Sarah Buxbaum Of CWS Hospitality On How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Focus on all small details that are actually are huge surprises. I firmly believe the smallest details make the biggest impact. What may just be a little note that took you 2 minutes to write, could mean a huge smile brought in the mail after a long work week. Something as small as sending a birthday card could be what sets you apart from your competition in a big way. There are so many small details that my guests experience from the welcome cookies to the robes folded on the bed.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Buxbaum.
Sarah is a Business Owner, Philanthropist, Author, and creator behind Celebrate with Sarah and CWS Hospitality. Her background includes over 15 years of hospitality & customer service experience, including Food & Beverage Manager at two international hotels brands. She’s a “40 Under Forty” Award Winner & an Emerging Leader National Finalist for eWomen Network. After making a lot of changes during the pandemic, her main focus is continuing to innovate the hospitality industry and do work with her foundation.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My initial love for all 3 Industries — Hospitality, Weddings and Catering started when I was 15 years old working at Carvel Ice Cream. It continued to grow throughout college where I obtained a degree in Business Management and Entrepreneurship. After several years of working as a Food and Beverage Manager for two very large hotels, fate is ultimately what led to the real start of my entrepreneurial journey.
After overcoming a huge loss when a previous business opportunity fell apart, I was left with an empty bank account, a ton of bills and a strong desire not to go back to corporate life. With literally nothing to lose, my dessert business was born. The week I got my business license, kitchen permits, and insurance, I had $6 left in my bank account! I drove for Uber to make ends meet until business picked up, and hated every second of it. It was extremely motivating to not have to do that anymore.
After a very successful 7 year run and the many challenges during COVID, I closed my dessert catering business to put my entire focus on the company I started prior to the pandemic, CWS Hospitality. In a time where a great customer experience and customer service has never been needed more, I knew this was my ultimate calling. The Celebrate with Sarah brand has evolved into so much than I could have ever dreamt up that day when I had an empty bank account and creditors calling me at all hours of the day. From cupcakes to creating one of a kind homes, building, designing, and investing, this crazy journey has turned into so many amazing opportunities.
Now after almost 8 years, I love sharing my story and the power of being broke. I hope to inspire other entrepreneurs who have a dream, and maybe not the most ideal situation to make it come true. I am actually glad I had nothing when I started. I value every single client as much as now as I did when they took a chance on me when I needed them the most.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
So hard to choose, but I think how I got to this point in general is pretty interesting, and a little funny. When I started my dessert catering business, I was so adamant that I was going to spend the next 5 years building this business alone with no distractions, no business partners, and no outside input. After being through what I had previously been through and losing all trust in everyone, my small minded brain led me to believe this was the way to success. Looking back, I want to SHAKE myself! That would have been the most tragic decision for my future. With the help of my amazing mastermind members and networking group, I have not only evolved my business into several other, much larger and much more successful ventures, but I was able to reincorporate my non-profit, as well as eventually meeting my fiancé! Now we get to build both of our businesses together. The funniest part about it is when I finally retired from baking and wanted to get out of the kitchen, I ended up doing the exact opposite. Now if I find myself in a kitchen, it’s when Jason is developing new dog food and treats for Barks and Berries!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made so many. I can laugh about this now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I was so ignorant about what it actually took to build out CWS Hospitality. You know that saying, you don’t know what you don’t know — well I REALLY didn’t know what I was getting myself into, even after years of planning, research, past experiences, etc. I was faced with countless situations I had to figure out or all of my plans would crumble, but ultimately l learned more about so many things I never thought I would know about! It was all a blessing in disguise.
I had to fight every step of the way from the day I found the location, purchased it in the height of the crazy market and during COVID, to build out my perfect Celebration House. What should have been a 3 month renovation ended up being 2 years of building delays, contractor issues, the city, and numerous other challenges. I look back and am so proud I didn’t quit, am so grateful for all the people who helped me stay the course and challenged me to grow as a business women. I am more empowered than ever before to share the tenacious spirit entrepreneurs are embedded with. I will eventually write a book about all the lessons I’ve learned by dreaming big and figuring it out as you go.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I know my success is because of the amazing community of supporters I have now, who I am beyond grateful for. The most pivotal moment of my career was when I met Sandra Yancey, the CEO and Founder of eWomen Network and finally realizing I was playing too small. I was at a point where I didn’t want anyone involved in my business since I had just been so badly burned and I really didn’t trust anyone. I was slowly building my business alone and when I saw the community she had built, I knew I needed that too. It took some time but I eventually embraced it, ended up joining a mastermind with Craig Duswalt a few years later, and that’s where I met my fiancé! I was so dead set on NOT accepting help from anyone but ended up having major support emotionally, mentorship, and financial backing for dreams I didn’t know existed at the time. I think about what would have happened if I said no to the woman who introduced me to eWomen via Facebook. For some reason, my gut told me to say yes and the rest is history! They are like family now.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
The most important thing to focus on is to make the customer the primary focus. Everything is about them, what they want while they’re away from home, and what makes their stay with my company different than them just easily booking a hotel room on Expedia.
It’s not just about providing a great product anymore. There are so many choices for consumers that are a click away, so it’s more important than ever to be innovative, provide exceptional service and make it personal. Inside my home in Nashville that guests can now book, are the same mattresses high-end hotels use, luxurious bedding, towels, shampoo, conditioner and body wash, and of course, the Glam Room is my major innovation to the Hospitality Industry. Basically, a full hair salon and makeup studio right in the middle of the house, that fits up to 10 girls at a time.
I recognize that my customers aren’t just customers or clients but they are people. I love building that human connection and being authentic in all aspects of my life. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but showing humility is important, especially on social media where every business has the opportunity to show whatever the choose. I share my journey on a personal level and people who I have never met have been part of my life the last 10 years! Big name hotels can’t do that, so I plan to keep that a core value. Being relatable to my guests has never been more important.
The other key thing while innovating is to be consistent. In a time where a lot of big companies are focusing only on the bottom line, big opportunities are getting overlooked. I can’t count how many times I’ve been to a restaurant in the last year where the price has doubled and the quality is half what it used to be. I don’t think there is room in this market for any business in any industry to operate like that without extreme consequences moving forward.
When it comes to my brand, Celebrate with Sarah and CWS Hospitality, every guest can expect the same one of a kind experience with anything I associate myself or my business with. That being said, repeat customers still have unexpected surprises because, that’s just how I operate!
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
I wanted to create a short term rental tailored to women celebrating special occasions. Whether that was a bachelorette party, a VIP retreat for clients, or a family reunion, I wanted everything they needed right inside my home that felt like they were at a 5-star Resort, but also a great experience from the time the find me and my company, to years after they check out.
The is a huge pain point right now when it comes to people missing connecting with each other. The last 2 years, a lot of people were alone, had to cancel parties and weddings, and lived a life on Zoom. I created a space they never have to leave and work with a lot of local businesses to provide an amazing weekend for these girls. They can have everything from catering, makeup artists, massages, craft cocktail classes, and the list goes on and on.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
I believe every travel and hospitality company needs to provide a personal experience for their guests in some capacity. There is so much competition out there and the consumers hold the power. I am constantly working on ways to stay innovative in this every changing world. People want to get back out and try new things!
When I had the idea to create multiple photo areas in the house a few years ago, it was a pretty new concept. Now, I have already seen big resorts adding in floral installations and painting murals to capture the guests attention. I love that everyone is in a place where their creativity is just beginning to blossom.
I think in the next 5 years, everything will be a curated experience. Yes, there will be the regular hotel rooms for business travelers and families, but the younger generation has never had more influence than they do right now and businesses have to accommodate that to gain them as a customer.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
My perfect vacation would include amazing food, wild animals, great customer service and a beautiful environment. I love scuba diving and exploring the underwater world but I also love spending the day on an African Safari seeing the gorgeous animals in their natural habitat. Of course, the perfect experience also includes a comfortable bed and some unexpected surprises. Some place I can just relax and remove myself from the every day craziness of life as a business owner.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Yes! This is exactly what inspired me to build this experience in Nashville! I noticed groups of women meeting there to celebrate something special, but then their options were to either get multiple hotel rooms, or stay in an Airbnb with a bunch of bathrooms. The thing most women spend time on while at their hotel or Airbnb when on vacation is when they are getting ready, but there wasn’t space for them to all do it together. That’s why I built the Glam Room for them. That majority of time is spent in there and in the kitchen, so it should be a space they want to be in! I also have 2 coffee stations so they don’t need to leave in the morning, and a big covered deck where everyone can sit together. We also give options to dive into the wellness category. From in home IV infusions by a local wellness center, in home massages and private chefs for fresh and local dinner. We have you covered. I’ve probably said in 5 times already, but connection has never been more of a priority than it is right now.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Focus on all small details that are actually are huge surprises. I firmly believe the smallest details make the biggest impact. What may just be a little note that took you 2 minutes to write, could mean a huge smile brought in the mail after a long work week. Something as small as sending a birthday card could be what sets you apart from your competition in a big way. There are so many small details that my guests experience from the welcome cookies to the robes folded on the bed.
- Get personal and be authentic. For 8 years, every customer I’ve done business with gets a handwritten thank you card, because I am genuinely grateful for them choosing to support my business year after year, especially as I grow and have new businesses that they come along with me on. I believe this has helped me in more ways than I’ll ever know. I know not everyone wants to share their personal life on social media, but I also love having a community that is always there through the good and bad times. I feel connected to what they want and I can continue to be part of their lives and create better experiences for them. That’s how my second business was born! I saw what they wanted and it didn’t exist, so I created my first Celebration House in Nashville.
- Disrupt the current industry “standard”. For me, I wanted to create a short term rental tailored to women celebrating special occasions. I also strive to create a great experience from the time the find me and my company, to years after they check out. Nothing is just a transaction, it’s a relationship. The standard I have set for my brand is what people know to expect when they work with me, and it always keeps me dreaming bigger.
- Set yourself apart from your direct competition. My guests experience something different than even Airbnbs on the same street. I use the same mattresses high-end hotels use so your quality of sleep that rivals the most peaceful nights of your life. The Glam Room is the major differentiator in my Celebration House from any other short term rental property. I am also very connected to every aspect of my home and all of my customers and encourage all businesses to do the same!
- Be unexpected. Who walks into a house and expects to see a 10 foot balloon installation when they turn the corner? Even when your customer thinks they know everything up your sleeve, still find a way to surprise them! For me, that is constantly changing. Set the standard, then keep upleveling it. Right now, my guests not only pull up to a beautiful home on the outside, but every room has different wallpaper, flower arrangements, robes on the bed, floral installations, and the surprises keep coming! They also get pink custom cookies shaped like Tennessee, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats upon arrival!
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I started my nonprofit 12 years ago, The Sarah Annelise Foundation. Every business decision I make, I always try to tie this in to always be paying it forward. CWS Hospitality donates a portion of all profits back to develop and implement projects locally and around the world to serve the growth and education of children with the bare essentials needed to thrive. This is the first step to helping children be prosperous. Every stage of development starts with one visit, one project and one child in need.
I realized on my first trip to South Africa that these children were lacking the most basic needs. To help get these children going on that long road of life, the most immediate things needed were items we don’t even think twice about, such as diaper rash cream. How can it be possible that there is a child on this planet that can die from diaper rash? I have since gone back to South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia to do work with Kliptown Youth Program, ABBA House Orphanage, and SA Cares for Life.
I was also able to shift my foundation’s purpose during Covid and did a “Sweet Gratitude” movement to help first responders in my local community at the time, since traveling was at a compete halt. I was shipping thousands of cookies across the country to be donated to hospitals from Los Angeles to NYC and was able to hire 2 other local bakers at the time to help me execute this.
I really believe the main purpose of striving to be more and more successful is because it opens your reach to help others. I hope to always be able to help my community, no matter where I live or what my circumstances are.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Thank you so much. I would love to be the first Hospitality Company to provide as many beds for kids around the world, as I do for my guests at my properties. If one day I have 100,000 rooms under my brand, I would love to be impacting 100,000 lives. That being said, I firmly believe in not just giving hand outs. There are many babies and young children all over the world with no place to sleep who need the most basic items, but that would just be the start. As they get older, I want to educate them and other young entrepreneurs on how to build a successful business and be independent, whether that be through with micro-loans and resources to achieve that, investing, etc. I wouldn’t be where I am without a lot of support, and to be able to do that for others around the would is the ultimate goal.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram: @celebratewithsarah and @celebrationhousenashville
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.
Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.
He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.
Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.