Auberge Resorts: How A Small Family Company Became A Player In Ultra-Luxury Ho

Mark Harmon is the founder of Auberge Resorts Collection, a small, family company known in the hospitality industry for developing and operating ultra-luxury inns and resorts across the Americas. When I caught up with Harmon, he was just back from New York, where he had accepted two awards from Travel + Leisure on behalf of Auberge, which was competing against companies many times its size.

“For a small family company like ours, that pair of awards from Travel + Leisure”–for Hacienda Alta Gracia, an Auberge resort set on 865 acres in southern Costa Rica and serviced by a private airstrip, which was voted #1 resort in Central America, and for the company overall, voted #3 hotel company in the world–has all of us here [at the company’s Mill Valley, CA headquarters] grinning ear to ear.”

I confess to taking a smidge of proprietary pride in this myself. Harmon was untiring in contributing insights to and support for my new book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets, [Amazon link here; two-free-chapter link here] and it feels good to see him achieve this industry recognition for his particular brand of hospitality.

Once upon a time

The story of Auberge Resorts begins in 1981. Mark Harmon’s father, Bob, joined with French restaurateur Claude Rouas to open Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, first as a restaurant, which they soon augmented with cottages for guests. Ultimately, the operation evolved into one of the premier inns in Napa Valley.

Mark was working as a lawyer at the time, but it didn’t take him long to get hooked on the hotel bug. “I was intrigued with opening these small luxury hotels.  Not many people were doing it at the time.  And I wondered why, because they were so terrific, successful, and so much fun—and I decided, ‘this is what I do from now on,’ which I began to do full time, as soon as I could pull it off.”

Solomon: I want to drill down into the “fun” part of what you just said. Everyone enjoys staying at a luxury hotel. But not everyone thinks, “wow, making sure I sized the HVAC right and that the plumbing is up to the task and that we get the rooms serviced three times a day sounds like fun—I need to open a place like this!” But this sounded like obvious fun to you?

Harmon: Well, I have to concede right away that I wasn’t the guy sweeping the floors or serving the food. I was the guy dreaming up the ideas, “what would be the next great thing to build?” And let me tell you, it was fun.  It still is fun: building with brick and mortar—the best brick and mortar we can find, and building with people—great people.

Solomon: That’s a nice combination if you can get it.

Harmon. It’s a great combination: build a beautiful place at a great location, fill it with people you love working with and guests who appreciate the specialness of what you’re doing at that location.

I’ve made an effort to not change up that formula over the years.  We stay small, we stay intimate, and we stay true to what I call an attitude of “giving the best of the location,” where the location and what we’ve built to highlight it stay front and center.

Localized luxury

This last point has long distinguished the Auberge resorts: the emphasis on locale over chain-wide uniformity. “We put the property, the locale, the individual features and available adventures first in how we think of things, and the backbone, the Auberge-ness, if you will, stands behind that in a supporting role.”  Our guests are particularly sophisticated travelers”–and particularly well-heeled; a room at an Auberge property can set you back four figures a night without breaking a sweat–“and they’ve stayed everywhere. At this stage in their traveling careers, they gravitate toward these one-of-a-kind experiences at one-of-a-kind locations.”

Solomon: And the way you do your branding follows this line of reasoning as well. With the exception of your initial property, the Auberge name always takes a second billing, with the property name coming first.

Harmon: Yes. The branding shouldn’t get in the way of that sense of place. Certainly, we’ve had internal arguments back and forth and it makes centralized marketing a challenge.  But I think we came down on the right side here.  Traditional branding says you should lead with your first name, but we say, “we lead with our first name, but our first names are different, like in a family, they have that individuality, and the last name, like in a family, is the same.”

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It seems to me that this was a prescient move, because one of the strongest trends among today’s travelers is the desire for localization (I call this “terroir” in The Heart of Hospitality). And by de-emphasizing central branding, Harmon and company keep the spotlight on the local, the individual, nature of each property, where customers today feel that belongs.

Hard times, come again no more

Auberge Resorts did hit hard times seven years ago, at the height of the Great Recession. Harmon describes the experience as “particularly hard for us because we consider ourselves a family company. We want to treat everyone in our family as well as possible, and it was painful when we couldn’t.” The trauma of this experience left Harmon with a commitment to have a strong foundation moving forward in what he calls “the two essential elements of business.”

Solomon:  Which are?

Harmon:  People and capital. We froze our expansion during the recession to focus on making our business as comfortable for the people who work here as possible. Then, I went on a three-year journey to find a source of capital whose values matched ours.

Solomon: Not everyone talks about capital as “having values.”  Please discuss.

Harmon:  I was looking for a source of capital controlled by people who didn’t think short term, not even close to short term. I was looking for a mindset of what I call being “generational investors”—that they, like we, are building a legacy that will outlast us and our generation.

Solomon: Sounds like a dream.

Harmon:  Yes, and I almost gave up on finding it, almost resigned myself to carrying on as before, with a tiny but stellar portfolio.  But at the eleventh hour I found an investor, Dan Friedkin, who shares our outlook to a “T.”

Solomon: As a small company, it’s notable that you manage to attract executives from larger, marquee brands like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Why do these name-brand executives jump ship to come to Auberge–and how do you keep them happy once they do?

Harmon: I credit two different reasons. First off, as a company, we have a family culture of watching out for everyone who works here. Second, we give them a level of creative control, the ability to design their own experiences, paint their own picture, that’s greater than they could get elsewhere.  The result is that we attract fantastic people to work here.  They make my job, well, maybe not easy, but they keep it fun.

In the pipeline

Solomon: Which brings us back to fun. And I know that for you, fun usually includes expansion plans. What fun stuff is in the Auberge expansion pipeline?

Harmon.  Here are four that are coming up: The Lodge at Blue Sky, opening late summer, 2018. It’s set on three thousand acres outside of Park City, Utah, with everything from cross-country skiing to fly fishing, not to mention horses, a clay shooting range, and a whiskey distillery–guns, horses, and whiskey—what more could you want?

Solomon:  And what could possibly go wrong?

Harmon.   Exactly. Also, our first urban resort, right in the middle of Austin, the Commodore Perry Estate, a beautiful 20-acre property with a fascinating history, just a bit quirky—like you’d hope for in Austin. It’s scheduled to open in 2019.

Also, Bishops Lodge in Santa Fe—a landmark resort for many years, that we’ve signed up to restore, expand and then manage, starting in late 2018.

Finally, we have a hotel and residences planned for Sun Valley, Idaho which will begin construction this year. It’s located centrally in the town of Ketchum, and has drop dead views of Mt. Baldy.