Denise Smith worked in three of the biggest tourism markets in the country before she moved to Los Alamos to be the General Manager of the Best Western Hilltop House. Her hotel management career had taken her from Memphis to Atlanta and then to New Orleans, where she was working when Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, and most of the tourism business that she and so many others depended on.
In New Orleans, Denise had worked for boutique hotels as general manager, and in corporate offices managing renovations in hotel properties.
After answering an ad for a manager at the Best Western Hilltop House, she met Ron and Kim Selvage and was very impressed with their commitment to service, their community spirit, and the variety of their accomplishments.
“I just loved them,” she says. “They’re role models for anyone. And now they’re like a second family for me — Ron, Kim, and my staff.”
The Best Western Hilltop House has 92 rooms (13 of which are suites that have adjoining rooms and kitchenettes), more than 5,000 square feet of conference space and catering facilities to accommodate conferences and meetings that keep the hotel busy most of the year.
At a 70 percent occupancy rate for the past year, the Best Western Hilltop House is doing a very good business compared to even Santa Fe hotels, where occupancy rates have been as low as 30 percent in recent months, and 50 percent in the summer when occupancy rates are typically closer to 65 percent.
“We sold 24,000 room nights last year, and about 60 percent of our business is related to the Lab,” Denise says. “The balance is leisure and corporate travelers. We do everything from small meetings to the LANB stockholder event for 350 guests.”
La Vista Restaurant is closed now due to the demand for catering use of the kitchen and dining areas, but the Aspen Lounge in the lobby area serves a light dinner menu Monday through Friday.
“We are the largest full service hotel in Los Alamos,” Denise says. “We also offer holiday brunches open to the public, which have been very popular.”
Diego Torres is the Executive Chef for all of the Best Western’s catered events, brunches, the Aspen Lounge and a school lunch program. “He’s phenomenally talented — and I’m from New Orleans, so I know good food!” she laughs.
In addition to LANL events, other group business for the hotel includes weddings, reunions, corporations that do business with the Lab, and public schools, according to Denise. “Our full size pool attracts a lot of sport teams, and we do a full-service hot breakfast that’s very popular,” she says.
Outside of managing a 92-room hotel with a staff of 45, Denise serves on the Lodger’s Tax Advisory board, and recently became a graduate of Leadership Los Alamos, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and development of leaders in Los Alamos.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Denise describes the experience. “I didn’t comprehend what it covered until the orientation. The range of individuals is fascinating – from Lab leaders to nursery school teachers.”
Leadership Los Alamos is a 9-month program that provides monthly training sessions for invited participants. Denise was invited by the Selvages.
“It left me with a real desire to serve this community,” she says. “It’s hard to quantify, but it’s made me a much better person, and made me more appreciative of every person’s role in a community. One person can make such a difference.”
As for the future, Denise says the Hilltop Spa is planning to expand services. Spa Owner Pam Worth has started offering free yoga classes to the hotel guests, three times a day, Monday through Friday, and offering them for a small fee to locals. The classes are attracting 8-12 students each class.
Other interior improvements are always being made, most recently including all new banquet room chairs and elegant covers for them for weddings.
“Our staff is the best I’ve ever worked with in my career,” Denise says. “They’re just wonderful people.”
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