Ellis Etter, the General Manager of Wyndham Garden Hotel here on Fort Myers Beach, was named this year’s Junonia Award winner at the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau’s (Lee VCB) annual Celebration of Business and Tourism Awards Luncheon and Trade Show a few weeks ago, where six other stand-outs, out of a field of 43 nominees in the region’s tourist industry, also received Chrysalis Awards for their positive impact in the community.
The Junonia Award, established by Lee VCB in 2006, honors those whose dedication, commitment, leadership and impact on our local tourism begs for special recognition. Named for the beautiful Junonia shell, highly prized by beachcombers, the award icon symbolizes ‘rarity and exceptional quality’. Of course, when you put it like that to Ellis, he chuckles a bit. “It was a total surprise,” he says over lunch at Truly Scrumptious in Santini Marina Plaza, just a hop, skip and a jump from the hotel where he took over as General Manager last December. “I mean, it’s an honor.”
Etter has been working in the tourism destination business for most of his life, starting with Hershey Resorts, Inc. in Pennsylvania. Eighteen years ago, he and his wife Diane moved to Florida where Ellis had accepted a position at the South Seas Plantation on Captiva. He spent a little over eight years there before moving to the Pink Shell, where he had been the head of Sales and Marketing for the last 8 or so years. Ellis Etter knows the tourism business.
Wyndham is his first General Manager position, and Ellis talked a little bit about the various positions he has held over the years and how they compare. “Before I started at Hotel Hershey, as a bartender, I had been the manager of a social club.” Soon after starting with Hershey, Ellis moved up to management positions – beverage, food and beverage, banquet, director of food and beverage, then on to director of catering sales and conference services. He amassed more experience at South Seas, and then moved into the Director of Marketing and Sales position at the Pink Shell.
“I learned a lot there, going from mainly sales and catering to Marketing and Sales.” In addition to the many responsibilities that come with such a crucial position, overseeing the pool, beach, recreation services, and the marina gave Ellis a lot of different opportunities to learn all aspects of the tropical paradise hotel business.
Compared to all his previous positions, Ellis seems to really like his spot at Wyndham Garden. “It’s a good gig. The team is really great. It’s a lot of fun working with them.” There have been a few challenges, but Ellis pokes fun at himself. “I stayed in the hospitality business because brain surgery just didn’t seem to be as a good a fit for me.” Etter’s sense of humor and the ability not to take himself too seriously are both hallmarks of a service industry natural.
A typical workday for this natural begins at 7:30 in the morning, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, he is usually able to head for home by 5:30 or so. Although he lives about fourteen miles from the island, the commute home from the south end of the island got very long, sometimes over two hours, during this past construction-challenged season. “I really think they should just build a walkover in Times Square. It would eliminate a lot of delays, even in the height of season.” He says the traffic also negatively impacts the workforce on the island. “We had a really good person in charge of catering. She did a great job.” But he explains that she had to leave because the commute time was seriously cutting into time with her kids.
But even with the added commute time, Ellis says his new position allows him more family time. After only two weeks with her husband at his new job, Diane was heard to say to a friend, “Oh my God! I’ve gotten my husband back!” Ellis says that remark gave him pause. “I thought, ‘My gosh, what was I thinking? What was I missing?’ Because to me, family comes first, then work. A lot of people don’t think that way, but for all the years I’ve been in this business, when I look back at how many hours I have put in… you know, when I heard that, it tugged at my heartstrings.”
Other than the island’s traffic issues, Etter sees very little difference between the north and south ends of the island. “The island vibe is the same at both ends.”
Sal Pedone, of Sunshine Hardware fame, stops by the table to say hello. When Sal learns that Ellis is the GM at Wyndham, he remarks, “You’ve got a good crew over there,” mentioning a few Wyndham staffers. As Sal got ready to go back to work, his parting shot was, “Why don’t you come interview me? I’m the most interesting guy on the island!” Everyone laughs, and Ellis says he can’t wait to read that article.
After eighteen years in Southwest Florida, with the last nine working on the island, Ellis shares these observations:
“Florida and Lee County in particular, had a pretty strong year in 2015, and I think this year is going to end up being a strong year too, though maybe not quite as good as last year. I wish I had a crystal ball, but things like oil spills, hurricanes, contagious disease outbreaks, poor water quality, construction, market fluctuations, even terrorist attacks can have a big impact on tourism. I think the economy is doing well in Florida, and you’ll continue to see the transient leisure market, and the group market (business travel) both continue to be strong.
“Do we need more hotel rooms on the beach? Air BnB is becoming very big in the travel industry. People are getting away from hotels, and opting to rent condos and homes, and that’s somewhat challenging. But if you have more hotel rooms, you will attract more people.
“It’s not that hard to market a hotel…. you focus on your repeat customers. If you can build a base of transient and group guests, and you build a good relationship with them, they’ll come back again and again.”
When asked if he thinks people will continue to choose Fort Myers Beach for their vacation destination, given the construction and water quality issues we face, Etter expresses concern. “This season, a lot of the regular returning guests who would normally book for next year didn’t because of those things – traffic mainly. It’s not getting here that presents the biggest problem. It’s when they are here, they have trouble getting around, trolleys or not.” Traffic has always been a challenge here, but with the construction, more so this year. “The impact really was different than in other years.”
For those in the tourism industry, the media can be your best friend or your worst nightmare.
“You just have to manage what goes out in the media as best you can to dispel any misconceptions…. hotel marketers, sales people, receptionists, all contribute to handling customers’ concerns.”
With all of its challenges and quirks, Ellis Etter seems genuinely happy in his new job at Wyndham Garden Hotel. “The hospitality business is very gratifying. Honestly, I don’t know what else I would do instead.”