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Walking in the park.

WALKING IN THE PARK

A stroll through Hot Springs' newest luxury hotel with co-owner and manager Robert Haupt is no walk in the park. He rolls through the lobby of The Park Hilton, fielding a query here, making a request there. He examines a new sign on the front door, greets a guest, discusses the price of a glass fitting. As he bustles along, he shakes hands, slaps shoulders, grabs elbows.

He knows the housekeeper's name and the sign painter's name and he calls them out. Seemingly everyone who crosses his zigzagging path receives a hello or piece of advice or a touch, sometimes all three. The 60-foot journey from his office door to the restaurant is exhausting for a visitor, who wonders whether Haupt is running a hotel or running for governor. Haupt finally settles in a quiet table with a cup of tea, his back to the wall as he jots a note on a lace doily.

"We're not these people y'all write stories about...we don't deal with those thousand of dollars decisions," Haupt says, his feet in rest but his mind and mouth still in motion, peddling his management concept like a miracle elixir.

"We deal with, 'Did they throw away the silverware or did they dig it out of the trash can?' We make a living off 75-cent cups of coffee."

Not so fast, Bob. Granted, he watches the costs, but Haupt is a man with more than cups of coffee on his ledger. He and his partners engineered the purchase of the Hot Springs hotel for about a third of its worth from one of the country's most powerful banks, expect to generate almost $4 million from the business in 1990 despite its being a big-time flop before, and have their eyes - and offers - out for dozens of properties across the South.

The cup of coffee analogy is a dose of Haupt's humility. He often kids that he's just the fat girl who got invited to the dance, when in fact he's more akin to the fair-haired boy. A magnum cum laude college graduate at age 18, Haupt, now 32, has worked at one of the country's finest restaurants, has virtually turned around a six-pack of sputtering establishments and is gaining reputation as a shaker-baker in the business of hotels, resorts and restaurants.

"I think he's one of the sharpest I've ever met," says Eric Jackson, Oaklawn Park GM, who's seen his share of hotel operators in his years at the race track.

"He'll be one of the best in the industry," says Haupt's partner, Darell Allison of Hot Springs. "You wait and see."

BUT FIRST THINGS FIRST. For Haupt (pronounced "how" with a "pt" at the end, one syllable), front and center in his mind is The Park Hilton. Rising 14 stories from the convergence of streets and structures that is downtown Hot Springs, the Hilton is a cool white building that cuts a sleek vertical shape.

It's a thin tower, appearing almost one-dimensional when viewed from east or west, like a huge playing card standing on end. It's adjacent to the Hot Springs Convention Center, just off Bathhouse Row.

Inside, there are 200 rooms, 8,000-SF of meeting space, a restaurant, bars, and a spa. Finely furnished, it cost $17.5 million and opened in November 1986. Six months later, Bank of America in San Francisco foreclosed on it. Two years after that, Haupt, Allison and Oklahoma oilman Bill Austin snatched it for $5.5 million. "We did okay on it," Haupt says in typical understatement.

The Hot Springs Hilton, as it initially was known, was opened by the Texas development firm Sumner, Greener and Fussell under the name Hot Springs Hotel Partners Limited. The developers also had interests in the Fayetteville Hilton, which has had financial troubles and was to be auctioned this month.

For the Hot Springs Hilton, trouble wasn't long coming. The hotel couldn't meet the debt and leader Beverly Hills Savings and Loan, which was to provide permanent financing, became insolvent. The San Francisco bank, which made the construction loan, had to take control when the S$L bailed out. The bank began operating the hotel with limited success. "You can smell a bank-run property from 10 blocks," comments Haupt.

Meanwhile Haupt and Allison (who were working together at Hot Springs' SunBay Resort) were shopping for properties, looking from eastern Tennessee to Texas at about 20 sites.

"We were looking for deals," Haupt says. "The best deal was right here in our hometown. We thought, `This is the one, it will work, there's a need for it.'"

In July 1988, the pair, operating under the name Spa Lodging Inc., made an offer to Bank of America executives. "They said no way," Haupt recalls. (The actual words are a bit salty for publication.)

The bank took legal title of the hotel in September 1988 and Spa Lodging made another, lower, offer October 1988. In early May, the two parties entered into a contract. Two weeks later, the bank received an offer that's was considerably more, Haupt says with a grin.

"It was an antagonistic sale. Boy, they were tough," Haupt says. "But we hung in there and we bought it."

Oilman Austin was brought in to provide the seed money for the venture and has more than a 50 percent interest. Haupt and Allison are the other half of the partnership and have management rights and ownership options to bring them near to 50 percent. The hotel operates as a franchise of the Hilton chain, which has little say in the management.

Haupt, who had been in charge of operations at SunBay, moved over to manage the Hilton and it opened under his hand June 28.

Among the first things he did was learn the names of about 140 employees. "For the first employees' meeting, he called the housekeepers by their first name," says hotel spa manager Benita J. Goss, amazed at her new boss' knack for names. "It's pretty strange, for him to take the time to meet these people and really talk to them."

FOR HAUPT, THE PRACTICE isn't strange, it's common courtesy and good management. "You can't direct people and expect them to respect you if you don't know their name," he says. Calling employees by name is just part of Haupt's philosophy of management, his theory of hospitality.

He is a cordial type, comfortable in appearance. This day he is respectfully dressed - yet not impeccably so. His shirt is starched, but it moves. His tie is taut at the neck but divides to a "V" about the fifth button. His slightly bushy hair is combed with imperfections to make it look real.

An enthusiastic talker, he asks to be guided in an interview and yet takes off on his own course. It's a safe bet Haupt always has been that way. Reared in St. Louis, he entered Oklahoma Baptist University at age 16, intent on being a preacher. He changed his mind and graduated in two years magna cum laude in psychology, then went to Japan's Seinan Gakuin University for a degree in Japanese Studies.

He was food and beverage manager at the Skirvin Plaza Hotel in Oklahoma City and then went to Chicago to work at Gordon restaurant and on a master's degree at Chicago University.

He describes his career as one filled with "turnaround" projects. At Skirvin Plaza he brought profit to the food and beverage department for the first time in years. At Gordon, a nationally-recognized restaurant, he transformed a $10,000 monthly loss business to one with a $180,000 annual profit.

The once-aspiring Baptist preacher experienced his only debacle when he ran his own beverage company. "I lost every penny I had and then some," he recalls. Independence Federal Bank of Batesville in 1985 allowed him to rescue a bit himself, when the bank sought his help at the SunBay property it was backing. He took the food and beverage department to profit within six months and was hotel manager within a year. He pumped occupancy from 38 percent to 50 percent - "shortly," as Allison recalls - and then up to 70 percent. He then was promoted to manager.

Haupt really lights up when giving his views on running a business and making people feel better. "We're cheerleaders, we're managers," he says, stopping short of waving pompoms. His basic belief: Employees should be made to feel as if they are part of the organization, and when they do, they will treat the hotel as their home, offering the same hospitality they offer guests at home.

He sees that staff members show someone how to find something, rather than point to it; employees always greet a visitor at the door. "That's called friendly, that's called warmth, that's called hospitality. Why is it people who get paid for that stuff fail in all that?"

To have the staff involved, Haupt:

* Has an employee breakfast once a month with several staff members to tell them what the hotel is doing and to listen to their comments.

* A different employee is placed in charge for an evening once a month.

* Every three months Haupt displays the company's financial status on a flip chart.

"We train people that it does matter if they show up," Haupt says.

"What we're trying to do is train people to be general managers rather than to train them just to be doers."

Spa manager Goss says the hotel has a new feel since Haupt arrived.

"Oh man, it's completely different. The whole atmosphere of the hotel is positive."

Haupt hopes so, because a happy staff means happy visitors. And if he can't make guests happy, there's no reason to be in business. "People pay money to come to a hotel and be rebuilt," Haupt explains. "That doesn't come from the room, the food, that comes from the staff. We deal with a lot of folks who had to bust their tail to come here for an anniversary weekend. They don't have a second shot. If we screw it up, they can't go again next weekend."

His striving for a homey ambience extends to the rooms. In the $73-90 rooms on the top floors, cookies and milk are left on the bedside table, sheets are turned down at bedtime.

Haupt's theories appear to be working. Room revenues are up in the seven months Haupt has been running the hotel when compared with the same months in 1988. Occupancy has increased almost 40 percent, food and beverage is up about 60 percent.

Room revenues will be about $1.8 million in 1989, compared with $1.4 million in 1988. (The hotel also had seen increases over last year in the months before Haupt took over.) Haupt estimates room revenues to be about $2.3 million in 1990 and $1.6 million in other revenues.

Spa Lodging is injecting about $500,000 into the hotel to "warm it up," as Haupt terms it, referring to attractiveness, not temperature.

Not to say the hotel is a flophouse - $17.5 million bought a load of nice furnishings - but Haupt wants to create a more receptive atmosphere. "It needs to develop a richness of personality," he says, later adding, "We need trees."

He's right, for something named "Park," there is an obvious lack of vegetation. The place is not spectacular - "competent" is the word Haupt uses - yet it's newer and cleaner than anywhere in town and the staff is gushingly friendly. The hotel has a spa, complete with natural springs bath and massage. The spa is smaller and doesn't have the early-century feel as Hot Springs' other bathhouses, yet it is pleasant and relaxing with the same rejuvenating, tickle-your-insides Hot Springs water.

Haupt says the Hilton can offer new, luxurious surroundings as an alternative to the Arlington and Majestic hotels in Hot Springs and possibly lower rates than luxury Little Rock hotels.

Some Hot Springs leaders see a need for the Hilton. Lee Schissler, Hot Springs Advertising Promotion Commission executive director, says that to bag the convention business "you need an inventory of classy rooms."

The city is aiming at such business, noting the average conventioneer spends $125 a day compared with the average tourist, who spends $87 daily. Schissler says the city has hired a consultant to examine the possibility of building a 100,000-SF exhibition hall to complement the convention center. "Which is big news for the Hilton."

Early financial troubles at the Hilton caused many groups to shy away, says Schissler, but Haupt has provided stability. The tourism industry is Hot Springs' meat and potatoes, and leaders are optimistic they'll be feeding off it for years. Tax revenues from hotels and restaurants are up $70,000 year-to-date from 1988, and increased eight of 10 months, except for two months during horse racing season.

Oaklawn manager Jackson says track officials are looking for big things in 1990, with Sunday racing all season. As for the Hilton's chances, "there's always room for quality."

JACKSON LAUGHS ABOUT his first dealings with Haupt, when the SunBay manager called to schedule a tour of Oaklawn during the off-season. "The poor, out-of-touch fellow doesn't even know we're not racing," Jackson recalls thinking. But Haupt explained he was bringing his employees to Oaklawn so they could learn about the track to better serve guests. "He's the only one ever to have done that," Jackson says.

Haupt is far from out of touch. In fact, he and Allison have their "fingers on a couple of other properties, waiting for sales." The two are still looking for hotels, resorts and restaurants in smaller Southern cities, and Haupt believes they could be running a handful of places "quickly."

"We believe we can have multiple properties and do well," he says. The pair, which operate under the name Center Development, will keep its base in Hot Springs. Haupt, married with two children, says the Spa City is home. He describes his partnership with Allison as a good combination for going forward. "I'm the blocker and he's the running back," he says.

Haupt says the hospitality business is not complicated. "Nothing I do singularly is all that difficult. What makes my job tough is there are tons of little things to do. Whoever does the most little things is the one who'll be successful."

Clay Hathorn is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Profile; Robert Haupt, hotel manager
Author:Hathorn, Clay
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 18, 1989
Words:2399
Previous Article:Building dreams; avoiding default.
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