By the time sport management major Peter Sula ’03 gathers his team for its daily 9:30 a.m. stand-up meeting, he’s been awake for almost seven hours. The general manager of the Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston’s North End steps outside his office into the circle of directors. He positions his six-foot-five basketball player’s body into a comfortable power stance, arms crossed, and listens.
The reports roll in on that Monday’s arrivals and departures; the number of rooms sold and what that might mean for rate adjustments; upcoming events and meetings; recruiting updates; a potential airline partnership; and possible entertainment options. He confirms a 10 a.m. walk-through of the property to check the progress on an ambitious list of projects (a new ballroom, coffee shop and spin studio, plus restaurant and lobby renovations and more). Sula mentions that a pipe burst the day before in the parking lot and urges the use of earpieces to facilitate communication between staff during guests’ welcome.
The team dispenses a lot of information in nine minutes but still has time for a laugh, to analyze the Celtics’ game the night before, and to share a wistful desire for more coffee. The day’s game plan is set, and Sula briefly returns to his office.
After 10 months as the luxury waterfront hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Sula was named general manager (GM) in January. He was recruited from a seven-year post as Liberty Hotel’s corporate travel director.
He may be selling beds now instead of seats to a sporting event, but Sula’s athletic and sport management background is still in play as he sets his sights on rebranding the hotel into a fun and whimsical lifestyle property with retail components beyond the typical hotel restaurant.
“I feel like a head coach here,” says Sula, who, at 36, is one of the youngest hotel general managers in Boston. “There are so many moving pieces. It’s basically a new team; I’ve gone out and picked some of the best people in the city who will fit with what we’re trying to do. I’m coaching these players to get their job done. It’s important to me to create an atmosphere where people can have a good time at work.”
Sula was catapulted from a career in sports sales to hospitality by the rare act of actually following up on a chance encounter.
After graduation, he met an early goal of working in the NBA, but after two years in group sales with the Atlanta Hawks, he wanted to return to New England. He sold a package to the Hyatt in Atlanta for a manager’s outing and met the hotel’s GM, who was a Dominique Wilkins fan. “I was able to introduce him to Wilkins and this 70-year-old, who runs one of the largest hotels in the country, basically turned into a kid,” says Sula. “He got very excited and said, ‘If you ever need anything, please let me know. This is the best day of my life.’”
A few days later, Sula took him up on the offer with a phone call. He explained he wanted to move back to Boston and inquired about what kind of hotel position might match his skillset.
“An hour after we talked, both Hyatt hotels in Boston called,” Sula recalls with a smile. “They flew me up the next day, took me out to a Red Sox game, and wined and dined me. I was like, ‘This is great. Sign me up.’ So I just kind of fell into the industry. I was with Hyatt for three years, then senior sales manager for Starwood Hotels and Resorts for a year before Liberty. It’s really about who you know and who you meet. Just get out there and meet as many people as you can. You never know where your career is going to go.”
These days, Sula’s career is going a million miles an hour, and his days are, too.
With Operations Manager Dakota Caparelliotis at his side, Sula walks the property, which includes residences (one-bedroom condos start at $1.5 million) as well as 150 hotel rooms. He compares the complex to a small city for which he is responsible, and change is in the seaside air. The Battery Wharf Hotel will, he promises, take on a new atmosphere.
Starting in the hotel lobby, he requests an art installation be disposed of and wonders why bar menus aren’t on the tables so guests know they can be served there as well as in the restaurant. He absentmindedly scoops up a piece of paper from the floor and remarks on the “GM eye” — he sees everything, or tries to. He’s already banished the lobby’s heavy furnishings and replaced them with smaller, more comfortable seating groups. He anticipates the day the lobby will look even more modern with sleek, crisp lines and — because he doesn’t like fabrics — more leather.
Swinging through the restaurant, Sula and Caparelliotis discuss the new flooring and darker woodwork that will soon appear, and how best to highlight the bar. The “pizza-chain art” and orange color scheme will give way to a Nantucket-inspired palette. New kitchen equipment is on its way, and so is an updated menu.
In the ballroom under construction, Sula’s pleased with the progress made over the weekend but mindful of a wedding booked into the space in just a few weeks’ time — it needs to be done.
The GM eye kicks in again as Sula inspects a flowerbed and finds zero cigarette butts. He requests bicycles and seat cushions be set out for the sunny day, points out a light that needs fixing, and mentions that they’re building a dog park, too. He fields a venue rental question, promises a furniture budget to a vendor, and meets with a representative about merchandise for the coffee shop.
With all the changes he’s implementing, Sula asserts that his will become one of the top luxury hotels in Boston.
When he talks about navigating local politics, meeting revenue goals and satisfying the high-end clientele who live, visit and consume at the Battery Wharf’s universe, it’s clear Sula’s picked up a legal, financial and human resources education along the way, and it sounds an awful lot like a liberal arts education in action.
“You wear every hat within the hotel industry. I never thought I’d write a menu, worry about a grease trap, or try to find a polka band with 45 minutes’ notice for a Hollywood client. The liberal arts background helps prepare you for all the things you do,” he says. “I never thought I’d do HR or execute contracts or be in construction meetings. Colby-Sawyer is such a small school and a tight community that you get to know everybody, which is very important and similar to here — I want to get to know every employee the way every professor knew me by name, and I encourage managers to have the same philosophy.”
Sula’s internship with the Manchester Monarchs was instrumental in sparking an interest in sales and professional sports. “More schools should make you go out and have an internship. You can only learn so much from a book or being in a class,” he says. “You actually need to go out there and see what you want to do. And that led to me working with the Hawks.”
Sula, who lives on the property, wakes up at night thinking about everything from new cocktails, music and a hotel boat to revenue goals, his guests’ and staff’s happiness, and his own next steps.
“I’m excited to be here. My days go quicker and quicker,” he says, checking his texts. “I wish there was more time in the day to get stuff done.”