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Home Away from Home: A Spotlight on Chico Hot Springs Resort

February 14th, 2018

Business Blueprint

Colin Davis’ early experiences with Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa was less spa and more hot springs.

As a young, single guy in the 1970s, he and a few friends would head to Chico for a quick weekend escape. Their itinerary was pretty simple: party the night away in the saloon — then spend the morning nursing a hangover in the hot springs.

Ahhhh… thank goodness for those hot springs.

“It was a ragtag place,” he says. “We’d crash in sleeping bags and just have a good time. It was simple, but amazing.”

Back then, Colin didn’t have an inkling of the leading role Chico would play in his life.

He went on to pursue a career in hospitality, first in restaurants and then in hotels, where he grew into management roles at historic, independent properties across the Rocky Mountains. He emerged as a turnaround specialist of sorts, helping struggling hotels find their footing and return to their former glory that, in some cases, had eluded them for decades.

So in 1995 when Colin saw that his youthful haunt — Chico — was in search of a general manager, he jumped at the chance. He and his dog headed to the resort, set about midway between the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park and Livingston, Montana, for an interview.

“I immediately clicked with the owners,” Colin says. “But I really think it was my dog that got me the job.”

Colin dove in, taking over the day-to-day operations almost immediately.

“When I first got here, the property was really struggling,” Colin says. “It wasn’t making money. Some of the buildings were worn and the right people weren’t in the right roles.”

But the place had good bones. It had been a Montana icon for nearly a century at that point, attracting families and couples, cowboys and celebrities… anyone looking for an authentic Montana experience and a little R&R.

Colin tuned up the team, spiffed up the facilities, and professionalized internal processes. Eventually, profits returned along with the guests.

Within a couple of years, Chico’s owners and local legends Mike and Eve Art made Colin a partner. In 2016, Colin and his wife, Seabring, purchased the iconic property with the help of First Interstate Bank.

“The thing about Chico is that, as an owner, you must recognize that it doesn’t just belong to you,” Colin says. “It belongs to our guests and employees. It’s part of the fabric of the community.”    

First Interstate, according to Colin, understood this and worked closely with him to distill his vision. Chico is more than just a community treasure — it is a Montana icon.

“There was a real sense of care and a recognition of how important this place is to the community,” Colin says. “First Interstate cares. I’m so thankful for the help I got and the interest they took both in Chico and in me personally.”

Business Blueprint

Magic of the Place

Even pulling off the highway onto Chico Road for the very first time, there’s a sense of familiarity. The grandeur of the Absaroka Mountains is visible in the distance, with Montana’s famous “big sky” stretched above.

It’s a scene most travelers recognize — or have dreamt of — before.

As you edge closer to the resort, a white clapboard lodge appears. On its porch, a sign (and often a staff member) is there to greet you: welcome home.

“The minute you drive in, you can feel the magic of the place,” Colin says. “It’s like meeting someone for the first time, but feeling like you’ve known them forever. It makes you want to be part of it.”

The setting and the staff make “being part of it” easy. Chico is the kind of place where a partially completed puzzle can sit on a table in the lobby for the better part of a week, undisturbed except for the occasional passerby who stops to add a piece or two. The kind of place where people gather year after year for reunions with family and friends, including some they first met while on vacation at Chico.

The kind of place where everyone feels at home.

“We want to turn guests into friends and friends into family,” Colin says. “Sometimes it seems like everybody has a Chico story. They tell me their grandparents taught them to swim here. Or they got engaged here or…” Colin chuckles... “they were conceived here.”

Chico Hot Springs Staff

Chico Hot Springs staff.

Generations of Hospitality

Spread across 800 acres in Montana’s majestic Paradise Valley, Chico feels like a perfect blend of the “good old days” with modern comfort.

The resort mixes amenities like upscale dining and a luxurious day spa with more than a hint of Old West adventure. Guests can sleep in the well-appointed main lodge, cabins, or even a train caboose. They spend their days relaxing at the poolside grill and swimming in one of two hot spring pools, or enjoying trail rides or any number of seasonal adventures.

Somehow, Chico manages to spoil guests without losing one bit of authenticity.

Chico Family

Chico Hot Springs Resort owner, Collin Davis,
and his family.

“People don’t expect to find this level of hospitality all the way out here,” Colin says. “We’ve been here for 121 years, and if we plan to be here for another 121 years, we know we have to keep delivering it.”

There’s been a lot of changes at Chico over the past 121 years. But under the stewardship of Colin and his family, the soul of the place remains fully intact.

“The past is our anchor,” Colin says. “Our entire team feels a tremendous responsibility to this place and its history.”

“Change is inevitable,” Colin explains. “But we’re only doing it if we can make Chico more Chico.”
 

Family Business

So much about Chico Hot Springs Resort revolves around family.

And not just for the guests.

Owner Colin Davis and his management team work tirelessly to foster feelings of family among their 180 employees, too. 
“This is a tough craft,” he says. “It can be 24/7. But knowing you’re a part of something bigger than yourself and that your teammates have your back makes all the different.”

That’s why, when Colin Davis first took the helm of Chico 22 years ago, his first move was to give the culture a makeover.

“We restructured our mission statement, defined our values and started being more verbal about them. But most importantly, we empowered people,” he says. “Every single employee is empowered to do what’s best for the guest from their very first day.”

That could include a surprising longtime visitor with their favorite coffee or upgrading and even comping a room if a guest is unsatisfied. 

“We make it clear that this place belongs to them and that they are empowered to do what’s right,” Colin explains.

Central to this approach is Chico’s hiring process, which begins with an application form that focuses more on who the job candidates are than what they’ve done.

“We ask questions about their favorite movies, their work styles and what they’d choose for their last meals — including who they’d want to share it with and why,” Colin says. “We’ve had people take these questions as a joke or insult and refuse to fill it out. They self-select out. That’s OK. We’re trying to find people who fit with our culture.”

Once hired, new team members participate in a clearly defined on-boarding program that includes classes taught by Colin and the hotel manager, a 20+ year veteran of Chico. 

New Hires are then given passports that guide them through a host of training activities from cross-training in different departments to the basics of time management. As the employees complete each task, managers sign off, providing an opportunity to get to know new teammates.

“In any business, the deeper a relationship you build with someone, the more you become responsible to them and the more you can accomplish together,” Colin says.

To accelerate these relationships, Chico instituted daily “family meals.” Twice a day, at lunch and dinner, employees pause their work to gather with coworkers and share a healthy, balanced meal prepared by Chico’s chefs.

“Everybody’s there,” Colin Explains. “The maintenance crew, housekeepers, administrators. We’re all eating together. We get to know each other beyond our work lives. It’s powerful.”

The result is a team that takes care of each other like family.

“Our success is such a team effort,” Colin says. “Sometimes I sit at our family meals and think to myself how amazing it is that we’ve assembled this crew of people. It feels great to be able to hire smart people and trust them to do what’s right.”