit sparklers), all provide a necessary strong bonding and a creative spin to the workflow at the Regent Palms.

“I’ve done so many different things because we work really hard and it’s an exhausting industry,” says Whitt. “And when you’re giving from your heart, it’s all about mental concentration.”

Giving Back

Giving from the heart extends beyond the resort’s walls, for Whitt is very involved with community outreach in Providenciales. Six years ago she launched “In the Pink,” which is held every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to raise funds for the local National Cancer Society. An instant hit with the affluent social scene, “In the Pink” has become one of the biggest events of the year on the island. Through it, leading women in the area are designated as “In the Pink” hosts, who reach out to their friends to donate designer clothing, shoes and accessories. Each host is assigned a guest room at the Regent Palms that they fill with the clothing they’ve had donated, and on the day of the “In the Pink” event, women in the region line up to shop for the heavily discounted designer wear with the intent on finding, say, a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or a Prada purse.

“We sell, literally, thousands of pieces of clothing. It’s absolutely incredible,” says Whitt. When the shopping frenzy ends, an after-party kicks in. The party is hosted with the help of the local rugby association, which assists with crowd control and a silent auction of donated hotel stays from resorts in the area. Local “celebrity” bartenders volunteer to serve drinks and a DJ hosts an outdoor dance party that goes well into the night. This year’s “In the Pink” raised $30,000.

On a daily basis, Whitt is also extremely involved with island activities. Since moving to Turks and Caicos in 2005 (she was first general manager of the Somerset resort), she has been quite active in the Turks and Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association; she served as president from 2008 to 2013 and remains on its board of directors. This June, she was elected the third vice president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the regional governing body of the Hotel Association. She also sits on the board of directors for the local community college and serves as the secretary for its fundraising arm.

There’s a convivial vibe amongst the hoteliers in Turks and Caicos; though competitors, they all get along quite well. “We’re not just friends, we’re very good friends. We’re not just colleagues, we socialize together and we promote the destination together,” says Whitt, noting that in May, she and her fellow GMs hit the road with the local tourist board and the hotel association to promote the destination to markets in the U.S. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. There’s this feeling of cooperation and a strong sense of community. We count on each other and we actually have fun with each other,” she adds.

This past summer, the association hosted a series of camps for local children. One of its biggest initiatives is “Little Chefs,” which encourages kids to consider the culinary-arts field as a career by providing internships and trainee programs at the hotels that participate. It all culminates in a cooking competition alongside chefs from the local resorts.

The association spearheads a major cleanup campaign for the islands twice a year. It also launched a Star Award program to recognize workers in the industry. And, adding to the tourist attractions in the destination, the hotel association worked with the Turks and Caicos Cultural & Arts Commission to launch “Maskanoo,” which is designed to heighten awareness of the local culture. Held each December 26, “Maskanoo” is a morphing of “Junkanoo” from the Bahamas and a Masquerade event, comprised of street parades, local music, island food and local arts and crafts.

Another key event that’s evolving year after year is the Caribbean Food & Wine Festival held in Providenciales. Now in its fourth year, the event is hosted by Grace Bay Resorts, in partnership with the Turks and Caicos Tourist Board and The Wine Cellar in Providenciales. The non-profit event will be held this November 6-8 and will raise funds for the Department of Youth Affairs and the “Little Chefs” program. Whitt has embraced the program since its inception; the Regent Palms' Parallel 23 restaurant is one of the top stops on the festival's Gourmet Safari. 

A Long-term Love

The Caribbean has long held Whitt in its thrall. In 1998, she left her hometown of Dallas, TX, and headed to Jamaica, using her expertise in the marketing and public relations field to promote the island. The operations aspect of hospitality piqued her interest, however, and when she got the chance to manage the Sea Splash Resort in Negril, Whitt headed to the Cornell University School of Hospitality Administration to enter its general manager’s program. Moving into the general manager’s seat felt like a logical transition for her, she says. 

“I just loved it; it was just such a natural thing for me and I’ve never looked back.”

In 2005, she moved to the Turks and Caicos Islands to help open the Somerset on Grace Bay, which was still in the development phase. In February 2011, after about five years as the Somerset’s general manager, she moved next door to the Regent Palms.

Being on the island felt like a natural fit from the very beginning. “The first time I visited 11 years ago, I knew it was a very special place, full of special people and amazing potential,” Whitt recalls. She remembers being awestruck by the beauty of the beaches, but she was also drawn to the amount of development going on in Turks.

“The world was just learning about this amazing destination,” she says, which spoke to the fact that she’s a creative person who loves to build new things. “It seemed a natural fit from the beginning. I was very excited to join forces and be a part of something that was evolving into a top destination.”

Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of the Signature Travel Network, told us that Whitt had a strong impact on the evolution of the Regent Palms from the moment she arrived.

“Karen has done a remarkable job at the Regent Palms,” says Maza. “When the property first opened, it’s fair to say that the resort did not meet the high expectations of its guests. As soon as Karen arrived as general manager, everything changed for the better. Today, the Regent Palms is considered not only one of the top properties in Turks and Caicos, but in the entire Caribbean region.”

Just as she embraced Turks and Caicos, Whitt also embraced her role as general manager. For her, it has become a natural fit, and it’s a role she seeks to further perfect.

“Being a good leader is my number-one goal,” says Whitt. “Having a great vision is useless without a qualified and motivated team to bring concepts to life and execute on a daily basis. It’s what distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary.”

Moving forward, her intent is to continue focusing on engaging with everyone who plays a part in the Regent Palms’ landscape. “I believe the key to success in our industry is communication, whether it’s with our travel partners, our owners, our guests or our staff; you have to keep communicating,” she says.

Keeping a keen eye on using technology and strategies to constantly improve services at the resort is also a key goal, but so is keeping the “human” factor in the ongoing operations at the Regent Palms.

“It’s not only about the product, it’s about the people and the lives we touch on a daily basis,” says Whitt. “That’s the true joy and the reward of being in our industry, and the most important thing.”

Accolades for Karen Whitt

“The General Manger of the Year Award is a well-deserved accolade for Karen Whitt. Karen’s ongoing passion has established not just the Regent Palms, but the awareness of Turks and Caicos as a top Caribbean destination. Congratulations to Karen and the entire Regent Palms Turks and Caicos team, as this award truly captures the quality of service and first-class experiences they all put forth.”

—Albert Herrera, SVP, Global Product Partnerships, Virtuoso, Ltd.

“We congratulate Karen on her many accomplishments, and thank her for taking exceptional care of our Signature clients. Karen’s passion, caring spirit, leadership, and commitment to deliver excellence are second to none. Karen also needs to be commended for all her work on behalf of the tourism industry of Turks and Caicos. The islands could not ask for a better ambassador.”

—Ignacio Maza, EVP, Signature Travel Network

“I knew from the moment I met Karen that her personal style and sophistication would naturally translate into elevating any hotel that she helmed. A general manager is the heartbeat of a hotel; guests can immediately feel that beat entering Regent Palms with its warm hospitality and inviting charm. We implicitly trust our most discerning clientele to Karen and her seasoned team.”

—Laurie Palumbo, COO, Island Destinations

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