Springfield, MO

Sheraton Hotel provides home away from home

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How many Springfield businesses can say they’ve entertained the likes of Sen. John Edwards, pro athlete-turned-politician Jack Kemp or celebrities John Goodman, Snoop Dogg and Tom Selleck?

Sheraton Hawthorn Park Hotel can.

“One day, one of the servers came in and said, ‘Tom Selleck’s in the dining room,’ and she was all excited,” said hotel General Manager Michael Gahagan. “I was thinking she must be mistaken, so I walked in there and, sure enough, there he was … sitting there having breakfast.”

In its 20 years of business in Springfield, the hotel at Glenstone and Kearney has been a home away from home for Selleck and other well-known guests, while serving its bread-and-butter clientele: corporate groups.

What started as a Ramada property built by Springfield real estate magnate Lee McLean Jr., has become a Sheraton that recorded about $6 million in revenues and 46,000 occupied rooms for a 63 percent occupancy rate in 2004, according to Michael Gahagan, general manager. The payroll nears $2 million.

Spotting a market

McLean Enterprises initiated construction on what was then a Ramada Hotel Hawthorn Park in 1984.

“We thought there was a market for it and there was,” said McLean, president of the company that spent $14 million constructing and equipping the Jack Hood-designed hotel.

It was built with “a fine design and a lot of marble,” McLean said, opening with 203 rooms – the same number it holds today. Upon opening, the luxury hotel featured an atrium rising to the height of the building, indoor-outdoor pools, hot tub, sauna and exercise room.

The property’s first general manager is a familiar Springfield name in tourism circles: Tracy Kimberlin, executive director of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. Kimberlin, then 33, was hired as GM 14 months before opening.

“It was a tremendous amount of work prior to opening. I think I had about two days off during those 14 months,” Kimberlin said. “You work very hard until opening, then you have to immediately shift gears to try to operate. It was a great experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but I am not sure I’d do it again.”

The Ramada opened with approximately 200 employees. Today, Gahagan said the Sheraton has an average of 130 employees and far fewer applicants than in 1985.

“I do remember that we had about 2,000 people apply for openings,” Kimberlin said. “At the time it was the nicest property in town, and there were a lot of people interested in working in the hotel.”

Gahagan, who became Ramada’s general manager in 1987, said the labor market is one thing that has changed significantly throughout the years.

“Staffing is an issue. Entry-level employees are hard to find because the pay is not great,” Gahagan said. “It’s just more of an issue today.”

Renovations and changes

In 1986, McLean Enterprises sold the property to Larken Springfield Hotel LLC of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in order to get out of the hotel business, McLean said. However, the largest change for the building happened in 1994, when the Ramada became Sheraton.

A $2 million remodel proved to be beneficial, Gahagan said.

“We were not only able to raise our standards for our customers, but we were able to raise the standards for ourselves. Let me tell you, it was easier to be a Ramada than it is a Sheraton ... but it’s been good for us, and we’ve been able to compete in this marketplace rather well,” Gahagan said.

The complete renovation included new carpet, wall coverings, chairs and furniture. While the 1994 change was the most encompassing adjustment, Gahagan said small changes throughout the years have continued. He points to the 2004 conversion to Sheraton Sweet Sleeper beds in all of the hotel’s rooms.

“That’s required by all the Sheraton properties, but what a difference,” Gahagan said. The new beds, a $300,000 investment, are custom-designed mattresses mixed with fleece blankets, duvets and extra pillows designed for additional comfort.

Catering to guests

Corporate bookings are the greatest source of revenues, next to contract rooms. Together, they produce more than 90 percent of room sales, Gahagan said, with leisure travelers producing the rest.

To accommodate corporate clients, the hotel offers 7,000 square feet of banquet and meeting hall space. Gahagan said he is working for approval to expand this space by another 3,000 square feet.

A notable difference from 20 years ago, Gahagan said, is room prices. In 1985, an average single-occupancy room cost $46 and $89 for a suite. Today, the starting room cost for a single room is $99 and $275 for a suite.

Gahagan said meeting customers’ expectations has led to increased cost. “High speed Internet, that’s a big thing, and now everyone expects that to be free. These are different kinds of cost; that’s why the rates keep going up,” Gahagan said, adding that his property made the high-speed switch a few years ago.

While the north Glenstone hotel has watched various businesses come and go, Gahagan said the Sheraton has remained steady because of its reputation of service.

“Our guests are here because of the way they are treated, not necessarily because this hotel is on this piece of land or it’s a white, high-rise, 10-story building,” Gahagan said. “People stay at hotels first and foremost because of service.”

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