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Benchmark highlights Stonewall Resort at annual conference

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JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal

Tucked away in Lewis County, Stonewall Resort is a mountain getaway destination.

Benchmark Resorts and Hotels conference attendees found that out firsthand recently.

Located inside Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park, Stonewall Resort is operated by Benchmark Resorts and Hotels, a Texas-based company with properties in locations such as Miami, New York City, Seattle, Oahu, Napa Valley and Tokyo.

Benchmark hosted its annual conference at Stonewall Resort April 23-26, drawing about 126 employees from all over the nation and the Caribbean. The average travel time to West Virginia was somewhere between seven and nine hours.

Benchmark President and CEO Alex Cabanas was in attendance, and expressed great pleasure in sharing the Stonewall Resort experience with the rest of the company.

Stonewall has been given the AAA Four Diamond Award for 12 consecutive years.

“Many didn’t have a perception of West Virginia,” he said. “I heard it time and time again. They didn’t know what was available here. It helps to bring them here. Especially for the state, to bring people here for a meeting or an event, a festival or celebration of some kind, it opens people’s eyes.

“Getting people to come here and experience the state and all that it has to offer definitely changes perceptions.”


Commitment and pride

Stonewall Resort employs 350 people, many who live near the Roanoke site and areas surrounding Lewis County. Ninety percent originally are from West Virginia.

“We have made a significant commitment here,” Cabanas said. “It’s not only the partnership with the state of West Virginia and the Division of Natural Resources throughout the 15 years — we were also part of the pre-development process and planning of the space itself.

“We’re one of the largest employers in the county, creating a tremendous amount of jobs for people here.”

The people make the difference, Cabanas emphasized.

“The employee base here is the most important thing we do,” he said. “And they work in a place that they’re truly cared for, by the management team. Their heart is really in this place. I know there is a tremendous amount of pride of West Virginians that are here.”

“I think people can really appreciate the unique setting we have here as a mountain destination, a retreat, a getaway,” Cabanas added. “For the people we have working here, this is home. There aren’t a lot of other employment choices here in the immediate area. They have a different appreciation for hard work — in a real great place to work. That is taken for granted many times in an urban environment when you have tons of choices. It’s just amazing — the attitude and the spirit of this team is phenomenal. They feel respected and engaged here. And they feel that what they do here makes a difference.”

 

Gotta getaway

 

Stonewall Resort has a unique partnership with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, since it is located within a state park.

“It’s a great relationship we have with the state,” Cabanas said. “We get to treasure 2,000 acres of one of the state’s great resources. Plus we have 18,000 more acres (of Stonewall State Park) that we don’t manage right in our backyard. That’s huge. The state has been a great partner.”

Which makes Stonewall Resort an ideal mountain getaway, he said, one that worked well for the Benchmark conference.

“For our team it has been exactly that,” Cabanas stated. “This is not the easiest place to get to in our portfolio. Sometimes you make those conference choices based on flight access. When we had Stonewall on the list, a lot of the concerns were ‘It’s a two-hour drive from the airport (in Pittsburgh),’ so it’s a little more difficult to get into than a lot of our destinations.

“But the message I kept sending everyone was ‘whatever pain anybody has to go through to get here, it will be far outweighed by the passion of this team (at Stonewall) to know we’re here, to support them and to be in this place.’”

Cabanas said he heard from many people who had never been to West Virginia, let alone studied the property. Cabanas said when they arrived they were “shocked.”

“They were really surprised at the environment, the staff, the quality of the facility, service and the surroundings — the beauty of the mountains and West Virginia,” he said. “People didn’t really understand.

“The picture of West Virginia that they had didn’t match what they found once they got here. They were pleasantly surprised in every case. They were so excited that we were here in this venue.”

 

Unique experiences

One evening during the conference, Benchmark guests were treated to a fireworks display over Stonewall Jackson Lake to cap off that day’s festivities.

“That event was phenomenal,” Cabanas recalled. “We were out on the patio of the golf club overlooking the hotel in the mountains. The fireworks were amazing.

“That was one of those things that we couldn’t have replicated in a whole lot of other places. It was unique. That’s what we do — deliver unique experiences.”

Diverse locations are important to Benchmark, Cabanas said.

“Our brand is built on unique destinations,” he said. “Stonewall is part of the Benchmark brand which has 15 properties in it. They are all unique. This is exactly what we do, every single day.”

Benchmark’s U.S. properties include resorts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. Internationally, Benchmark resorts and hotels are located in Curacao, Caribbean and Tokyo, Japan.

 

Future of Stonewall Resort

Cabanas is a second-generation CEO. His father, Burt Cabanas, founded the company 32 years ago and is still very much involved as chairman of the Board of Directors.

Alex Cabanas, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BBA and MS in Finance from Texas A&M University, has been with Benchmark for eight years and became its CEO in January 2014.

His outlook for Benchmark is ambitious, but very reachable, he said.

“We have a growth strategy to double our size in 10 years,” said Cabanas. “We say that realistically because we’ve been able to track our growth in the last 10-15 years. It looks as if we can achieve that goal. But to me, the most important goal is to make a difference in this world, one guest at a time, one employee at a time.

“Stonewall Resort will be here forever,” he added. “The resort continues to grow. We are looking at other development opportunities on additional land that is here and developing some more cottages and other amenities.”