Montana Family-Owned Hotel Holds the Key to Hospitality
The history of hotels is intimately connected to that of civilizations. Travelers throughout the world have always sought hospitable places to rest and eat. The history of hotel and restaurant management goes back many years but has always involved the essential concept of hospitality. In Montana, traveling was a way of life in the Old West and hotels grew out of need of pioneer wanderers. Like today, travelers needed a place to eat and sleep but the accommodations were much more simplistic and rustic than what we have today. Recent world-wide and local events have taught us how to simplify, be thankful and the importance of family.
Two Montana Families, the Solvies and the Felskas, have developed an almost four-decade partnership through strong family values which are neither time nor situation bound. With a shared vision, family wisdom and optimism, the two families have built, rebuilt, redesigned, and revived the hotel industry in Bozeman over the decades.
From Conrad, Montana, Adolph (Audie) Solvie simultaneously owned a Ford dealership and made ranching a part of life since 1960. In partnership with his son, Carl Solvie, the father and son team had a vision of owning and operating a hotel.
Dan Felska, a close, long-time friend of Audie Solvie with strong business roots that started in his ownership of several Ben Franklin stores (the popular five and dime and arts and crafts stores across the United States).
The three brought together their business experience and optimism to form a partnership that would prove to last decades and beyond.
Let’s take a look back at how the hotel industry has evolved over the last 120 years and a hotel property that has stood the test of time.
Spending hours at the Gallatin History museum and researching, it was nostalgic to look back and learn about the history of Bozeman over the last 120+ years. The population in 1891 was 5,000 people, roughly a tenth of what it is today at almost 100,000 in the Gallatin Valley.
The City House (known as the Guy House) was the first major hotel to open in Bozeman in 1868. The name later changed to the Northern Pacific Hotel. Basic in design and amenities, the standard frontier hotel with a log structure and basic room and board burned down in 1900 after 32 years during a political parade on Main street (likely from a Roman candle or sky rocket).
Owners: Audie Solvie (age 92), Carl Solvie (Son & General Manager), and Dan Felska
When buying out the Ramada Inn and looking at hotel brands, the partners decided on the Best Western flagship because of the strong, global brand.
A Sense of Home:
Running a hotel is very much like running a big family. Every day there is something new, whether it be a new opportunity, a unique issue to resolve, an on occasion, receiving a prestigious award or making the local news. As the hotel celebrates its 35th anniversary, Carl Solvie, who has led hotel operations for over three decades, shares his insight into what the property has focused on to stay relevant throughout up-and-down economic swings, the technological revolution, the shift to digital, and the ‘new normal’.
Evolving Over The Decades:
We’ve come a long way from wandering pioneers looking for room and board. Technology has changed the way guests book their hotel with the ability to book reservations around the world without even talking to a human-being. You can book through an app, directly with the hotel or even a simple Google search will give you all the options you need. Technology has changed guest’s expectations. Having a strong online presence has been key to staying relevant. Guests are researching online before they book, taking in and considering reviews and other consumer generated content. Online portals such as Expedia, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and now even Google can curate hotel rates across date ranges and hotels all in one place. Not the case 35 years ago when the world wide web didn’t exist and the average nightly hotel rate was $24.95, one-eighth of what it is today.
While a large percentage still prefer to talk to a staff member before they book, online bookings are increasing each year which means that effectively managing your online presence is key. Technology onsite is equally important from customer reservation systems, generating key cards, WIFI connection, personalized concierge service and more.
The next wave of transformation with hotels is guest access. Thirty years ago, front desk and management staff cut keys for each room (See attached image). The most noticeable change occurred when hotels made the transition from traditional keys to keycards programmed by the front desk in the 1990’s. Technology continues to evolve in the hotel space with guest convenience leading the way driving the adoption of mobile keyless entry. Mobile keys will soon be the ‘new normal’ allowing guests to check-in remotely prior to arrival and receive a secure encrypted key directly on their smartphone. History demonstrates that technology and security work hand-in-hand. Guest satisfaction is ‘key’ to driving innovation.
First remodeled in 1985, the GranTree was defining its décor. Carl Solvie recalls his Aunt Janie Reuterwall being tasked with decorating the restaurant and hotel, setting the tables, and creating a proper ambience, ‘She liked the formality of nice dining and she did a wonderful job of making is special for guests’. In 1999, The Grantree Restaurant was remodeled to give it a more casual Montana-feel.
In 2008, the Partners decided to change the name and again, do a remodel with more of an upscale sport’s bar style hence creating what today is The Club Tavern and Grill. For many years, this was one of the only restaurants and bars on that side of town.
Hotel Design & Renovations: After becoming the Best Western in 1989, the hotel continued their vision of expanding by adding a casino in early 1990 with live poker and horse-racing. The only constant being change, the partners then added the Conoco gas station in 1995 while simultaneously revamping the casino to be solely keno and poker machines.
Operating a hotel requires staff and in a rapidly growing town, finding and retaining team members is a necessity. In 1985, the hotel had a staff of about 50 employees. As the hotel grew with the conference center, restaurant and conference center, and gas station, the staff is now close to 150 employees, many of which have called The Best Western Plus GranTree Inn home for decades. Recruiting team members looking to start their career in the hospitality industry in a college town is also a benefit to keeping the hotel properly staffed. Hotel staff are in the front lines and interacting with sometimes hundreds of guests a day.
In Your Own Words: Sense of family:
Carissa Mosby: The hotel and restaurant industry keeps you on your toes. As an employee for almost 20+ years, I’ve been a part of how the GranTree gives a sense of home to each guest by delivering the right service, evaluating what a specific situation demands and exceeding guest’s expectations. It’s also literally been a family for me as both my brother and twin sister have worked at the hotel and restaurant over the years.
Working together: Identical twins Carissa Mosby (left) current manager at The Club Tavern & Grill and identical twin sister, Tiffany Mosby (right), worked at the restaurant together for several years.
Dining, Catering, Conference Centers, Weddings & More: in the 1800’s pioneers could get lodging and food for $2 or a sprinkle of gold dust. The GranTree Inn has benefited from having a full-service restaurant that also provides catering for its in-house events making the hotel a true all-in-one for guest’s needs and special events. By 2002, the convention center and conference room space was added making it the largest conference space in Bozeman outside of Montana State University. This was a giant step towards fulfilling the partners vision. Today, renovated and modern, The Best Western Plus GranTree Inn is continuously making updates to their property to keep up with brand standards and ensure the customer experience. Décor is also important to guests looking for that ‘Montana feel’ when they visit. Fireplaces in the lobby and scenic Montana artwork give guests that comfortable at-home feeling with a modern twist.
The Future of Hospitality…Is Family Business in your DNA?
Family owned hotels like the Best Western Plus GranTree Inn have the opportunity to bring a certain familiarity to the experience of staying there and have done so over the decades. Carl Solvie attributes this to the strong partners, decisive decision-making and being agile. Adapting quickly to keep on top of evolving value systems and changing guest expectations in the hotel industry has been the tried and true formula.
The evolution of the hotel industry over the decades is not only a driving economic factor for Bozeman and the community but for the tourism industry for Montana state. Hotels need to stay relevant. What’s in store for the future? Continued focus on customer experience and treating each guest like they are at home. Eco-friendly hotels is also a priority. Committing to a higher standard of care and adopting energy-saving practices like swapping out standard incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency LED bulbs, reusing towels and investing in commercial water filtration systems can ensure hotels do their part.
Continuing to build hotel culture to reflect an affinity with the local community will be a focus. Bozeman hotels do this in a variety of ways by partnering with local attractions like The Museum of the Rockies, Karst Stage for Yellowstone Park Tours, The Ellen Theatre and Bridger Bowl for skiing even local beer breweries! Many partnerships are year-round to give guests the full Montana experience when traveling through southwest Montana.
Growth is on-track at Bozeman Yellowstone International airport. More direct flights to Bozeman, our beautiful town is on track to continue to draw travelers from all around the world. Expect to see continued innovation from hotel properties, growth in amenities and community partnerships for guests to enjoy year-round.
People travel to Bozeman to find what can’t be found elsewhere.