The characteristics and characters are many at Yosemite National Park’s historic Wawona Hotel.
The hotel’s iconic white wooden buildings – complete with verandas overlooking sprawling green lawns and the vast park – reflect magnificently in the collection of water that flows from a pristinely refurbished fountain.
As you make your way up the front steps – the sound of the fountain flowing in the background – the wood creaks in that subtle but sweet reminder you are entering a building that has been preserved for nearly 140 years.
The lobby glows in its warm, welcoming Victorian splendor. And depending on the time of the day, it also rings with the musical stylings of house pianist Tom Bopp, who performs anything from George Gershwin to a mix of Yosemite National Park favorites.
It’s early in a recent Thursday evening, and the lobby is still light by way of guests as Bopp sets a few belongings on his trusty piano before making his way to the back deck. Whether it’s a full concert hall or a single guest, it’s of no consequence to Bopp, who later displays a bright smile from the seat of his piano.
“If I’ve got one guest in the room, I’ll entertain them just as I’ve got a room full of people, and pretty soon I will have a full room because one guest being interested brings in more,” said Bopp, whose love for the hotel is equally evident by his ability to share stories from throughout its history. “And I try to bring in the history of the hotel; I’ve become an armchair historian.”
It’s about 20 minutes before the evening’s performance, and Bopp – resting on an Adirondack chair in the hotel’s picturesque back lawn – reflects on his time in the park, including more than 20 years with Delaware North, the Wawona’s operator since 1993.
“I have noticed that over the 20 years that Delaware North has been here, they have paid attention to some of the not-very-sexy projects that other people probably wouldn’t have done,” Bopp said. “It’s one thing to put on a good coat of paint to make the place look good and sparkle – and certainly we want to do that, too. But they spend a lot of money on just the infrastructure, the foundation of this place. I mean, what good is it if it looks great and it all tumbles into the ground?”
The clock hits 5:15 p.m. – or 15 minutes before Bopp takes to his piano. The parking lot out front is nearly at capacity as guests either return from a day in the park or arrive to check in for their stay.
The guest experience begins before they even step foot in the hotel, Bopp notes.
“I’m really glad that they (Delaware North) did all the work that they did, not only on the foundation of this hotel but on the grounds and on the fountain,” Bopp said. “They partnered with the park service and the Yosemite Conservancy and restored the historic fountain. It’s a centerpiece for the hotel. It’s the first thing people see when they drive up.”
Less than 10 minutes until show time.
“I love the attention to those sorts of things,” said Bopp – his smile growing – again referring to the fountain and similar projects completed by Delaware North. “And of course, the fact that the hotel isn’t going to collapse…it keeps me in a job.”
For Bopp, a mainstay at the iconic hotel for more than 30 years, it’s about connecting with the guests – so he doesn’t like to say for certain what he will play or how he will play it in a given night. In other words: Spontaneity is the name of the game.
A guest orders a cup of coffee and an ear-to-ear smiling Bopp, who just wrapped up a Gershwin song at the request of two guests celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, quickly shifts gears.
“Coffee, huh?” he asks, dressed resplendent in a top hat and collared shirt that is punctuated with a bowtie.
“I love coffee; I love tea. I love the java jive and it loves me,” Bopp sings in harmony with his piano.
It’s moments like these that have defined Bopp through the years. And it’s these moments that give Bopp a deep-rooted connection to Delaware North’s proprietary customer-service program, GuestPath®, which lives by the mantra, “Creating special experiences, one guest at a time.”
“When I first came here, it was to play piano – to entertain people – and that’s what I still do,” Bopp said. “But it dawned on me over time that there’s a lot more to it. We’re on the front lines here – the people at the front desk, the waiters and myself as a pianist – and interacting with the guests, one-on-one. And that idea of creating great experiences one guest at a time – that really works for me.”
It doesn’t just work for Bopp.
The man sipping his coffee in one corner smiles, his legs crossed as he sits comfortably. The couple celebrating their half-century of marriage smile and nod in approval from one of the lobby’s couches.
It’s music to their ears.