Layer-by-layer, room-by-room, the hotel property at 201 South McDowell Street has been transformed by major renovations and is now officially open as Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.
Owner, JHM Hotels out of Greenville, S.C., purchased the hotel in June of 2011 while it was still operating as the Crowne Plaza Uptown Charlotte, whose branding contract with Intercontinental Hotels Group was set to expire. After transitioning the property into an independent hotel they named Charlotte Plaza Uptown Hotel, JHM has fulfilled its goals to renovate and reposition the hotel in the Charlotte market as part of the Marriott family.
“JHM is very excited to be part of the Charlotte Uptown marketplace,” says Michael Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for the hotel group. “Charlotte is a vibrant city with lots of marvelous aspects. We are thrilled to be part of this community.”
According to Smith, JHM had its eye on the Charlotte market for some time. “Charlotte has a great hotel market. When we saw this hotel, we knew that it had an upside potential from its former condition. We knew that with renovation and the right brand it would be a homerun.”
The building’s original occupant was The Downtowner Hotel which opened in 1972. It later became an independent hotel named the Government House prior to being branded as a Sheraton Hotel. Next, it was known as a Best Western Hotel and from there it was re-branded to a Crowne Plaza Hotel before being purchased in 2011 by JHM Hotels.
The property has come a long way in the past year.
“This was not merely a cosmetic renovation,” says Bill Moore, who has served as general manager to the property since 2006 and continues in that role. “There has been almost as much done that the guests and public will not see as there has been in aesthetic upgrades.” Moore cites work done to install new fire and life-safety systems, electrical systems, all new high speed Internet infrastructure, increased bandwidth, and sound proofing has been added to all guest rooms.
“As an older building, I don’t think it had ever been brought up to current codes to be safer; more energy efficient. This was a deep, total, inside-out, top-to-bottom renovation. Everything was replaced.”
Fresh, new color schemes adorn the interior and exterior of the hotel. New signage, driveway and a beautiful limestone wall around the new pool all add up to what Moore calls a “rebirth” for the hotel.
The Fairfield Brand
The new Fairfield Inn & Suites Charlotte Uptown serves the Charlotte market with 196 well-appointed rooms, banquet and meeting space, and a complete kitchen for room service and full, rate-included breakfast. Q Tavern will serve both guests and the public for lunch, dinner and cocktails.
“This location has had a really strong lunch business due to its proximity to county offices and the courthouse across the street,” says Moore. “This location has also had a strong occupancy rate.
“Business in Charlotte is really good for hotels,” he continues. “Occupancy projections by the CRVA for Mecklenburg County are approaching 70 percent by the end of 2014. Our goal is always to be above market. With the transient demand that is generated uptown by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Duke Energy and other uptown businesses, this should be doable.”
The hotel caters to business travelers, those needing a mid-sized hotel for meetings and events, and leisure travelers who are visiting Charlotte around events or family or for a getaway.
“We’ve repositioned this hotel to be an available niche that customers are looking for—not too high end, not too low-end. Whether they are traveling for business or pleasure, it’s a great place to stay,” says Smith. Approximately 40 percent of room sales are from the corporate market, while groups make up approximately 35 percent, and contract (e.g. airline) sales are approximately 15 percent.
Within the Marriott family, Fairfield hotels are select service hotels, bundling services such as high-speed Internet connectivity and breakfast. Fairfield hotels will typically have less public space. A “full-service” Marriott would be more upscale physically, have more restaurants, higher staffing levels and charge for these types of services.
“The Fairfield Inn & Suites Charlotte Uptown will be very atypical in that the hotel will have 10,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space and a restaurant attached to the hotel,” says Moore. “In addition, we own and operate our own parking garage which is a great advantage. Drivers can pull right off of Highway 277 into our parking lot. That’s a great value.”
Also a bit unusual is JHM’s dual role as owner and management. This is very good for the hotel, according to Moore: “It’s a good situation when you have ownership and management as one entity. It totally aligns everyone’s goals. I feel confident that I could call the president of the company at any time. Things happen faster.
“JHM is an operations and sales-driven hotel company,” Moore continues. “People in upper management of JHM have been hotel managers and directors. They know the business.” JHM has approximately 40 hotels across the country; mostly on the east coast with one in Illinois. This is their first hotel in Charlotte.
“JHM really likes to work with Marriott,” says Moore. “With a great base of loyal travelers, 41 million members in the Marriott Rewards Program, and a great reputation for quality and service, JHM feels that Marriott-branded hotels perform well for owners.” Working with a brand also provides the benefit of reservations systems and marketing, according to Moore.
With the transition to a Fairfield Inn & Suites Charlotte Uptown, the Marriott family of hotels is well represented in uptown Charlotte by the Ritz Carlton, Marriott City Center, Residence Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott.
Being a Good Host
Miraculously, the hotel remained open throughout renovations. “We’ve had as many as half of our rooms out of service at one time but we never closed,” says Moore. “Some staff members had fewer work hours through renovations but we didn’t have to let people go. Some of our people were able to go to work at other JHM hotels which helped a lot. I don’t think we’ve lost a single person.” The restaurant and bar area did close down in March.
The new Fairfield Inn & Suites has 75 associates on payroll including 10 net new positions resulting from its re-branding and renovations. A robust sales team that reports to the director of sales completes the staff.
“We hired separate managers for Q Tavern and Studio 220 meeting space oversight, giving them less daily responsibility but greater focus on these specific areas,” says Moore. “All managers must be able to step in to overall hotel operations if needed.” To accomplish this, there is significant cross-training between departments.
“Training is a big deal in the hotel business,” says Moore. Training is sourced through the hotel brand as well as the management entities. “When you come into the Marriott family, you have to be trained in the appropriate programs, for example, the Marriott rewards program, life safety programs and food service. There’s a whole curriculum built on several courses each associate must take.”
A variety of tools is used including classroom instruction, study guides, DVDs, tests. An online training center situated within the hotel is available to associates. Marriott also offers off-site classes and seminars to staff and management of Marriott-branded properties. JHM Hotels also provides significant training. “Our goal is to insure that each guest will have the same quality experience no matter which department or associate they encounter,” stresses Moore.
Running a hotel that is hospitable, comfortable, safe, efficient and attractive brings daily challenges. According to Moore, “All that we do to maintain excellence in the physical property must be done at the same time we are serving our guests. There is no downtime.”
Attracting and keeping the right associates is one ongoing challenge. “We are lucky here to have a core group—65 to 75 percent of our staff—that has been here for several years. We have great retention,” says Moore. “There is a lady who works in the kitchen who has been here for 32 years.”
Still, there is always a certain percentage of associates that are coming and going, according to Moore: “We’re always bringing new people in and getting them up to speed. Keeping them trained, happy and incentivized in a 24/7 business can be a challenge.”
Another ongoing challenge is keeping the hotel clean and maintained. “We can see a thousand people come through in a day,” reports Moore. “We’re constantly cleaning, buffing, fixing scratches.” The hotel’s preventive maintenance program requires each guest room to be inspected against a detailed checklist.
Getting the Word Out
Marketing, too, is a joint effort between hotel staff, JHM Hotels and Marriott. Often, when a company wants to do business in Charlotte, especially for meetings and conventions, they will send a Request for Proposal to Marriott.
A really important piece of the marketing effort, according to Moore, is the group of sales managers who go out and make direct sales calls to large companies and universities.
“People will do business with people that they have good relationships with and they like to be able to put a face to it,” says Moore, adding, “The hotel business is very competitive. All the hotels in the Uptown market are good, high quality hotels with strong sales and management teams. Our marketing program must be excellent.”
The hotel also works closely with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. “The CRVA does a great job,” says Moore. “They work hard to bring tons of business and revenue to Charlotte by way of sales and occupancy taxes.”
“Many people don’t realize how big tourism is and how much it contributes to Charlotte,” says Moore. “We’re busy all the time—weekdays and weekends. In addition to our corporate and conference business, Charlotte pulls people in for concerts, sports events, festivals and other large gatherings. Visitors looking for a getaway are now seeking out Charlotte for its attractions, restaurants and nightlife. At night, people are everywhere.”
Moore has been in the hotel business for 38 years. He’s been a general manager for the past 30 years and has worked exclusively in the Piedmont of North Carolina. “I’m a North Carolina guy,” says Moore who hails from Statesville. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Moore says his entry in the business was serendipity: “I needed a part-time job at one point. I liked it and was in the right place at the right time.” Moore came on board in 2006 with the McDowell Street property when it was branded as a Best Western Hotel.
“Like any business, you have tough days. But the great thing about being in the hotel industry is that you meet so many great people; fantastic people. The part I like most is engaging someone in the lobby and finding out what brought them to Charlotte. It’s a habit that follows into my personal life,” laughs Moore. “When I’m out with my family, I usually end up talking with strangers about visiting Charlotte.”
JHM is constantly looking for opportunities to own or manage hotels in the southeast and would like to acquire others in Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, according to Smith.
“We look at both new developments and newly built hotels as well as older hotels where the price is right and renovation can happen. The end game is to operate profitably. We are not a buy and sell operation,” assures Smith. “In the last five years, we have sold only one property. We’re in it for the long term.”