The Return of a Cheeca Legend: Bruce Graham, Head of Bell Staff

Cheeca Lodge & Spa is proud to be one of the best resorts in the Florida Keys, offering unparalleled luxury experiences that keep our guests returning to Islamorada each year. In addition to premium amenities, we believe it’s the familiar faces of our dedicated team that make Cheeca beloved by generation after generation.

Recently, we sat down with our returning Head of Bell Staff, Bruce Graham, who has been part of the Cheeca family for over a decade. Read on to learn about how Bruce started his career in hospitality, his favorite part of working at Cheeca, and more.

How long have you been at Cheeca?

Eleven years. This was actually my first hospitality job—I was previously senior customer service agent for Fedex in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  

What made you return after the hurricane and your move to Chicago?

After Hurricane Irma I moved to Chicago to be near family, but the love for my Cheeca team and guests brought me home to Cheeca.

What inspired you to pursue a career in this industry?  

When I moved to South Florida from Montego Bay, Jamaica, I wanted to use my customer service background, and hospitality seemed like a great fit. Cheeca was actually presented to me by a staffing agency and I first arrived on an H2B visa. Once I obtained my US citizenship, it was a natural next step to become a permanent team member at Cheeca.

Can you explain your day-to-day responsibilities at Cheeca?  

Upon my return from Chicago, I was able to step back into the Bell Captain role. My day-to-day role entails overseeing the bell staff. My team is responsible for greeting all arriving guests and creating a first impression. During our guests’ stay, my team and I strive to provide a memorable experience which includes not only assisting with vehicles and luggage on check-in and checkout, but making recommendations and providing transportation to different area restaurants and attractions, and most importantly striking up conversations and making sure our guests are having a great time during their stay.

What kind of experience do you hope to craft for your guests, and what makes it stand out from what they experience at other resorts?

At Cheeca, we provide a luxury product, but our service is genuine and heartfelt, not stuffy. We recognize our guests by their names—this makes them feel special and welcome. Returning guests feel like they are coming home. You don’t get the same feeling at other resorts in the Keys or elsewhere.

What is your favorite part of working at Cheeca?

My favorite part of working at Cheeca is the one-on-one interaction with my guests. I have developed many friendships with returning guests over the years, have learned their personal stories, have seen their children grow—and they have gotten to know my story as well. It’s very rewarding to me.

What hobbies do you enjoy in your spare time?

Reading, swimming, and visiting my home and loved ones in Jamaica.

Get to know Bruce and the other members of our team when you stay at Cheeca Lodge & Spa. Book today!

The Legend Lives On: Stories from Our Team

Following the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the team at Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada was faced with the difficult task of rebuilding our beloved Florida Keys resort. And each individual—some facing their own, more personal devastations as a result of the Category 4 storm—rose to the challenge. Under the expert guidance of General Manager Bob LaCasse, our staff has spent the last several weeks restoring and upgrading this legendary resort, and all with an admirably positive attitude. From taking on new roles at the property, to helping neighbors in the community, the team has worked together to reopen one of the best resorts in the Florida Keys.

Here are just a few of our stories:

 

“On my first day back at the resort, I couldn’t believe the devastation. I was walking in with one of my coworkers and we were walking slowly, looking around, and we were crying. Then Bob [LaCasse] drove up on a golf cart and stopped to pick us up—he told us don’t worry, it’s all going to be ok, we’re in this together, cry if you need to, but we’re coming back strong.

I couldn’t believe that our general manager took the time to personally comfort us like that. It stays with me to this day.”

Yolanda Aguiar, Laundry Supervisor

Yolanda Aguiar has been with Cheeca for two years. Since the hurricane, she has helped with inspecting rooms, counting inventory, and more. When she’s not at Cheeca, she can be found volunteering at her church.

 

 

“I’ve been doing special projects, cleanup, pressure washing, painting, working on safety, whatever I can do to help move the reopening along. Now that we’re getting closer to reopening, I will help the Director of F&B prepare the banquet team to start welcoming our groups back!

It’s so nice to see people from all different departments coming together to maintain the resort.  It’s wonderful that everyone is willing to do any project, whatever it takes . . . It’s going to be a good year.”

Ismael Sandoval, Banquet Supervisor

Known by many team members and guests as “Smiley” due to his warm smile and sunny disposition, Ismael Sandoval has been with Cheeca for 13 years and has over 25 years of hospitality experience.

 

 

“I have been really impressed, not just with how everyone is working together every day, but how caring everyone was after the storm. Everyone was looking after each other and making sure everyone was ok on a personal level . . . I lived in employee housing on property and although I didn’t really lose any personal belongings, I lost my home. Thankfully, the resort provided me with a room and I feel very fortunate.

It’s been a ride, and we’re so proud of the community, but we’re all ready to get back to our ‘normal.’ Bring it on 2018!”

Taryn Brown, Lead Reservations Agent

Taryn Brown, the “Booking Queen,” has been with Cheeca for almost 10 years. Although this is her first luxury hospitality position, she has spent many years previously in guest services and call centers.

 

Thanks in no small part to the dedication of these and other team members, Cheeca Lodge & Spa is set to reopen on March 30, 2018. Reserve your stay today and look forward to the return of a legend!

Bob LaCasse, General Manager, on Recovery and the Return of a Legend

When Bob LaCasse was appointed General Manager of Cheeca Lodge & Spa in 2016, he could not have foreseen Hurricane Irma. Although Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, there have been none in recent memory quite like Irma, the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in the state in over a decade. The September 2017 impact was felt in communities throughout the Florida Keys, including the village of Islamorada, and as a result of this historic hurricane, Cheeca was forced to temporarily close its doors. However, LaCasse was quick to take the lead at the resort, and has since played an indispensable role in guiding our team through recovery efforts. “Change affects everyone, and it’s made more difficult when it’s something out of your control,” he says. “Being a true leader means being understanding, exercising patience, and motivating your team to focus on the positives that the future holds.”

As the largest employer in Islamorada, Cheeca is more than an beloved icon—our historic resort is also a key driver of the local economy, bringing in thousands of visitors every year. “All the local businesses, from restaurants to stores to fishing captains, have felt the effects of Cheeca’s closure,” LaCasse explains. With a deep appreciation of the role this resort plays within the community, LaCasse has taken an upbeat, hands-on approach to management in the aftermath of Irma, while maintaining an inspirational and inclusive environment for his team. “Everyone has a seat at the table,” he says. “No single person has all the answers, so I rely on my team and involve them in most of the decision-making processes.” In addition to his dedicated staff, LaCasse also credits the resiliency and camaraderie of neighbors—from first responders to business owners—for the progress made toward recovery.

Looking forward to the highly anticipated reopening of Cheeca on March 30, 2018, LaCasse is excited on behalf of the entire team to finally reveal the results of weeks of hard work and daily commitment. Going above and beyond general maintenance needs, the recent property upgrades include room renovations and enhancements to public spaces, as well as the addition of new amenities and services that will delight our guests. “Despite the challenges the hurricane brought for many, we look at this as a truly unique opportunity to reopen bigger, better, and more brilliant than ever,” LaCasse says. “Cheeca really is a legend, and that legend lives on in 2018—we can’t wait to invite our guests and neighbors back, so they can start creating their own stories again.”

Cheeca Lodge Donates to Guides Trust Foundation

Fish the 2017 Hurricane Cup and Help our Florida Keys Guides

Hurricane Irma significantly impacted the entire Florida Keys. Our island community has proven to be the resilient, and we are grateful for all of the help and support we have received from so many.

Cheeca’s 6th Annual All-American Backcountry Fishing Tournament was cancelled this year due to Irma. Typically held over Veterans Day weekend, the tournament was set to host two war heroes, with proceeds benefitting the Guides Trust Foundation (GTF), a locally-based nonprofit supporting Florida Keys fishing guides in need. Since the tournament cancellation further affected local fishing guides, Cheeca and its owners, Northwood investors, are donating $10,000 to the Guides Trust Foundation to help Florida Keys guides and their families who were most impacted by Hurricane Irma.

We are excited to report that several tournament sponsors have also pledged to donate to the GTF. More information on the GTF, including the ability to make your own donation to help Florida Keys guides in need, can be found at GuidesTrustFoundation.org. We encourage people to give whatever they can. Another way to show your support is to fish the 2017 Hurricane Cup on October 28 from 7am-3pm. All proceeds from this tournament will go to the GTF. See the tournament Facebook page more details.

We look forward to continuing the rebuilding process. It has been remarkable to see the island spirit at work, and we know we will come back stronger than ever thanks to the kindness of others.

Leader of the Quarter – Kerry Millhiser

We are proud to present Kerry Millhiser as our very first, Leader of the Quarter! Kerry has been at Cheeca for less than a year and has already shown her shining abilities as a leader which has given her the opportunity for not just one promotion, but three in this brief period of time. She started with us June of last year as a Front Desk Agent. In just 5 months she moved into the Front Desk Supervisor role. In no time at all, we heard many good rumblings about Kerry in this role and saw her put action to the tasks at hand to create a great experience for each guest!

With the creation of our new Guest Adventures department, Kerry was quickly chosen as a key candidate for the new Leader of this area. Much work needed to be done and we knew she was up for the task. So, on February 7th, Kerry began her new role and hit the ground running! The amazing strides she’s made in the Guest Adventures department in these short two months, put her ahead of the pack again in consideration for the new Front Office Manager position. It was easy to see that Kerry was ready for the new leadership role she will be taking on in the coming weeks.

Kerry is a great leader and consummate professional.  She has the ability to mentor and develop staff in a manner that promotes group cohesion and personal development.  She brings out excitement and creativity in team members which translates to superior guest service for our guests.  As Guest Adventures manager she started a department devoted to providing fun activities to our guests and it has thrived as a direct result of her hard work and passion for guest service.  For these reasons and more, Kerry deserves to be out Leader of the Quarter!

Congratulations Kerry on a job WELL done!

Leader of the Quarter – Shivani Patel

This Leader is a consummate professional and always displays a positive attitude, no matter what task she overseas. Shivani Patel rejoined the Cheeca team in January of this year. When she arrived, the Food and Beverage team had been undergoing major changes and so several tasks and responsibilities were thrown her way. Shivani took on each task with success, and a smile. She learned new systems, documentation types, kept events running smoothly, and made us all laugh along the way. Her professionalism has never been in question.

As Jarvis King, Director of Rooms at Cheeca, puts it:

“Shivani is a consummate professional and always displays a positive attitude, no matter what tasks she overseas…. She always helps out any team members she can, and the care she shows the staff is only exceeded by the focus and superior service she provides club members and guests.  During the Memorial Day event she lead the charge in organizing the food and beverage team, as well as communicating with all involved in an efficient and professional manner. As admin support for the Food & Beverage and Sales departments, she has expanded her position to offer assistance to every aspect of the Hotel’s success.

With this starfish attitude, she guarantees each event’s success.  She is completely deserving of our Leader of the Quarter Award.”

Thank you Shivani for your continued dedication to superior service toward our guests and team members!

Team Member Spotlight – Junior Davila

Jose “Junior” Davila has been selected as our very first Team Member of the month! His dedication to his job and Cheeca in general is not only noticed by his department managers, but his fellow colleagues, as well as the Leadership Team.

Junior was immediately nominated by one of his colleagues, Tyler Young, as soon as the program was rolled out to all staff. Tyler noted the following areas that recognized Junior’s focus on the Cheeca STARFISH values:

  1. He always finds coffee for our guests – even when we are out of stock.
  2. He is always willing to fulfill guest requests; such as “Bring one cup of coffee, or razor ASAP”, help with new coffee pots, as well as relaying requests in Spanish to housekeepers.

Tyler also noted that one of our guests, Mr. Sharp stated that Junior was a “Great Guy” and just wanted someone to know. She went on to stat that each and every time she calls Junior for a housekeeping issue, he is always available and completes the request in a timely manner.

His Manager, Marceline, additionally noted that getting the job done is part of a great work environment as well as demonstrating that we care. Junior strikes the right balance between the two and consistently delivers high performance from his department. Junior has one of those attitudes that is always positive. He consistently assists other co-workers with a smile on his face and you can tell he enjoys his job!

All of the above examples demonstrate how Junior consistently delivers service through STARFISH qualities for both guests and co-workers! He immediately takes ownership of an issue and follows through to the end delivering service with a smile.

Great job Junior and big thank you for your support!