By Michael Humphrey
Someday Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM) could be the subject of a lecture in marketing classes all over the country. Perhaps the topic will be: How to make the most out of routine business procedures.
Here’s the scene. It’s opening day at the brand new Busch Stadium, April 10, 2006. The Cardinals are playing the Milwaukee Brewers and the place is packed. There’s so much to see from the new stadium. Of course there’s the game, but the designers have made the sage choice of opening the ballpark to the beautiful St. Louis skyline. Most seats look out on the Gateway Arch and the historic Old Courthouse and various high-rise buildings.
One of the closest towers is a former Marriott that LHM bought in 2005 and decided to re-brand. Which brand would the venerable hospitality management company choose?
“We wanted the new name up on the tower by opening day,” says Ike Eicher, sales and marketing director for that facility. “But by opening day, it still wasn’t up. And they ended up doing it that day, on opening day.”
First inning, a giant “H” is hoisted onto the tower. Third inning, an “I” follows. By the end of the game, there it was for 40,000-plus fans to see: HILTON. As in Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark.
Eicher laughs when he’s asked what marketing genius came up with the idea.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” Eicher says.
Perhaps it was a good sign (no pun intended) for both teams: LHM and the Cardinals. Maybe it was a statement that not just a stadium and a hotel were going to change, but a new winning streak was about to take place.
You know how it worked for the 2006 Cardinals, who became World Series Champions for the first time since 1982.
As for the Hilton’s first year, consider what a guest from Chicago posted on the Internet.
“It is like a new hotel inside and out. I asked the front desk how much they spent and the total was over $20 million in renovations. I had a view of the ballpark (which is also brand new) and I could actually see into the field.”
But one championship season is not enough. LHM wants to build a dynasty with the closest hotel to Busch Stadium. And that doesn’t stop at the Hilton at the Ballpark.
“We’re very much a growing management company,” says Tom Lyons, corporate director of revenue for LHM. “We’ve been doing major renovations in several of our properties. But it’s easy to see why we’re so excited about the Hilton. The ballpark was all over the World Series last year. Every time they showed the view from behind home plate, there was the Hilton.”
And dynasties are built one piece at a time – so get ready for the new “ace” of the Hilton at the Ballpark team, a brand new conference center and ballroom.
Heart of downtown
On the corner of Market and Broadway, Eicher looks at the air that will soon be filled with Hilton’s new ballroom and conference center.
“This is the heart of the city,” Eicher says. “And you’ve got all of this new meeting space coming right to this corner. It will be a conference center on the first floor and the ballroom on the second floor, all looking out on this street. The views will be spectacular.”
Plans are to have the space ready in April 2008. Ballpark Conference Center will add 4,530 square feet, divisible into three rooms, the largest of which will be 1,840 square feet. The Arch View Ballroom will add 6,327 square feet. Prefunction space will add 1,653 square feet. The addition means that Hilton, with its 675 rooms, is ready to play hardball for meetings in downtown St. Louis. Not that they weren’t already in the mix, with free WiFi in the meeting areas, the largest Starbucks in St. Louis, a world class business center and all in walking distance of America’s Center.
But Eicher says the hotel’s goal is to bring in more groups of its own, though not necessarily large groups.
“It’s not often that a group comes in and takes over your hotel,” Eicher says. “It’s how you put four or five or six groups simultaneously. So what we’ll be able to do is put a group on one side (of the hotel), put another group on the other side and we have our catering kitchen right between them. We’ll be able to service those groups seamlessly and they’ll never need to see each other.”
LHM is also reclaiming a former restaurant space for more meeting space and a new bar and lounge. A renovated three-service restaurant, near Market Street, will be used to cater many group meals.
Add that to the existing 10,920-square-foot Grand Ballroom, and more than a dozen remaining breakout spaces, and Eicher feels Hilton will become far more competitive for groups with its 40,000 total square feet.
“The key is the conference center that gives us 4,500 square feet of breakout space that we didn’t have before,” Eicher says.
And then you have to factor in the aesthetics, says general manager Erich Smith.
“We’re a large hotel, but have a very small hotel feel,” Smith says. “With the conference center, we want to specialize in the small corporate meeting market and to be able to segregate that group from the big meeting that might be going on upstairs. And then you talk about the space up top, it’s going to visually be the premier space in the city.”
Those spaces will face the Arch, one important element of St. Louis’ glorious past preserved in one of America’s most iconic images. On the other side is another of America’s icons – baseball. And the Hilton has capitalized on that in every way. Black and white photos of the Cardinals’ past – Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean and his Gashouse Gang, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and hundreds more – are found in the lobby, hallways, guest rooms, restaurants, basically everywhere.
“It’s part of the fabric of St. Louis,” Eicher says. “It’s a rare privilege to be a part of it in the way we are. We see people come to our hotel from all over the country just to watch these games.”
The Hilton Ballpark is not just the closest hotel to the ballpark; some of the rooms look directly into the stadium.
“You can see everything but the warning track in center field,” Eicher says. “We’ve had people come just to watch the game here, with the television on so they can see the replays.”
But don’t expect that baseball vibe to take away from sophistication. European décor distinguishes the well-appointed rooms, which include spacious suites, larger rooms with couches and armchairs as well as standard singles. They all come with voluptuous beds piled with pillows, single-cup coffee makers, lean-to mirrors, Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries and other extras that spell luxury.
But baseball is still the main draw. The next addition in the area will tie the hotel directly to the ballpark without interruption – that’s Ballpark Village.
Baltimore-based Cordish Company is partnering with the St. Louis Cardinals to build a $387 million development of retail, restaurant, office, residential and open space on land that sits directly between Busch and the Hilton. Completion of the first phase is planned for 2009.
“Ballpark Village will be a major component for the continued renaissance of St. Louis’ downtown core,” says David S. Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Company.
The company behind it all
The kind of winning streak LHM is on with the Hilton Ballpark isn’t unusual, and it’s not all about luck – but it’s not strictly business either.
“We’re going to keep growing and be profitable,” Lyons says, “but our decisions are not based entirely on the bottom line. We live in St. Louis, we are part of this community and we wanted to be part of downtown’s resurgence.”
Robert O’Loughlin, who fittingly started his career with Hilton Hotel Corporation, established LHM in 1986. Since that beginning, LHM has not only successfully managed more than 50 hotels for individuals and institutions and developed five hotels, it has also been a positive community partner.
O’Loughlin has been president of St. Louis Hotel/Motel Association, Missouri Hotel/Motel Association and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and chairman of the Missouri Tourism Commission.
But equally important, LHM takes good care of the facilities it acquires. On top of the $21 million spent on the Hilton, the group also recently completed a $7 million renovation at the Double Tree Hotel Westport and a $5 million renovation at the Sheraton Westport hotels.
“We’re committed to the properties,” Lyons says. “You have to be these days, because the customer expects so much.”
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Hilton at the Ballpark
1 South Broadway
St. Louis, MO 63102
Ike Eicher, Director of Sales and Marketing
Lodging Hospitality Management
111 West Port Plaza, Suite 500
St. Louis, MO 63146