Keeper of the Sanctuary

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Michael Nestor is on a mission to give you the best night of your life. And he’ll go out of his way to make it happen.

Before you get too excited, you should probably know it’s part of his gig. As the general manager of Austin’s swankiest new hotel, Nestor presides over the comfort and enjoyment of his guests in a music-themed urban oasis. In his capable hands, visitors to Hotel Saint Cecilia might just feel that they’re the only people in the world that matter. And that’s really the idea.

Set on an oak-studded acre-and-a-half, just steps from the buzz and bustle of South Congress Avenue, Hotel Saint Cecilia is a sanctuary ruled by the spirits of serenity and relaxation. Whether slumbering in one of the masterfully bedecked suites, sunning poolside in an ultra- modern chaise or cocktailing in the chic peacock-blue lounge, guests can’t help but be inspired – and completely satisfied.

“People are so excited to come to Austin right now because everyone is talking about this city around the country and saying what a cool and unique place it is,” Nestor says, during a chat in the well- adorned lounge. “Those who come then want to stay in a place where they can be fully immersed in that culture.”

The hotel is the brainchild of Austin lifestyle maven Liz Lambert. The woman responsible for the South Austin institutions Jo’s Coffee and Hotel San Jose, and also generally credited with spearheading the restoration of SoCo, wanted to create a luxury sanctuary for guests seeking a bit more privacy.

A few years back Lambert bought the circa-1880s Miller-Crockett house, which had most-recently been used as a bed and breakfast, and enlisted the aid of local architect Emily Little of Clayton Levy Little to restore the original home and add new structures to the grounds. Marrying the old and the new in a seamless fashion was undoubtedly no easy task. But this hotel thrives as a study in contrasts – antiques set against the most modern of furnishings, religious symbolism against the political.

To run the property and provide the kind of service guests of Saint Cecilia would expect, Lambert’s company, Bunkhouse Management LLC, tapped Nestor. No stranger to the business, Nestor had worked at Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel for six years and also spent time on the road opening new properties for that luxury lodging chain.

His directive at Saint Cecilia was straightforward, yet no small feat: create a service culture that meets and exceeds the needs of guests but in a way that evokes a truly Austin experience.

“I think people are looking for something more unique,” says Nestor. “They want to know what’s cool and off the beaten path. Our mission is not to just create what we know people want and what we know they like, but rather to give them things and show them things that will surprise them.”

Sometimes that means recommending a dive bar that’s a staff favorite for live music or an out-of-the-way restaurant that doesn’t make the tourist guides.

“It’s about letting the guests experience something authentic, so that they’re going to feel the funk of the city,” says Nestor.

In keeping with Austin’s identity as a cultural mecca, the hotel is named for the Christian patron saint of poetry and music. On the music front, each room is equipped with a record player and guests can borrow vintage vinyl from the hotel office to listen to in their quarters. The library offers books on poetry, poets and much else for loan, but the place could easily inspire some creative forces in its guests (a night’s sleep in a $30,000 Hastens bed certainly couldn’t hurt).

In lieu of a reservationist or lobby attendant, the men and women who staff the desk at Saint Cecilia are really personal concierges for guests. When people call to make a reservation at Saint Cecilia, Nestor’s team members take their time getting to know the would-be guest a bit and the reason for their stay. The calls can take 20 minutes or so as the hotel staff gather pertinent information that will help tailor the guest’s experience.

“Those small touches are important,” says Nestor. “They make the difference because the more information I get from my staff about the guests the more I can personalize their stay.”

The homey snugness of Saint Cecilia provides plenty of opportunity for personalization. With just 14 guest rooms, intimacy and connection abound in a place where the lines between history and present, playfulness and culture get blurred.

It’s the opportunity to do some-
thing fresh and innovative in the 
hospitality business, and at the 
same time wow guests, that most 
excites Nestor. The Cleveland
 native who unashamedly proclaims his love for Austin also
 readily admits this is the last place he ever thought he’d end up.

“I was graduating from (Cornell University with a hospitality degree) and I applied with Four Seasons. When I interviewed, I said I’d go to any major city on the East Coast. They said, ‘you’re going to Austin.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’
“I didn’t know much about Texas,” he says. “I had this image in my mind I guess, and it wasn’t anything like that. It was great.”

So what would Nestor be doing if he weren’t managing a hotel? “Probably executive director of a nonprofit organization. Service is very important to me,” he says, and then smiles at his next thought. “I don’t know. Maybe an actor?”

Kevin Osterhaus, vice president of operations for Bunkhouse, says when the company went looking for someone to run Saint Cecilia, they wanted an individual who could bring both experience and a penchant for originality.

“Nothing like the Hotel Saint Cecilia had been created in Austin and we knew we needed to find someone who could approach the operations just a bit differently,” says Osterhaus. “We were thrilled to find someone with Michael’s luxury service background, but also with his vision for contributing to the development of this amazing property.”

The buzz building around Saint Cecilia both in Austin and among the city’s enthusiasts elsewhere suggests Nestor and Bunkhouse are working some magic. There was no grand opening or major media attention when the property quietly debuted in December. It’s just not the style of Bunkhouse.

“We want this to be an unknown gem that people discover,” says Nestor. “Maybe they hear about it through a friend or a business colleague. Or they read about a celebrity staying here. Word of mouth is the best marketing we could have.”

Already, regular guests of Hotel San Jose are opting to stay at Saint Cecilia. Companies are using the hotel as a retreat location, renting out the entire facility for board meetings or corporate events. Others are planning their weddings on the grounds.

Saint Cecilia is just the beginning of what promises to be a significant growth period for Bunkhouse. The company recently took over management of The Belmont Hotel, a boutique property in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. Bunkhouse is also building a new hotel in the Montrose area of Houston and is eyeing opportunities in San Antonio.

“We’re looking to establish a neat collection of small, unique properties throughout Texas and maybe beyond,” says Nestor. “We want to capture a segment of the market that we think isn’t being served.”

As for Saint Cecilia, so far the feedback has been glowing. “People are actually thanking us for letting them stay here,” Nestor says with a laugh. “We’re finding that people are bringing their friends back here to the property to entertain instead of going out. They can’t wait to show everyone where they’re staying.

“I think (Saint Cecilia) is going to turn in to the hot destination in Austin.”

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