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HomeNewsArchivesDONOVAN TAPPED TO HEAD NEW RITZ-CARLTON

DONOVAN TAPPED TO HEAD NEW RITZ-CARLTON

May 2, 2001 – After executive assignments in Ritz-Carlton hotels from San Francisco to Atlanta, from Boston to Houston, Carter Donovan thought she had found a true home when she moved to St. Thomas two years ago as general manager of the property here. And she had.
However, that will soon change.
Donovan has been transferred to grander, if not greener, pastures in Sarasota, Fla., where she will become the general manager of an 18-story, $130 million Ritz-Carlton scheduled to open in November.
While she sees the move as a smart one professionally, "emotionally it's been the most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my career," she says. Telling her staff of 360 a few days ago that she would be leaving was "painful — it made me cry. These people are very special. They're the greatest family in the world."
She recalls, "I was so taken with how open everybody was, when I first got here. They taught me how to be a general manager. If I was right, they'd tell me — and if I was wrong, they'd let me know."
The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas assignment was her first as a hotel general manager. Taking it on, "I was very nervous, terrified," Donovan says. "My boss in the states told me he thought I would be perfect for the job, but I'd never been a GM before, and I didn't know how well I would do."
Many who have interacted with her would say she has done well. She is very community minded, for one thing. "For some people, coming to an island is not necessarily an easy thing," she says, "but I have fallen in love with the culture, with the way of life."
The Ritz-Carlton policy is for its hotels to be a part of the community. "I had a challenge when I arrived," Donovan recalls, "because the previous hotel, the Grand Palazzo, had had problems, and there was a stigma from those days. The community wasn't involved in that hotel."
Preparing to open on the island, the Ritz-Carlton ran advertisements seeking "ladies and gentlemen to serve ladies and gentlemen." That is an approach Donovan has consciously upheld throughout her tenure. "It's about respect for the people you serve, and for yourself," she says.
'Public trust' as a tourism issue
Candid in assessing what she sees as the strong and weak aspects of the Virgin Island tourism product today, she suggests, "Let's do pluses first."
"The strongest point is the magnificent surroundings — the views, the proximity of other islands, the water." Others: "the friendly, loving people. And St. Thomas is a little like San Francisco, very cosmopolitan in restaurants, shopping and the cultural diversity."
As for the minuses, "The weakest part of tourism is not having a tourism authority with public- and private-sector members. The lack of trust from the public sector for the private sector handicaps us." The government, she says, "shouldn't be afraid of the private sector."
"We need a visionary" in charge of overseeing tourism, she continues, "someone who thinks tourism with every fibre of their body."
She adds, "I understand what Pam Richards (the governor's fourth nominee for Tourism commissioner, who has been confirmed by the Senate but has not yet taken the oath of office) wants to do, but I don't think she has put out a vision. We have a pot of gold sitting here."
Donovan came to her career as an upper-echelon hotel executive the old-fashioned way: by working her way up from an entry-level job. After graduating from San Francisco State College with a business major in the early 70s, she couldn't decide what to do. She wound up working as a waitress at Atlanta's Peachtree Plaza hotel — and discovered that she loved it. "I really fed off the people I was serving," she remembers. "I was delighted when I realized I could make people smile."
That talent was apparently noticed, as her boss promoted her to concierge. "I didn't know what concierge meant — I had to look it up in the dictionary," she recalls with a laugh.
In her 17 years with the Ritz-Carlton organization, the green-eyed blonde has done just about everything in the way of people-contact jobs: front-desk clerking, housekeeping, catering, stewarding, carrying luggage, even parking cars. And that's to her advantage as the person in charge, she says: "You have to understand the jobs people do so you are able to motivate them, inspire in them self pride in their job."
What's up in Sarasota — and still to come
The property Donovan will soon manage makes the St. Thomas resort look like, well, a small-island set-up. Scheduled to open Nov. 16, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota occupies a prominent site on the Florida west coast city's waterfront. At 261 feet, it is the tallest among the city's relatively few tall buildings. Projected initially to cost $75 million, it's now expected to come in at $55 million more.
In a departure for the luxury hotel chain, it will consist of a five-star hotel with extensive conference facilities, including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom on the bottom half and luxury condominiums on the top nine floors. The larger two of the four penthouse condos were valued at $4.3 million — each — when they were marketed in November of 1999.
The hotel portion will house 269 rooms and suites, including a 2,000-square-foot Presidential Suite. Fifty condo units were planned, but there will be 48 because two buyers each bought two so as to create larger layouts. All of the units were spoken for the same week they went on the market last year.
Next door, The Tower Residences at the Ritz-Carlton is to go up in the next two years. That 17-story complex will house 80 condo units, valued for the moment at $850,000 to $4.5 million. Meantime, across Sarasota Bay on Lido Key, the Ritz-Carlton is developing a beach club with 76 condos in a 10-story structure and beach amenities for guests and residents from all three properties. A golf course is planned, and there's talk of a water taxi to avoid the frequent traffic tie-ups on the drawbridge across the bay.
A 'new landmark' where an old one stood
The downtown hotel that Donovan will manage, now about 75 percent complete, has had the boosterism-minded city fathers and mothers agog for several years — and historic preservationists, too, albeit for different reasons. The hotel has been touted as the city's "new landmark" — an ironic reference to those still mourning the old landmarks torn down to make way for its construction, the John Ringling Towers hotel and a residence next door.
Debate raged in 1997 and 1998 between camps wanting to tear the old hotel down to make way for progress and wanting to restore it as a historic treasure.
Dating from 1926 ("historic" by Florida standards) and originally called Hotel El Verona, the structure, even abandoned and boarded up, was regarded as an important example of the Spanish/Mediterranean architecture for which Sarasota would become known. Preservations argued that there were spiritual and cultural reasons that it should be saved.
Those who favored razing noted that, ironically, it had been John Ringling's dream to have a Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota. Indeed, Ringling, the best-known scion of the circus family that put Sarasota on the map in the first half of the 20th century, started to build one himself across the bay in 1926. However, failing to get financial support, he abandoned the project and instead purchased El Verona.
Following protracted court wrangling, the John Ringling Center Foundation turned the eight-acre hotel property over to Core Development of Kansas under still-debated terms. The next year, Core signed an operating agreement with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., and the city declared Ringling Towers a public nuisance, paving the way for its demolition in June o
f 1998. Ground was broken for the Ritz-Carlton 15 months ago.
The lead developer for the new hotel, Kevin Daves, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper recently that the hotel with its planned convention facilities has "already had an effect on condominium prices [elsewhere] downtown, and some corporations may consider relocating here."
Moving there from St. Thomas, Donovan may find it reassuring that the structure is being built to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards, with windows capable of withstanding winds up to 140 miles an hour.
Construction smarts could come in handy
Donovan notes that the timeshare construction at the St. Thomas hotel has been an education, helping her develop skills she will put to use in her new Sarasota post, where work is still under way. "I had a great opportunity" in this regard, she says. "From the first day I stepped on the island, I began learning about construction and permitting processes." She also had the pleasure of attending several contentious sessions at the Legislature on zoning for the Ritz-Carlton expansion.
Pondering her impending departure later this month, Donovan says, "My husband, Kevin, and I both have aging parents in the states, so we'll be closer to them. But we have made lifelong friends here that we don't want to lose. We'll come back at least once a year."
She says her husband, who has been working for Albert Paiewonsky at Premier Liquors, supports her decision, with similar misgivings about leaving St. Thomas. "Kevin thinks he's a lucky guy to have been working for Albert," she says, calling Paiewonsky "the godfather of the hotel business on the island."
Jamie Holmes, current hotel manager at the St. Thomas property, will assume Donovan's post as general manager, and Donovan couldn't be more pleased. "We were elated when we got Jamie about two years ago," she says. "He's fabulous. When we hired him, we knew one day he would be general manager. Our company is about development, and we hire from within."

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