In a cozy nook at the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Hotel Impossible star Anthony Melchiorri enjoys a bowl of oatmeal with his daughters Mia, 13, and Nina, 10. Earlier that morning, they dropped off Mia’s twin sister, Cara, at a private high school for “buddy day,” so she could experience a typical day in the life of a student. Melchiorri welled up as he said goodbye to her. His daughters were growing up so fast.
He had just returned from business trips in Las Vegas and Wisconsin, followed by two days of conference calls. This particular morning was one of the rare times he had to spend with his children, thanks to a rigorous filming schedule for season two of Hotel Impossible, his Travel Channel TV series. The next day, Melchiorri was off to the Lifestyle/Boutique Development Conference in Miami to be the keynote speaker, then to Periwinkle Inn in Cape May, N.J., to shoot another episode, followed by a long trek to Croatia for the Travel Channel special Trip of a Lifetime. If he’s lucky he’ll be home once a week until January.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says, of being away from his wife and kids.
To find a quiet retreat from the bustling activity of the lobby and restaurant, Melchiorri settled down in an adjacent private lounge to discuss the various ways he helps the underperforming hotels featured in his show get back on track and improve business.
For 32 years, Melchiorri says, the narrow lounge we’re in was one of Manhattan’s three major cabaret supper clubs, the Oak Room. He first fell in love with the Algonquin after hearing Oak Room regular Andrea Marcovicci perform. According to New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden, the singing actress wove a spell of charm over captive audiences here for 25 years, conjuring Hollywood dreams and paying tribute to composers and show business legends. Melchiorri was among those captivated souls. “It was a magical place,” he says, fondly.
The hotel’s allure stems back further than the echoes of critically acclaimed cabaret singers to the chatter of Vanity Fair writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood, who began lunching at the Algonquin with their literary friends after World War I to exchange ideas, gossip, and witticisms. The group dubbed itself the Vicious Circle, but was referred to as the Algonquin Round Table, after the location where they met daily from 1919 to 1929. The members’ opinions and writing is said to have strongly influenced young writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Harold Ross, a friend of the Round Table, created The New Yorker in 1925, and secured funding for it at the hotel.
In January 2012, the Algonquin closed for a five-month renovation that has preserved its iconic spirit while adding modern conveniences, such as glass-enclosed stall showers in guest bathrooms rather than the original soaking tubs. “You still feel like Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and George Kauffman are walking around this property,” Melchiorri says. When the hotel reopened in May, the cabaret club had been shut down, and the room was repurposed as a concierge lounge for Marriott rewards program members. (The Algonquin is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, a group of independent luxury hotels.)
Melchiorri’s return visit to the Algonquin is a homecoming of sorts because it’s where he embarked on his second general manager job at age 37, from 2002 to 2004.
“He’s one of the best,” says Round Table waiter Gulfer “Chuck” Shah, who’s been a fixture at the Algonquin since 1981. “He’s very smart.”
The job wasn’t a cakewalk. “I wanted the challenge of coming in and repositioning this hotel,” Melchiorri says. Knowing that every hotel is different, he came to the Algonquin without preconceived notions. The 174-room hotel didn’t look too big or intense, but he quickly realized that from staffing to food and beverage and banquets and everything in between, he had big shoes to fill. “This thing brought me to my knees in a week,” he admits.
At the time, the Algonquin, which first opened in 1902, had seen better days. Melchiorri and his team closed the hotel for a month and he oversaw a basement-to-roof renovation, including the restaurants and back-of-house areas. The project was completed on schedule and within budget, and the hotel became a highly rated Michelin Guide Hotel. During Melchiorri’s tenure, the public relations team concocted a flashy marketing campaign, in the form of a $10,000 martini, that won Best of Show and Platinum awards from the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI). The lucky recipient of this extravagant cocktail discovers a diamond engagement ring at the bottom of the glass. Melchiorri’s Young Cabaret Artist Competition also generated interest and press from all over the country. After the hotel was re-positioned, the owner sold it for a significant return.
In his more than 20 years of managing, developing, and refining hotels ranging from an 800-room resort in Orlando, Fla., to a 310 all-suite hotel in Times Square, Melchiorri established a reputation as a fixer—with a detailed understanding of hotel operations and best practices. He had spent his time in the trenches and now he was ready to troubleshoot other people’s problems using a no-nonsense, tough-love approach. So Melchiorri decided to use his expertise to help struggling hotel owners reposition their properties by identifying problems, hashing it out with employees, and renovating areas that need some love. For the latter, Melchiorri relies on the expertise of interior designer Blanche Garcia.
“I never realized how many people were in trouble,” says Melchiorri, who runs the New York-based consulting company Argeo Hospitality. The first question people usually ask is, “What’s the formula?” Unfortunately, he says, there is no formula.
WHERE TO START
Identifying the source of the problem begins with assessing the fundamental aspects that make a hotel run successfully, and drilling down from there. Melchiorri compares it to a car. “If you’re worrying about what kind of leather is on the steering wheel before the bones of the engine are fixed, then it’s just gonna be a nice steering wheel,” Melchiorri says. “And as you’re going down the road, it’s gonna fall apart.”
He recently traveled to Cable, Wis., for a few days to shoot an episode at the Telemark Resort. The 200-room destination hotel, located on more than 1,000 acres of land, had no property management system (PMS). “A property management system for a hotel is the engine. If somebody checked in you wouldn’t know unless you went to an Excel spreadsheet that was done by hand.” Housekeepers have to call down to the front desk to find out when guests have checked out. “It was mayhem.” The first order of business was to install a PMS, even though his production team said that didn’t make for sexy TV. The front desk agent in charge of sales and marketing didn’t have much experience, so Melchiorri brought in a company to assist them for 30 to 60 days and put together a plan. “If I didn’t have a sales team or PMS in that property, nothing else would matter,” he says.
Melchiorri flew in a banker from Missouri to assess the property’s financial problems. The employees thought they had a week or, at most, a month until bankruptcy, until the banker delivered the good news that they had six to nine months to turn it around. “I knew if I went in I wouldn’t be able to fix anything if we didn’t know how long we had to do it.”
So it goes each week on the show. Melchiorri flies in, assesses the situation, and implements a plan to fix it. All within 60 minutes. It’s a tried and true formula for reality TV that has worked in a number of business overhaul series, such as Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell on FOX. Hotel Impossible works because it offers the layman a glimpse behind the scenes into how hotels really operate and then delves into the many ways that things can go wrong.
A common way for a hotel to underperform is as a result of low staff morale. Employees can easily become disenfranchised if an owner blames them when things aren’t running smoothly, Melchiorri says. “In a [troubled] hotel, the first thing they shut off is housekeeping and maintenance. They start taking away their tools, cleaning supplies, sheets, hammers. That’s like shutting off a refrigerator in a restaurant kitchen. The meat goes spoiled.
“The number one obligation you have to a guest is a clean room that works and functions,” he continues. “So those things should not be cut until the door is closed. That’s the last thing that you cut.”
Hotels also suffer due to poor communication skills among the staff, which is why Melchiorri often addresses infighting and clarifies the roles of individual employees as a way to clear the air. “I teach everybody that there are three ways to communicate: You listen, you write it, and you look at the person’s body language,” Melchiorri says. “And I repeat myself. ‘Did you get that? You understand what I’m saying? Repeat it back to me.’
“Miscommunication in an environment like this that’s moving in so many different directions is going to happen with the best and smartest people on the best terms.” The trick is to foster a team atmosphere that makes each communication exchange as effective as possible.
From there, Melchiorri’s hotel fixing process gets more complicated, and branches off into areas like marketing. “You start with the team and the duties of each person, then you have to look at the sales and marketing and revenue management,” Melchiorri says. In some instances, he will establish creative new campaigns and teach owners how to successfully harvest business referrals.
In season one, when Melchiorri traveled to the New Yorker Boutique Hotel in Miami, he learned that the owners were missing some opportunities when it came to marketing the property. The hotel offered airport shuttle service, but the shuttles were indistinguishable black vans that guests could never find in a sea of cars. Melchiorri’s team transformed the shuttle into a billboard on wheels by adding an art deco-style van wrap with the New Yorker Miami logo and phone number.
He also opened the owners’ eyes to potential partnerships with local businesses and community groups, and gave them the confidence they needed to promote the property. It offered all the amenities of a hotel, including continental breakfast and free WiFi, but the neon sign identified it as a motel. The Hotel Impossible team updated the signage to reflect its hotel-worthy status. “You have to go out there and be proud of what you established,” Melchiorri says.
Melchiorri has a problem with hotels that present a false impression, and make promises they can’t deliver. He says that their guests come in with high expectations and end up being disappointed. “Know who you are. I’m not 6 foot 7. I’m not dunking a basketball,” he says. “If you’re a three-star hotel, be a great three-star hotel. Don’t try to be something you’re not because people will have expectations and will nail you.”
Melchiorri’s first job out of the military was at the Embassy Suites in Times Square, which is now a DoubleTree. “Once I started to work at Embassy Suites,” he says, “I realized that a hotel has 27 different feelings to it and emotions and personalities.” His goal was to work at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and he achieved that within 10 months, starting out as a night manager.
Prior to his stint at the Times Square Embassy Suites, Melchiorri served as a protocol officer at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri from 1986 to 1990, while also taking evening business courses at Park University in Parkville, and working as a night auditor at the Embassy Suites in Overland Park, Kan., on the weekends. “When I graduated, I had hotel experience, military experience, and I had my bachelor’s degree. It was a busy four years.”
Melchiorri thrives in chaotic and challenging circumstances. When he was promoted to director of front office operations at the Plaza Hotel, he was stunned to learn that it presented itself as a five-star property, but the employees didn’t understand quality service. They had no employee training program in place, Melchiorri recalls. With two-star operations in a five-star hotel to contend with, he decided to convert a staff lunchroom into a service training room.
“I was just a kid. I was 25 or 26 years old, but I knew that the first thing I had to do was put training in,” he says. “If you don’t have training, how do you teach your staff to provide five-star service? We were trying to be something we really weren’t.”
You can train someone how to check in a guest, but you can’t teach them how to be nice, smile, and go out of their way to anticipate a guest’s needs. “The first thing you have to start with is really engaged employees,” Melchiorri stresses. “Don’t just hire a warm body.”
As the industry emerges from the economic recession, owners who have turned a profit in the last couple of years are reinvesting in their properties. Melchiorri says owners are putting money back into the amenities, upgrading the beds and linens, improving WiFi networks, and transforming lobbies into 24/7 social havens. The industry isn’t back to 2007 room rates, but Melchiorri anticipates it will return to pre-recession levels in the near future.
“Back in 2007 we were pushing rates and we weren’t recognizing the guest,” he says. “I think we can still push the rate and in two years get back to 2007, but people are demanding recognition and better service.”
Cleanliness is an obvious must have in hotels, and Melchiorri believes every hotel should offer free WiFi and bottled water, but the most important element that makes the business tick is a quality staff.
Travelers want to stay at hotels where they can maintain their daily routine, which means they will be sleeping, showering, exercising, watching TV, eating, and working in their rooms, among other things.
“We have to take that seriously,” Melchiorri says. “We have to understand that from the moment the guest packs their bags, what kind of guest am I bringing into my hotel? What do they expect? Are we anticipating their needs? That’s how I run hotels.”