Q&A: John Williams is a hotel miracle worker

Skirvin Hilton hotel general manager John Williams has been a driving force behind the restoration of Oklahoma City’s grandest old hotel. It is the latest chapter in a long career in the hospitality business, where he has made a mark in polishing up once-forgotten gems.
The Skirvin first opened in 1911, but closed its doors in 1988. Its grand reopening on February 26, 2007, after a $55 million renovation, marked the latest chapter in its storied history.
A long-time hotelier, Williams has lived in 10 different cities in the past 30 years, and he has been with Marcus Hotels & Resorts for the past seven years. Prior to his Skirvin appointment, Williams was running the 113-year-old Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
We met for breakfast in the Park Avenue Grill just off the hotel’s main lobby.
How did you get started on this project?
I was just minding my own business in Milwaukee running the hotel and trying to stay out of trouble. One day I got tapped on the shoulder, somebody suggested I should go to Oklahoma City. Once the city made the decision to own the property they protected it until they found the right marriage. It was like a father protecting his daughter from a wayward boyfriend. At the end of the day it came down to us and Paul Corey, a good guy and a developer out of Tulsa. He has the management contract on the Colcord two and a half blocks from here.
Coury wanted to split the building into part condominiums and part hotel rooms. That was not the vision for Oklahoma City. They wanted a grand old hotel, they wanted it back, they wanted it intact, they wanted respect for the history of the place. Just looking around, these tiles have been on these walls since 1926. We were able to convince the city that we were the right guys.
What was your experience with Oklahoma City?
I was one of those “been through it not to it” guys. I was transferred from Chicago to Los Angeles and drove through here one morning. I remember I did stop in January 1986, I stopped in Oklahoma City to have breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant. That was the sum total of my experience.
When I was asked to come down here, I had a bunch of experience in old hotels. This is my fifth one and I had a pile of experience in construction and renovation of old hotels. I had done a $40 million project that I managed in Cleveland. I was the right guy to come down here in the company’s eyes. I understood the sense of place being in a smaller city. You really have to get along with everybody all the time.
So I was asked to come down and take a look at it. My daughter was in college, my sone was getting ready to start high school, we fly down here and from the minute we got to the airport to the minute we got to our room everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. The first flight was cancelled. The second flight was incredibly late. We landed in OKC at 1:30 in the morning, with no luggage. I had a seven a.m. appointment to meet somebody. So I went to bed at probably 2:30, my wife and son were asleep and I got up. She asked what I was doing, and I told her I was walking up the street to see this place. I put on my jacket and walked up the street and there she was. It was simply love at first sight. Here was this gorgeous old builndg with broken out windows it looked horrible. I literally made my decision at that moment that we were going to do this. It was a done deal.
We figured out it was right for us, right for the family, loved Heritage Hills, an old neighborhood right up the street where we now reside. We found a great school for my son. We did all of this in a day. So I went back to Milwaukee and said, ‘OK, we’ll do this.’
If you do what I do for a living, you’ve got a great affinity for old hotels and a construction challenge. And there was a specific deadline that the hotel had to be open by. This was the project of a lifetime. How many gorgeous old abandoned hotels are there sitting in the middle of a great city that is just begging for somebody to come back and reopen it?
What is the difference in managing an historic property like this one and a newer product?
It’s all about the community. This place has impacted peoples’ lives. For some it was a first date or first prom. Their first job interview was held in this restaurant. Everybody has a story.
It seems that the hotel’s life skipped a generation of potential patrons.
That’s why the décor package is not your grandmother’s living room. It’s not hip, it’s not cool, it’s not trendy, it’s a little of all those things, but respectful of the history of the building. Duncan Miller out of Dallas did the design.
What are a couple of great stories?
In November 1988, on the day the hotel closed, all of the customers were basically sent away early in the day. They had to pack up and leave. All of the employees were sent home midday, and that night the lights went out. They hadn’t paid the electric bill.
Three weeks ago I was walking through in the morning and I saw a friend of mine. He said, ‘Let me introduce you to somebody.’ The fellow I met was a guest the day the hotel closed. Unfortunately he had gotten up and out early, he didn’t know anything about the hotel closing and came back in the evening and the hotel was dark. He was essentially board out.
It’s become the emotional and social center of the city once again. That’s what we wanted to have happen. We established a very strong reputation from the get-go for a banquet food and banquet catering operation. Our size is limited, we can only do 450 people but we can offer a much more intimate and upscale facility, something that’s much more elaborate when it needs to be but doesn’t have the scale of the convention center.
What was your biggest challenge?
Getting this done by the date it was due. I mean, that date was cast in stone for the Big 12 basketball tournament and the city promised the Big 12 that they’d have another 225 brand new hotel rooms available for the tournament.
The tournament was March 6-11 and we opened on February 26th. We got the building on Sunday from the contractor and opened 12 hours later. Typically in a situation like this you’d take the building form the contractor and two or three weeks later you would open. We had 12 hours.
Then we were just overwhelmed with people. This was the story. Everybody wanted to be here on opening day. Everybody wanted to see the hotel. Everybody wanted to come back and rekindle a memory. There was one fellow who came down the night before we opened, Sunday night, and he was just walking around the lobby and we were literally putting furniture where it goes and he walked over to our history gallery in the old lobby and saw his picture on the wall from 50 some years prior. Everybody just had a passion and love of this place and they wanted to be part of that opening day.
So how do you keep that initial jazz going?
With our advertising we had a great campaign to open the hotel. Our tagline was ‘Return of the grand romance.’ That was very effective. We still have on our team the public relations firm The Gooden Group and they are extraordinary. We seized every opportunity for public relations. Radio, television, print, anything we could do we did. What really helped was simply we delivered on the promise. We delivered a really beautiful hotel with a very good product an d a very high level of service and better than anybody in downtown Oklahoma City had seen. We raised the bar and the customer noticed that, appreciated that and we were on the list.
The other thing that we did was we followed a rational pricing model. We didn’t gouge, we didn’t over price, we didn’t put our nose in the air and say ‘We’re the Skirvin and therefore it’s $300 a night.’ We set our rates at competitive levels.
I thought they were going to be much higher.
So did everybody else. That was part of the campaign. And we still price very competitively against our competitive set.
We managed the ice storm of 2007 very well. There was a huge ice storm here on a Sunday night and many hotels and motels took advantage of distressed consumers. We dropped our price by $90. We went from $189 to 99 and we filled the hotel with our neighbors. There was a book written about the dogs staying at the Skirvin Hilton. The mileage from that has been huge.
How are your financials holding up?
Based on the tracking that we do, we tend to run a significant premium to RevPAR. We’re the leader in the market and have been from day one.
What does the future hold?
There is a lot of stuff going on in the background in Oklahoma City. First and foremost you’ve got the Devon Tower, which should be in the ground before the end of 2009. So in 2012, we will have a new Devon Tower that will change the look and feel of the city. So the question is what happens to all of this office space, who is going to backfill that, how are you going to manage that process. This literally is our backyard so we have thousands of square feet that needs to be filled with somebody. Then, typically a building like that brings another building, which brings another building, and so on. You’ve got a 10-15 year stretch of new stuff coming. The core to shore program is a big deal. The convention center expansion is a big deal. All of the stuff on the river and what that means to enhancing our sports. The other big thing that nobody talks about is the Native American Cultural Center two or three years down the line.
The point is that we have to keep our eye on all of these balls that are in the air and the Skirvin Hilton and Marcus Hotels and Resorts need to maintain the right relationships with the right folks and continue to deliver.
The big issue for us is how much new product comes to town and what it is. If you go north on memorial, you go out by the airport on the Meridian strip, there is just tremendous limited service lodging development. Right here in Bricktown we just opened a 200-room Hampton Inn, people have talked about a Holiday Inn Select, or a Candlewood Suites. I guess from my perspective, we have to be really careful about what gets built downtown because if we wind up adding 1,000 rooms of limited service lodging product that will never work for groups that want to use the convention center and just partner with one, two or three hotels. They’ll use the big convention center hotel, they’ll use one of two of us, but they won’t spread people around in 20 different hotels, it just won’t work.
As a market we need to pay attention to what gets built and how it could potentially foul things up five years from now.
We worked so hard on this project, and its’ good to sit back and take a deep breath. So many times in this business you know yourself out, you get the job done, and then you immediately move on to the next thing. I’m living testimony to that but it’s nice to sit back and enjoy the fruits of the labor and savor the success of the team that we have here.
>>Ben Johnson l 6.08.09