Kennedy in Conversation with...David Meisner. Dual GM of Aloft/Element Downtown Austin
For our in-depth monthly series on all things Austin and events-related, we recently sat down with David Meisner, the dual general manager of the hot new hotel duo, Element and Aloft Austin Downtown, to talk about the food & beverage biz and the hot property heating up downtown Austin with its eateries, Caroline and Upstairs at Caroline. What’s good in the neighborhood? Read on to find out.
KENNEDY CREATIVE EVENTS: First question: How do you find your way into hotel management, and what gave you your start?
DAVID MEISNER, DUAL GM, ELEMENT DOWNTOWN AUSTIN + ALOFT DOWNTOWN AUSTIN: Interestingly enough, I found my way in as a busboy at a restaurant at a hotel. That’s how I earned money through high school and then as I went into college — I went to San Diego State — (I) grew up in San Diego and was getting my finance degree but continued to work in hotels in various positions as a means to pay for my college. And then when I got my degree, I decided that I didn’t want to cold-call people and ask them for their money. I’d rather welcome them into my hotel instead.
KENNEDY: What advice would you give to somebody that’s just starting out or wants to find a role similar to yours?
MEISNER: I would say: don’t be afraid to start from the bottom and work your way up. You know, we all want to get that title and we all want to get there quick, but there’s a lot to say about learning what it means to work in different positions in a hotel and understanding what your team members go through to be successful or the hurdles that are in front of them and how you help them and support them. Ensure you have a passion to serve people. At the end of the day, we have a servant’s heart, and if your happiness isn’t predicated on someone else’s, then it’s probably not the right business for you. If it’s all about you, it’s not the right place to be.
KENNEDY: So, from your perspective, what is the most exciting thing about Aloft’s arrival in downtown Austin?
MEISNER: Being the first Aloft in downtown Austin, (and) being the first Element in Austin as a whole. There’s nothing like this type of Aloft or this type of Element anywhere in the world, let alone in Austin. So I think it’s nice to marry two unique brands and bring to Austin and give it a very different option…. I think it’s a unique hotel. There’s no meeting space, it’s not a convention hotel, it’s very much a transient-stay hotel, and it has some really neat food and beverage that I think adds to the experience for the guests.
KENNEDY: It’s also become someplace that locals go to hang out. It seems like that’s been something of a challenge for a lot of downtown Austin hotels — to become a local spot. How do you think it’s become such a natural fit?
MEISNER: You know, it started with the design and with what (White Lodging founder, chairman and CEO) Bruce White did. So if you look at the first floor restaurant, right, there’s no hotel. You’re talking about being a relevant hotel — I think we’re actually relevant in food and beverage spaces first before we’re a relevant hotel. So the restaurant is a place where you can come have breakfast, lunch, dinner, enjoy a cup of coffee, and not feel like you’re in a hotel. And even the second floor, although it shares with the lobby, you can enter from Congress (Avenue) and never ever feel like you’re in a hotel spot. You’re really in a local spot. And we created this this relevant atmosphere with the locals before we created a relevant atmosphere with our guests of the hotel. So it’s created this very unique energy in the space that doesn’t matter how busy the hotel is — that space is gonna be crankin’.
KENNEDY: You mentioned earlier that you do upwards of 500 covers for Sunday brunch. What makes you the brunch spot for that many people?
MEISNER: It’s a couple of different things. When you look at what’s on Congress, especially in this part of downtown — not that we’re busy because there aren’t a lot of options, but there aren’t a lot of options, right? So we’re kind of the only show in town. But I think the simplicity of what we do… it’s just great food, and it’s good food that’s done consistently. We don’t want to be amazing and (yet) you have highs and lows. Today, we just want to do really good food that’s consistently executed. It’s where you can come in and get the chicken and waffles one time, and you come back again and it’s gonna be the same quality of chicken and waffles. So, not trying to overcomplicate it and just making it a very welcoming approachable neighborhood spot.
I think our prices are approachable. It’s not something where you walk and for dinner for two you’re gonna have to drop a hundred bucks. For a dinner for two, we’re probably 50 or under, which in a downtown setting I think is pretty approachable. So I think it’s positioned well to be welcoming, whether it’s a dinner date or whether it’s. individual dining or whether it’s a business party — whatever it is, it makes sense.
KENNEDY: When you come here for lunch, brunch, dinner… what are you eating?
MEISNER: Oh, jeez. So, the enchiladas are not just a personal favorite of mine, but are (also) a favorite, I think, of those who visit us often. But the interesting thing about our menu is that it doesn’t really lean one way or the other — it’s very eclectic and covers a broad range, whether it’s enchiladas or the quinoa chili bowl or the chicken schnitzel. You would never see all these things on one menu, but that’s what makes it fun and what makes it neat.
KENNEDY: What would you say are the three components of both hotels that you feel are the most exciting, not only to Austin for locals and tourists, but for you? What three things stand out?
MEISNER: I’d be hard pressed not to say the food and beverage, between Caroline and Upstairs at Caroline, and the energy that it brings to the atmosphere of the two hotels is, I think, unlike anything down here. White Lodging has some great hotels, and I think we’ve taken it to a whole new level in terms of what the food and beverage concepts bring.
I think it’s a unique space. You know, it’s a space that kind of has that spa-like feeling, and it’s very tranquil and peaceful, and then you put that together with the complete opposite downstairs, where it’s very industrial, very contemporary and loud and gregarious and outgoing. To me, that’s very unique to be able to put those two things together and make it work.
The last thing is just — for me, it’s the people. We have almost 300 people employed in the hotel. To have 300 very unique individuals in the hotel that take these two food and beverage concepts and these two very unique, different brands and make it into this wonderful experience through service — to me, that’s that’s what makes us different — the people.
KENNEDY: With the dual property having just opened recently, we’re guessing there’s no such thing as a “typical day” for you. But going back to that initial question of how people can prepare for a career in this industry, what are some pillars you feel like you’re touching base with pretty constantly, day to day?
MEISNER: As a GM, what I should be doing as a GM versus what my team should be doing are two completely different things. So, where I try to spend most of my time right now is really in two areas. It’s “tell/show” and “inspect.” Teaching the team and supporting the team and mentoring the team — that’s tell/show… tell them what’s expected of them, show them how you expect it to be done, and then allow them a space to go get it done, but don’t forget to come back and inspect it to ensure that it’s being done in a way that will propel us to get the results we want to get.
And when I say results, it really starts with that environment we create for our team, where our associates need to come in and feel really good about where they’re working. That then creates a great environment for guests to be able to stay, and that in turn makes it successful from a financial standpoint and from a growth standpoint.
For me, it’s really in that show/tell stage, and then in that inspect stage. That’s where I spend most of my time. It might sound weird, but if I’m doing a lot, I’m failing. It’s not about how much I can do — it’s about how much I can get out of my team, and how much that team can get out of their team, and so on and so forth. That’s how we create a really good, unified team. It can’t be about what one person does; it has to be about the collective.
KENNEDY: Well, you sound like a good boss. For people reading this, are you still looking to fill positions?
MEISNER: We’re always looking to fill line-level positions. Whether it’s a front desk agent or whether it’s a housekeeper or whether it’s a server in the restaurant, a bartender… we never stop hiring for those positions because we’ll never turn away talent.
From a leadership perspective, we only actually have one leadership position open, which for a hotel that has just opened is unheard of. We had one person turn over since we opened, and typically in a hotel leadership team you’ll turn over about 50 percent of your team. So, I’m not celebrating one person leaving — I don’t want anyone to — but I think it’s just a testament to what the team has been able to do.
KENNEDY: Since we plan events, what do you think makes the space perfect for groups, whether it’s corpoate or social? What spaces would you say are best fits for either?
MEISNER: I would say the first thing is the location of the hotel. You know, we’re close to the action but we’re not right on top of the action. So I think proximity to — whether it’s Sixth Street, or whether it’s Rainey, or whether it’s West or the warehouse district, or whatever it might be — Lady Bird Lake — we have a great proximity which puts us within walking distance. I’m hard pressed not to say Upstairs at Caroline. We’ve used it for various types of buyouts, whether it’s receptions, whether it’s lunches, whatever the heck it might be, it’s a really neat kind of outdoor backyard space that you just really don’t get down here. So, for me, proximity is amazing.
I think the unique food and beverage spaces we have to offer are amazing. And then, I would say the friendly approachable warm service that we’ve gotten accustomed to providing the first four months and will continue to provide. It’s not this over-the-top, luxurious service — it’s just very warm and very friendly and very much there to be of assistance but not get in your way. This is that type of hotel that kind of propels that type of service — we’re not a Four Seasons, we’re not a Ritz, we’re not even a W. We’re different different beast. A different energy.
KENNEDY: Fitting easily into the Austin ethos means a myriad of things to different people, but having grown up in San Diego, what would you say are some similarities between the two cities?
MEISNER: I guess I would say, growing up in San Diego, I think Austin does an amazing job of marrying entertainment/nightlife and dining with living a healthy, balanced life. I don’t think a lot of cities can do that very well — it’s either one or the other. But this is that type of city where you can drink your face off on a Friday night and Saturday morning you’re gonna be running around Lady Bird Lake with a thousand other people that drank their face off the night before as well.
KENNEDY: You’ve worked in Chicago, too, right?
MEISNER: Yep. San Diego, Chicago, Cincinnati, Fort Lauderdale, and here.
KENNEDY: Chicago’s kind of like that.
MEISNER: Well, you’re forced, right? The weather is tough. I mean, I went from San Diego to Chicago, never saw snow fall from the sky for 28 years and then in Chicago saw it more than anything. But you have to take advantage of every (nice) day you have in Chicago because if you don’t, you might not get that day back for weeks. Whereas, in Austin, it’s beautiful, just like San Diego, and what’s interesting for Austin is the fact that people take advantage of it. They don’t say, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” No! It’s part of life. Which is kind of fun.
KENNEDY: Since moving here, I’m sure you have some favorite things to do around town.
MEISNER: Yeah! Spending time with with my daughter and my wife, I would say we take an adventurous approach. We live in southwest Austin out by Dripping Springs, and we’re figuring it out. I just had a couple days off this past weekend and we did Wimberley, we did Fredericksburg… there are just so many cool things to do that are family-friendly, and adult-friendly, whether it’s a winery or brewery or a distillery. There’s a lot of places you go and drink and there’s a playground, which is weird and the best thing ever.
KENNEDY: Have you been to Salt Lick yet?
MEISNER: A few times.
KENNEDY: That’s a huge playground!
MEISNER: Yes, yes, yes. I always enjoy it when I go to Salt Lick, and then afterwards it’s like, “Why did I do that to myself?” Time for sleep. Meat coma.
KENNEDY: What are some more of your favorite spots that you’ve found since moving here — other restaurants and bars that you really enjoy?
MEISNER: I’ll tell you from a bar perspective, I’m really attracted to Rainey Street and what they’ve done there, taking the historical nature of all the little bungalow houses and turning them into fun indoor/outdoor spaces. So we’re definitely enjoying hanging out on Rainey Street. From a restaurant perspective, it’s tough to say, but… Red Ash has really grown on me with the wood-fired Italian concept. I like Elizabeth Street Cafe…
KENNEDY: Have you gotten their cookbook yet?
MEISNER: Our original restaurant GM came from Elizabeth Street, so I do have their cookbook. And yeah, Perla and a lot of neat places that aren’t chains. You can go there and you can experience something that you’re not going to experience anywhere other than Austin. And I think it’s just fun that Austin continues to emerge as a food and beverage destination. Every so often, something new is opening, something different, but it never loses its roots and doesn’t try to be something that doesn’t make sense for Austin.
KENNEDY: I’m sure that’s probably unique and fun challenge, then, for your restaurant here. You can evolve and change and keep an eye toward that.
MEISNER: Yeah — how do you stay true to what your roots are, but continue to evolve. Really, it’s not about what we want — it’s about what our guests want. Those individuals who constantly come and visit us: what do they want, right? They want some staples but they also want to see some variety and some change. We just finished our fourth month of operation last Thursday, so when we get to that six month window it’s really that time where we kind of pull back and say, OK, what’s working, what’s not working, what needs changing, what is now out of trend, what’s in trend, so, that’s when things get fun.
To produce your next event at Caroline, Upstairs at Caroline, or any of Austin’s incredible spaces, get in touch with the Kennedy Creative crew and let us help you take your occasion over the top.