A Hotel Comes Back From the Dead

September 7, 2010

Morris Lasky, the self-proclaimed “hotel doctor,” likes a challenge, and he found one in the Drawbridge Inn, a once-sparkling, now-fading full-service hotel across the river from Cincinnati in Ft. Mitchell, KY.

Lasky and his firm, Lodging Unlimited, took over operation of the property last December after it fell into receivership. At the time, the owner was facing $600,000 in projected losses by the end of March. Through a combination of hard work, tough decision-making and old-fashioned hotel common sense, Lasky and his team have been able to stanch the losses while reviving the look and energy of a hotel whose better days were behind it.

“When we got here, we didn’t have the benefit of time,” says Lasky, a 40-year veteran of the hotel industry and the founder and producer of several popular hotel industry events, including this month’s Lodging Conference in Phoenix. During his career, Lasky says he has managed or consulted on more than 300 problem hotels worth $7 billion. “It was a traumatic situation that demanded immediate action with a back-to-basics, Hotel 101 approach.”

Bold colors and graphics make the Drawbridge Inn airport vans standout.

The strategy wasn’t all slash and burn, however. While staffing was cut, restaurant hours curtailed and some facilities closed, the operators also executed cosmetic renovations in many part of the hotel, beefed-up marketing efforts and forged profitable partnerships to help get the hotel back on its feet. All this was funded through operations, and to date management hasn’t had to ask the owners for any funding.

From Axe to Knife First the cuts, which Lasky describes initially as “heavy chopping with an axe but now done with a surgical knife.” The property’s room count was reduced from 382 to 125, although some units are pressed back into service as needed.

The hotel’s f&b operations were revamped, with reduced hours and usage. One outlet, Josh’s Taverne, serves complimentary continental breakfast, a money-saving move for the hotel, and is also open for lunch and dinner with a pub menu. The Crossbow, a throwback to he hotel’s 1970s and ’80s heyday as a singles hot spot, is a dance club open on the weekends.

“Some of our rooms business of late has come from railroad workers, who arrive at all times of the day and night,” says General Manager Carol Cooper. “For them, and any other guests, we set up a microwave in the lobby and sell frozen foods from what we call the New Wave Lobby Mart. Families like it, too.”

The most difficult decision for Lasky’s crew was to cut staffing back to about 100 employees, a task made all the tougher because it was done just before the holidays. As business has improved, a number of employees have been hired back, particularly in the catering operation.

A huge issue for the turnaround team, which also included Lodging Unlimited regional manager Joe Bencivenga, was the hotel’s 30,000 square feet of public space that was underused and, as Lasky says, “losing a fortune.

“We had to choose whether to find a way to operate successfully or close the space, a move that probably would have been fatal to our efforts to rescue the hotel,” he says.

Instead, the team formed a unique partnership with McHale’s Hospitality Group, one of the Cincinnati area’s leading catering firms. McHale’s now operates and provide food and beverage to the hotel’s 18 meeting and function spaces, including the 13,500-square-foot main ballroom that can accommodate up to 1,500 for dinner.

A McHale’s catering sales manager works from the Drawbridge’s sales office and the two teams jointly market the property to groups.

As cash flow has allowed, small but very visible upgrades were made to the hotel. First was new exterior signage facing nearby I-75, the main north-south artery in the region. Airport vans were repainted and landscaping was spruced up, all part of Lasky’s common-sense belief that “what’s on the cover of the book makes the sale.”

Inside the hotel, employees got new uniforms, and guests are greeted at the front desk with a bowl of apples and fresh-baked cookies. The guestroom TV lineup was boosted from 12 channels to 27, plus HBO, and free WiFi was added.

It Starts With Marketing Cosmetic upgrades aside, Lasky knew restoring the hotel’s luster among customers would take a lot of intensive marketing. With resources limited, the plan was to start slowly with the basics and accelerate the efforts as resources make it possible.

First step was to affiliate with Magnuson Hotels to add a reservations system and gain access to the GDS and Internet reservations. “We couldn’t commit to a franchise but we needed to plug into a res network,” says Lasky. “Magnuson fills that role and has produced a huge number of bookings for the hotel.”

Next the hotel rejoined the local convention and visitors bureau. “The hotel had to drop out several years ago because it didn’t have the money,” says GM Cooper, “but we knew it was important to make the investment if we wanted to get back into the business of bidding for group business.”

Another modest investment went to marketing collateral. At the time of Lodging Unlimited’s takeover, the hotel couldn’t even afford business cards. The marketers created a new logo for the hotel and ordered business cards, rack brochures and other marketing materials. A new website showcases the hotel’s facilities and allows for direct online booking.

Another prudent but necessary investment was made at the nearby Cincinnati airport, where the hotel contracted for two signs and space at eight reservations kiosks.

In May, the Lodging Unlimited executives and the hotel’s sales team (including people from McHale’s) executed a three-day sales blitz in the local market. The sales people touted the property’s upgrades and meeting capabilities and delivered cookies with the hotel logo to qualified leads.

The SMERF market is a prime target for the hotel. In particular, it’s focusing on military reunion business and religious groups. “Our size, our pricing and the fact that we can be self-contained for these groups are our selling points,” says Cooper.

The hotel’s efforts are paying off. Lasky says the property beat projections in each month through July and expects the same results for the rest of the year.

About Magnuson Hotels, the fastest growing hotel chain in history.
In only seven years, Magnuson Hotels headquartered in Spokane, WA has become the world’s largest independent hotel group, representing nearly 1500 hotels and a combined affiliate base with assets in excess of $5.5 Billion. One of the top 10 global hotel chains, Magnuson Hotels was the #1 Hotel Company of Inc. Magazine’s 2009 annual ranking of the 5,000 fastest growing privately owned U.S. companies. With a four year reservation sales growth of 595%, Magnuson Hotels is listed in the top 100 U.S. business services companies.

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