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December 2010
Premier Hospitality
By Zenda Douglas

     The hotel business is about people connecting to people and the Hilton Charlotte Center City is busy each day connecting all the dots to lavishly provide their guests with everything needed for a successful meeting, conference, fundraiser, ball, celebration, ceremony, getaway or vacation.

     “Many of life’s important dates and special moments are celebrated here,” says Glenn Simon, general manager of the AAA Four Diamond property, which is located in uptown Charlotte, directly across from the Charlotte Convention Center. The Hilton Charlotte Center City is owned and operated by Stanford Hotel Corporation, which specializes in the development and management of high-quality, full-service hotels.

     With 400 rooms and 30,000-square-feet of first class meeting and banquet space, Hilton Charlotte Center City has been consistently recognized as one of the top meeting and convention hotels in the country since opening in 1998.

     Successful Meetings magazine awarded the hotel its prestigious Pinnacle Award for 2010, marking the eighth time the hotel has been honored with this award. It is the only hotel in Charlotte to receive this special distinction.

     The hotel has also been honored with certification by Elite Meetings International, a peer-rated resource that supports meeting planners in recognizing the best hotels nationwide.

     “We’ve been successful because we provide great service,” says Simon, who joined the Hilton Charlotte Center City team in May of this year. He gestures towards a huge operation manual resting in the corner of his office. “Auditors routinely check to see if we are meeting Hilton Brand Standards. We strive for perfection every day in meeting these standards, many which revolve around exceeding customer expectations.”

     In 2007-2008 the hotel completed a $35 million renovation. Guest rooms were completely renovated including new furniture and 42-inch high definition TVs, and marble-tiled showers with glass enclosures were installed in 300 rooms. Renovations continued through the meeting and public space and included a new lounge and restaurant concept. In 2008, the 120-seat Coastal Kitchen & Bar opened, featuring low-country cuisine and signature drinks.

 

Attractive Locale

     The excellent reasons to hold an event in Charlotte are many, not the least of which is accessibility. More than 130 million people can reach Charlotte in less than 2 hours by air or 8 hours by car. Charlotte-Douglas International Airport offers more than 520 daily non-stop flights to over 160 domestic and international destinations.

     Travelers arrive to a city that is inviting and hospitable. “I really love Charlotte,” exclaims Simon. “It wasn’t this city 20 years ago. Uptown was three to four blocks; no housing, few restaurants,” remembers Simon, referencing an earlier stint in Charlotte when he worked at another uptown hotel.

     “People come here; they’re safe and they’re impressed. Charlotte has become a main destination. There is more dining and nightlife uptown as well as the arena for sports events and festivals such as Blues, Brews and Bar-B-Q’s and First Night Charlotte. The brand-new NASCAR Hall of Fame hasn’t hit its full stride yet, but it’s only a positive to have that in our backyard. Add to these a wealth of museums and cultural centers, performing arts and festivals, and there’s something for everyone right outside our door,” Simon continues.

     The Hilton Charlotte Center City is part of the Charlotte Convention Connection, a strategic alliance between the Hilton, the Charlotte Convention Center and The Westin Charlotte. Together they offer 1,100 guest rooms, 45 suites, 70 breakout rooms and over 500,000-square-feet of functional space.

     Included in that is the Charlotte Convention Center’s 45,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom and a 280,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall. “It’s like having all of the meeting space and extra rooms next door,” says Simon. The Hilton and Westin work together on many 1,000-1,500-person conventions in conjunction with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA).

     “We compete with other hotels in the city and at the same time we work together to bring more business to Charlotte versus another city,” explains Simon. This effort was demonstrated by the recent CRVA-sponsored meeting between 60 hotel representatives and the officials of the CIAA annual basketball tournament.

     “We win as a team or lose as a team,” says Simon. Charlotte won a three-year extension on the contract to host the tournament, the attendance of which will require hotel rooms, not only from uptown Charlotte, but from Lake Norman to Rock Hill, South Carolina.

 

Past, Present & Future

     What is the most coveted convention opportunity in view? “The Democratic National Convention,” offers Simon readily. “It would further put Charlotte on the map as a host of these big groups. It would be a significant stamp of approval for the City.”

     Charlotte is in the running to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention along with Minneapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis. Announcement of the selection will likely come before the end of 2010. Needless to say, the impact on uptown hotels, including Hilton Charlotte Center City, would be huge.

     Hotel officials met with White House representatives and Homeland Security representatives when they toured the City as part of the selection process. “We have as good a shot as any other city competing,” says Simon citing Charlotte’s vibrancy, walk-ability, ease of getting around and the quality of uptown hotels.

     The Hilton Charlotte Center City’s philosophy on weathering the economic downturn was to become smarter in managing business, according to Simon. While there were cutbacks, mostly involving delays in capital intensive projects, none were made that would affect the customer experience.

     “We were very fortunate to get the capital expenditure for our renovations in before the worst part of the recession hit,” acknowledges Simon.

     Also fortuitous for the hotels uptown was Wells Fargo’s buyout of Wachovia. “It actually helped us at that time,” says Simon. “There was so much business going back and forth between Wells Fargo’s headquarters in San Francisco and Wachovia in Charlotte, it actually created a base of business for us throughout the recession.”

     Second quarter of 2010 saw small signs of improvement. “The macroeconomic figures have not changed that much,” cautions Simon. “What has happened is that businesses that held off travel expenses for so long have had to start reconnecting.” Corporate business travel is trending in a positive direction currently and meeting and conference business is gradually getting better while leisure travel has fared well with people traveling closer to home, according to Simon.

     Hilton Charlotte Center City’s occupancy rates are generally in the low seventies—the top one or two position, compared with other uptown hotels, according to industry indices published in the Star Report.

 

Simon Talks the Talk

     Originally from Williamsville, New York, Simon studied liberal arts in college until he was confronted with a language requirement. Having struggled with Spanish in high school, he began talking with people about what he really wanted to do. It was then that he discovered the hospitality industry.

     Simon worked weekend and summer jobs to hone skills in hospitality, preparing himself to go to work upon graduation as an assistant housekeeping manager for a Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia. From there he went to help open the Boston Marriott Copley Place.

     Next he served as director of services for a Marriott in Dayton, Ohio. It was there a mentor saw Simon’s potential to succeed in sales and encouraged him to learn that side of the hotel business. He took an opportunity to come to Charlotte with Marriott in 1989, and that led to his earning the top award for directors of sales for all of Marriott’s domestic hotels.

     After that, he did a three-year stint as director of sales and marketing for the Tyson Corner Marriott, and then another opportunity appeared: Buenos Aires, Argentina—Spanish, again!

     “It was probably the most challenging point in my life,” says Simon. “There I was, thrown into a foreign country with a totally different culture and language, and charged with re-branding a hotel that had been managed by a family for 90 years.”

     Successful in his goals, Simon moved on to become director of sales and marketing for a Marriott Resort with casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there he went on to Mexico to oversee the sales and marketing team of a cluster of seven hotels, and opened the first Courtyard by Marriott in Latin America and the AAA Four Diamond JW Marriott Cancun Resort. He was, by then, fluent in Spanish.

     “If you want to connect with the team and embrace the culture, you need to know the language,” advises Simon.

     He returned to Puerto Rico working as resident manager in charge of rooms, then director of operations, including the food and beverage operations. He opened the first Marriott Hotel in Honduras in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

     “Building a hotel from the ground up—putting your stamp on it—is a great experience,” affirms Simon. Three years later, he became general manager of the JW Marriott in Quito, Ecuador.

     Right about then, difficult times were unfolding in the Simon family as Glenn’s older brother was fighting ALS. Simon wanted to return to the United States and first took an opportunity in Sacramento, California, and then in San Francisco to rebrand a Sheraton to a Hilton.

     By this time, Simon was married with two young sons and was able to spend time with his family; something he had been able to do little of because of the demands and distance of his work.

     When the opportunity to move to Charlotte as general manager of the Hilton Charlotte Center City appeared, Simon accepted. “I’m so excited to be here,” says Simon. “This is a great hotel in a fantastic city.”

 

Community Affair

     Simon’s business philosophy is straightforward: Success belongs to the team; positive feedback; be available; reach down and help others.

     “I’ve had lots of good mentors and experiences with these ideas,” he says. “Nothing can pay the price of working in different cultures and being exposed to different things. I learned the importance of connecting with staff.”

     All 200 employees are key team members, according to Simon. The staff reflects a mix of those who have worked their way up from entry levels to people who have started in management roles.

     The hotel has a partnership with Johnson & Wales which provides internships in hospitality.

     “Our business is like a little city,” says Simon. “We have all these different disciplines that work together as a team from sales, catering, culinary, front desk operations, housekeeping, food and beverage operations, accounting.”

     Even the students that come out of Johnson & Wales or Cornell or some of the business schools that give a hospitality degree don’t start as general managers. One has to be a department head in at least two different disciplines before s/he is eligible to be a general manager.

     Simon was deeply affected by the poverty he witnessed in Latin America. Especially in hurricane-ravaged Honduras, where many parents were lost, leaving orphans behind. In 2003, Simon went in with other hotel team members to help rebuild orphanages, and for his effort he was recognized with an award from the United States Ambassador of Honduras.

     The Hilton Charlotte Center City currently supports the Second Harvest Food Bank, the American Cancer Society’s Strides Against Breast Cancer, the March of Dimes and is looking for more opportunities to give back to the community.

     Asked about future plans, Simon doesn’t hesitate. “The plan is to take care of that next guest checking in; the next person who arrives at the restaurant. We always strive to fulfill Conrad’s Hilton’s philosophy of ‘spreading the light and warmth of hospitality.’”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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