Top Spot

Reggie Cooper's focus on service puts guest satisfaction at the top of the list at Topnotch at Stowe Resort & Spa

by Craig Bailey

Repeat business has helped make Topnotch at Stowe Resort and Spa what it is today: a world-class facility that grosses more than $10 million a year. According to president Reggie Cooper, it also makes for a satisfying and occasionally humorous day on the job. He cites the recent redecoration of the resort's main living room as an example. When workers moved an enormous moose head from one wall to a slightly less conspicuous location, visitors noticed.

President and general manager Reggie Cooper says the variety of activities at Topnotch at Stowe Resort & Spa are the key to the business's profitability.

"These guests came in and they didn't see the moose in there. They turned to me and said, 'What'd you do with the moose?!'" he recalls. "The guests are so familiar with the property," he adds with a laugh, "you touch their moose and they get really offended!"

Encounters with guests like this is the part of the job Cooper cherishes. "The profitability of the organization is a responsibility" for him, he explains, "but the part that feels good is when you see guests having a good time." His knack for interacting with people with an warm, easy-going style is surely part of the reason he is where he is today.

Russell Barr, owner of Stowe law firm Barr & Associates, thinks Cooper fits the profile of the perfect resort general manager -- "someone who knows how to keep his eye on the ball and understands service. That's certainly Reggie." Furthermore, "he's certainly been trained by the best," Barr adds, with kudos to previous Topnotch manager Bob Boyle. Barr, whose firm represents Topnotch, dubs Boyle "one of the top 10 resort managers in the country."

Within a decade, Cooper, 32, has gone from college senior to president and general manager of Stowe's only four-diamond/four-star resort -- no small task. Examining his family tree, it shouldn't be a surprise.

One of three children, Cooper grew up in Toronto, Ontario. His father, Brian Cooper, graduated from Cornell University's highly regarded hospitality school before opening the Hilton in London, England. After serving as president of the Canadian Restaurant Association he worked for Canadian Pacific Hotels and then started a hospitality school. Cooper's parents also owned several restaurants in the Toronto area; his mother, Midge, managed them.

In 1989 Reggie graduated with an associate's degree in resort management from Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, and returned to Toronto. That summer, he began work as general manager of Duke of Kent, one of a dozen restaurants owned by Imago Restaurants Co. He soon felt "overshadowed" by the weight of his family name, "so I decided to take my show on the road," he says, "and ended up in Bethel, Maine."

An avid skier since age 3, Cooper jumped at the chance to coach skiing at Gould Academy, a private secondary school in Bethel. He relocated to Maine in late '89, and within a year met American Ski Co.'s Les Otten, who hired Cooper as director of sales at Sunday River Skiway Corp. in Bethel for the 1990-91 season.

"In the five years I was there, we went from a little ski area doing about 240,000 skier visits to about 550,000 skier visits the last year I was there," Cooper says. Revenues at Sunday River tied to direct sales programs under Cooper's command grew from $6.9 million to more than $12.2 million by the end of his second year. Cooper soon discovered a principle of business he would see repeated more than once in his career: Do a good job and opportunity comes knocking.

One of Topnotch's views of the Green Mountains.

By March 1994, corporate headhunters had lured him to Stowe Mountain Resort as vice president of resort operations. "The opportunity came along," Cooper says with a shrug. "Stowe being such a beautiful community, it held great interest for my wife and me." Cooper relocated to the Green Mountains with Linda James, whom he met in Maine and is now director of admissions at New England Culinary Institute. The two were married at the top of Mount Mansfield in 1995 and live in Waterbury with their two dogs.

Cooper was recruited to Topnotch as resort manager by then-president Boyle in May '96. "The ability to achieve greater results was stronger here," says Cooper, explaining Topnotch isn't as tied to skiing as Stowe Mountain is. Without the hectic ski season to contend with, he feels he can "focus much more on quality and not just trying to handle large numbers of people." Cooper was promoted to general manager in September 1999 and became president of Topnotch in April.

It's a Monday afternoon in late May. A half-dozen guests enjoy the outside pool, while workers dismantle tents used over the weekend for one of the 15 or so weddings Topnotch hosts each year. In the bright sunshine that filters through a number of tall trees surrounding the facility, Cooper explains the history of the 120-acre, $9 million property.

Located five miles outside of Stowe village, Topnotch is one of the last lodging options on the way to Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield. Most of the facilities are nestled into the woods on the north side of Vermont 108, better known as the Mountain Road. On the south side, Topnotch owns 80 acres that offer plenty of room for expansion. Already, the land is home to an indoor racket center; a building that houses equestrian, bike, ski and in-line skating centers; and one of the resort's 10 outdoor tennis courts.

Topnotch began in 1959 as a 22-room inn -- "more like a bunkhouse," Cooper offers, pointing toward the original building, the first wing guests encounter when they climb the resort's steep driveway.

When Stowe residents Arthur Kreizel and Jack Cummings discovered the facility in the early '70s, Cooper says, "it had been closed down for a few years. There was tall grass growing around it." Kreizel and Cummings purchased the property, reopened it in December 1974, and began expanding. They added rooms; expanded the restaurant, Maxwell's at Topnotch; established conference and meeting rooms; built tennis courts; and opened the Topnotch Tennis Academy in 1977. "We employ as many as 10 (tennis) pros this time of year," Cooper states.

Several condominium townhouses sit on the property's north end; Topnotch acts as property manager for all 30 independently owned units, and rental manager for 22. "We're in the process of building six more three-bedroom condominiums this summer," Cooper says. Engelberth Construction is scheduled to complete the job in September or October.

In 1989 the Cummings family, based in Quebec, purchased Kreizel's interest in the property, though Kreizel remains on the board of directors. At the same time, the resort built a 23,000-square-foot, European-style spa and fitness center. Over the last few years, the spa -- including an indoor pool, saunas, whirlpools, beauty salon and more -- has nearly tripled in revenue. Today it generates a couple of million dollars a year.

Cooper draws a distinction between Topnotch's spa and more spiritual establishments. "People don't come here to change their life; they come here to enhance their stay. It's where you come to be active and maybe get some therapeutic benefit from the massage -- and then go have a cheeseburger and cigarette, if you so choose," he adds with a laugh.

Employees often outnumber guests at Topnotch two-to-one in an effort to offer unparalleled service. The resort employs 10 tennis professionals during the summer season. Pictured: tennis pro Dave Hullette.

More than 80 spa employees offer 105 treatments in 25 treatment rooms. Most guests opt for common Swedish massages, though the Topnotch menu includes body wraps, body exfoliation, aroma therapy, reiki, meditation, and a variety of other more esoteric services. "Even though the spa is pretty large, we're in the planning stages to add on, whether it be 10,000 or 15,000 more square feet," says Cooper. "Our spa business is that healthy."

Diversity is the key at Topnotch. "We wouldn't be busy in November if we didn't have the spa," Cooper offers. "We wouldn't be as busy in the summer if we didn't have the tennis." A variety of activities helps fill the rooms year-round, making the lodging aspect of the business the most profitable and productive for the resort. Using the industry yardstick of annual revenue per room, the trade publication Hotel Business ranked Topnotch 27 among all resorts nationally. The facility takes in $85,000 per room each year. Room rates range from $160 to $310 a night, depending on season; one-, two- and three-bedroom townhouses range from $250 to $750 a unit.

Cooper wishes more locals would take advantage of the facilities at Topnotch: "To have a world-class spa and tennis facility and resort so close is a unique situation," he stresses. On this particular afternoon, Vermont license plates easily outnumber out-of-state plates in the parking lot by three-to-one. Cooper explains a Burlington organization is hosting its annual meeting in one of the Topnotch conference facilities. Conference guests constitute up to 40 percent of the resort's business. Of the remaining 60 percent, "64 percent of those people have either stayed here before or referred by someone who stayed here before," according to Cooper. "We have a very loyal group of guests that speaks to the level of service.

"We try to have a lot of communication with our past guests," he adds. Resort staff publish and distribute newsletters twice a year to a database of 25,000 past guests. Advertising in The Boston Globe and some national publications helps fill rooms, but it pales when compared to the results the resort has experienced with Internet marketing.

More guests cite the Internet as being the way they learn about Topnotch more than any other media. "It's an amazing device," Cooper says. The Topnotch website, designed and hosted by Stowe's Digital Frontier, went online nearly five years ago. A redesign by another Vermont company, Web Design Central, is scheduled to debut within weeks; it will feature 360-degree virtual tours of the resort. Cooper says the site receives 150 visitors a day, some of whom choose to book their rooms online. "You're working from the same source of rooms that any travel agent in the world would be," he boasts.

Cooper and his team spend substantial time and effort to make sure guests of Topnotch leave the resort with hopes of returning. Part of their strategy is to maintain high ratings with influential institutions like the Mobil Travel Guide and the American Automobile Association (AAA). Those organizations have given Topnotch four star and four diamond ratings, respectively, out of a scale of five.

Topnotch is also a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. "That's beginning to carry a little more weight," offers Cooper. Each of the 120 Preferred properties across the globe must undergo an annual inspection to maintain the designation. The two-day, 1,800-point inspections are carried out in secret by visiting employees of Ritchie International, a Maryland private detective agency.

Topnotch opts to host Preferred inspectors an additional two times a year, because, Cooper believes, the feedback is so valuable. He says, "You get a complete grading of everything you're doing" in a written report that's nearly an inch thick. Cooper uses the feedback to help determine where to shift employee training in a constant effort to hone customer satisfaction.

Maintaining a high level of employee training is one challenge; a more basic one is keeping Topnotch's employee roster full, especially in such a tight labor market. "We have pretty good retention," Cooper says. "We've got employees who have been here 17 years -- quite a few who have been here 10 years, which is pretty rare at a resort." He credits such tenure to a family atmosphere fostered among workers. "We really try and create a culture of caring for our guests, but also for our staff. They're not just commodities; they're the backbone of what we do.

The 23,000-square-foot spa at Topnotch will grow by upwards of 15,000 square feet following a planned expansion. "Our spa business is that healthy," Reggie Cooper says. Pictured: spa director Laura Campbell.

"Finding new employees," he adds, "it's a challenge." Recently, Topnotch has started working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in St. Albans to bring people from Jamaica to work at the resort for eight-month stints. "We also work with a lot of the student exchange programs" to bring workers from Costa Rica and the Russian republics, Cooper says. Another program brings Irish workers to the United States for three-year stretches -- all in an effort to augment the local work force that's available to fill Topnotch's roster of 280.

While Topnotch's views and facilities might dazzle guests, Cooper says it's the resort staff and the service they provide that make the business buzz. "We'll often have two employees for every guest that's in-house. That's a very high ratio. ... We have to be able to provide that service," he emphasizes. "It's not something you can fake."