Particularly for small businesses and solopreneurs, getting the word out without busting the bank is often the single biggest obstacle to growth.
On the other end of the spectrum are large, multi-national companies with resources to spare — companies like Hilton and International Hotels & Resorts, which operates the Homewood Suites at 3819 Route 1 South. These giants often talk about social responsibility and giving back, but there is not always tangible, long term evidence of it happening.
Mary Ann Kowalchek, the general manager at Homewood, and Sharyn Tiersch, the hotel’s sales and marketing manager, believe that the best way for their company to give back is by providing a measure of its stock-in-trade — hospitality.
Kowalchek and Tiersch have put together the Knowledge Broker program at Homewood’s Princeton location as a means and place for members of the community to connect with their audiences, customers, and clients in a professional setting, at no cost.
While it might on the surface seem that Homewood is merely providing a location to host events, it is more than that. Knowledge Broker is a program open to just about any idea — business, artistic, or otherwise — that exposes presenters to a captive, usually business-heavy audience. In fact, this reporter will be speaking at several upcoming events (see list below).
Homewood, after all, is an extended-stay hotel, meaning that travelers are usually not the “pop in for a weekend” sort.
They are business travelers in town for several days, sometimes several months, working on projects.
This captive audience of business travelers often comprises high-level individuals from all kinds of international companies.
The only “payment” Homewood ask for, Kowalchek says, is for presenters to allow at least 10 of the hotel’s guests to sit in on the presentation for free and to allow the guests who do not want to come to the meeting room to watch the presentation on the hotel’s internal television channel. You can charge for your event, and Homewood will not take a cut.
Homewood will also promote your presentation (and product or service) to its guests. You provide the hotel with some promotional materials — cards, brochures, or anything else — and the staff, including Kowalchek herself, will make sure the guests are informed about upcoming presentations. Tiersch even pitches upcoming events when she goes out on sales calls and says she has managed to drum up a lot of interest in the program.
Though new, the idea has already attracted the attention of several businesses, small to large, in the Princeton region. Speakers have included Hilary Murray, the director of marketing and sales at Buckingham Place Adult Day Care Center on Raymond Road, and Jennifer Smith, who operates Growth Potential Consulting in Middlesex County. Upcoming speakers include:
• “Character Development,” Scott Morgan author/journalist, Wednesday, May 23, 7 p.m.
• “Transformational Leadership,” Jennifer Smith, life coach. Tuesday, June 5, 7 p.m.
• “The Art of Communicating Like a Reporter,” Scott Morgan, author/journalist. Tuesday, June 12, 7 p.m.
• “Solar Energy Options,” Keith Bernard, Real Goods Solar. Tuesday, June 19, 7 p.m.
Kowalchek says Homewood is working with the American Boychoir School, Terhune Orchards, and other well-known Princeton-area businesses on getting presentations and events scheduled.
Do and don’t. Kowalchek and Tiersch say the subject matter, company, and style of presentation can be just about anything. Kowalchek will vet whatever presentation is pitched to make sure that the presenter is valid and honest, and to make sure there is no inappropriate content.
Essentially, Kowalchek says, Homewood does not want snake oil salesmen, nor does it want inherently controversial “platform” presentations, such as political stumping. In general, she says, the only qualification is that presentations offer value to the community and audience.
Kowalchek and Tiersch have kept qualifications purposely open and even a little vague in order to offer a blank slate for presenters. And some of the ideas that have been pitched (and which Kowalchek and Tiersch are excited about seeing come to fruition) include art showings, fiction writing workshops, and even someone who will lead a presentation on crafting sushi to music.
When it comes to art, Homewood offers its “wall of art” (a 19-foot display wall that will display works for at least seven days) in its main hallway, so that every guest coming in will have to walk past it, Kowalchek says. Arriving guests will receive information about the product or service being displayed that evening.
Tiersch says the hotel wants to focus on the arts as much as business ideas because though Homewood’s clientele is mainly business travelers, sometimes people just want to do something different from work. A guest might be unfamiliar with the area and learn that there is an art show or a crafts presentation downstairs and want to check it out.
The reason this whole thing is being offered for free, Kowalchek says, is because Homewood wants to be part of the community and it wants to help businesses grow. There are plenty of venues, but so few of them are affordable for everyone to be able to book a two-hour block. Presenters can use the meeting room between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m., or between 7 and 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Lead-time for booking is about three weeks.
The program at the Princeton Homewood location is the first of its kind in the company, Kowalchek says. She got the idea about a year ago while on vacation and found a few things to do through the hotel where she was staying. “I thought, ‘why can’t I do this is my hotel?’” she says.
And then Kowalchek hired Tiersch, an old friend with whom she worked years before. “We figured that if we could do a bit more for the community — because so many people are without much of an advertising budget — we can help them break through the wall,” Tiersch says. “And what we’ve learned from our guests and from the community is, the community does want to take part in [a company’s] growth.”
Kowalchek, born and raised in New Jersey, started her career path in hospitality and service when she was in high school and worked as a waitress. She earned her bachelor’s in hotel and restaurant management from Fairleigh Dickinson and started her career in hotels in the finance end.
She was the controller for Prime Hospitality from 1984 to 1994, then took her first steps in management. She has managed hotels for 10 years and has worked for Starwood, Hyatt, and Alliance Hospitality. She took over as general manager at Homewood last April.
Tiersch, who also grew up in New Jersey, studied hotel and motel management at the Hill Institute. She started her professional life in insurance and met Kowalchek at Prime Hospitality 20 years ago. She calls Kowalchek “my mentor.” Tiersch worked her way up from front desk clerk through management and sales in a 10-year span, she says, because Kowalchek taught her well.
Tiersch briefly operated her own business after she had taken care of her grandparents. Her company assisted families in placing seniors in care facilities. She came back to hotels and hospitality, joining Homewood last year.
With their new twist on the community room, Kowalchek and Tiersch says they see a great deal of potential and are unashamed to state that businesses of all sizes should consider the Knowledge Broker program a genuine opportunity to build a name and brand recognition, and to share expertise.
“We all struggle with where we can fit into our communities,” Tiersch says. “We looked and thought, right here where we work, we can help.”
Homewood Suites by Hilton, 3819 Route 1 South, Plainsboro 08536-; 609-720-0550; fax, 609-720-0551. Mary Ann Kowalchek, general manager. www.homewoodsuites1.hilton.com