Nestled amid the rolled-gold hills of Carmel Valley, Calif. sits the stone and terracotta landmark Holman Ranch, a sprawling facility that embraces classic California and Mexican architecture, while offering the most modern conveniences in a broad swath of services at its vineyard: wedding and meeting venues, stables, a new restaurant and a hotel.
On the sprawling 400-acre estate, guests step back in time as they drift into rooms accented by oak-beamed ceilings, or out onto grounds replete with vineyards, and beautiful vistas. But for as much as it feels like the early 1920s, make no mistake, the vast enterprise of the Holman Ranch runs on real time: It’s wired for lightning quick management of events large and small, says Hunter Lowder, director of hospitality of Holman Ranch.
“I’m of that age where technology is very important to utilize” in all areas of managing the perfect rustic retreat for weddings and business events, she says. “We use event software, Drop Box, conference calls and weekly meetings, and run it similarly to the way my father, who owns Holman Ranch, once ran a large, national, publicly traded real estate stock company. In other words, it is the vast integration of technology that keeps the vast rustic fantasy running smoothly.”
But don’t let the technology fool you. Holman Ranch is as real as it gets. Founded by San Francisco businessman Gordon Armsby in 1928, the rich 600-parcel in the Los Laureles area of the Valley, which included the Holman Ranch, was transformed. Famous designer Clarence Tantau, who designed Del Monte Hotel, was retained to create a classic Spanish-style hacienda, complete with impressive stonewalls and handmade Mexican terracotta roofing and hand-carved oak-beamed ceilings. In its heyday it played host to the likes of Charlie Chaplin before it eventually fell into disrepair.
Discovered nine years ago by Lowder, she suggested it would be the perfect place for her father Tom Lowder to pursue his post-retirement dreams of running a small winery.
In this week’s Recipe for Success Q&A, Lowder discusses the challenges and rewards of taking a historic landmark into the modern age.
Q: You were the guiding force in a family decision to acquire and resurrect the Holman Ranch Vineyards.
About 9 years ago my father decided he wanted to have a winery and a vineyard. He’s a huge wine collector, and when he decided to retire, he decided to look for a small property to grow a few grapes. I had already returned to California from Alabama, and I happened to come to the property for a wedding. They already had an acre of vineyards planted, and I called my Dad and told him there was a 400-acre ranch for sale, and my father starting laughing. He explained he was only looking for a few acres, and not a massive property.
But he and my Mom Jarman came out and fell in love with it, and that’s how it began.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced in bringing this vast and historic property up to today’s standards?
The challenge was the property itself. A lot of it was in disrepair, and rehabbing and restoring such a historic property was a huge challenge. Just to a restore a stonewall was very complicated, and required we follow strict archaeological and historic guidelines of 1928. Finding the right mason to help build the stonewall to make it safe, yet have it look like a wall made back then, took some doing.
Another challenge was that the property had existed for a long time, and it had been a successful wedding venue, so establishing ourselves as new owners with our own brand was also a challenge. I remember back when we first opened, we were in the middle of construction, and it was very difficult to sell prospective clients on a property that wasn’t finished. When you bring them up to a pile of dirt and tell them that that’s where they’re going to have their wedding, that’s a tough sell.
Q: So how did you attract your first customer?
Literally, on the first day we took over we started getting phone calls. People already knew the ranch existed and we were listed on Here Comes the Guide, a wedding guide, so for us, it was about keeping the momentum going and attracting new customers.
Q: Holman Ranch offers many delights.
We planted 21 acres of vineyards and all of our wines, which are certified organic and certified sustainable, come from our vineyards. We have 100 olive trees that we make extra virgin olive oil from, and a 100-stall horse barn and three arenas for people to board and ride horses.
We have a 5,000 case production wine cave where we make all our wines on site in a very green building, and we have a 10-guest room property on the site, which we rent like a private estate for family reunions and corporate retreats.
We have three buildings for main events, plus a swimming pool, fitness center and game room, as well as a conference room and a chapel.
We have a wine club and we recently took over a restaurant, A Will’s Fargo Restaurant, which was already in operation. It’s in another really great historic building— it’s a traditional steakhouse, one of only three in Carmel Valley.
Q: How do you run an enterprise like this?
There are only six of us that run the whole business. Two things make it easy to be successful. First is having the right people on our team. All of my staff is really tied to this place. They all take ownership of it, and they don’t just let things drop by the wayside. Weddings and family reunions are very important to us and you can’t drop the ball on events like that. I’ve been lucky to have a staff that does a great job on events like that.
Everyone from our winemakers to housekeeping is involved with our story, and they feel connected to it. They don’t just mail it in and collect a paycheck.
Secondly, technology is very important for us to utilize. We use event software, Drop Box, conference calls, hold weekly meetings, and we have all of these systems in place. Our most critical software is called Reserve Interactive. We’ve had it for six years and it’s an event management program that allows you to manage the minutia through the cycle of the event.
When my father came in and took over this ranch, we decided to run it similarly to a multi-billion dollar, publicly traded company. We have a strategic plan, a mission statement, key performance indicators that we make sure we’re hitting with our numbers, and we have a great team.
Q: What advice do you have for someone hoping to get into this kind of business?
I’m very big on education and experience. Those are the two things you need to be successful. Whether you’re reading books or going to seminars and talking to people in the industry, it’s very key to be interacting with people who are already in the business. That’s where you’ll get the education. The hospitality industry is always changing and it’s important to keep up with it.
—Holman Ranch Vineyards uses Boxerbrand’s Splash product