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Making the magic happen for struggling hotels

Anthony Melchiorri

Anthony Melchiorri.

Anthony Melchiorri is a hotelier extraordinaire. A former US Air Force protocol officer, he takes a no-nonsense approach as a fixer on the Travel Channel’s series “Hotel Impossible.”

In this program, now in its fifth season, Melchiorri uses his 24 years of hotel experience, plus a wealth of business strategies (and a terrific sense of humor) to rescue and revive struggling properties and put them — in just four days of taping — onto the fast track to success and profitability. His past experience includes stints as the director of front-office operations at New York’s landmark Plaza Hotel, and as general manager for the city’s Lucerne Hotel and famous Algonquin Hotel, which he developed into one of the top-ranking hotels in New York. He was also vice president of Nickelodeon Family Suites. I spoke to Melchiorri by phone as he drove from his home in New York to an ailing property in Pennsylvania that was to be featured on the show.

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What’s your favorite part of problem-solving on “Hotel Impossible”?

The desperation. It’s my favorite and least favorite. There’s time running out — you only have four days — and there are things you don’t know, sometimes it’s bankruptcy or foreclosures that you have no idea about until the second or third day. You have to deal with them in order to save the hotel. The problems are traumatic for them to know and for me to hear. It can really hurt the opportunity for success. I’m an adrenaline junkie so the adrenaline that you get from that desperation is intense.

Do you get any sleep while you are taping the show over the four days?

I get to sleep at 2 a.m. and get up at 6 a.m., but those four hours are dead sleep. I sleep like a dead man.

Why do you think you have such a passion for the hotel industry?

‘I’m not there to embarrass them. . . . I’m there so that when I leave, they don’t lose their hotels. They think I’m a TV celebrity and not a hotel guy. That’s a challenge.’

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A. At the Plaza as a young manager, I just tried to be successful, and tried not to fail. I needed to pick something, so I picked the hotel business. I had been in the Air Force. Whenever I had previously visited the Plaza Hotel, I was always fascinated with its grandeur and opulence. I remember I was working there once and a young woman walked through the door. She was 11 years old and looked like Shirley Temple. She walked in and yelled out to me, “Mister, where’s Eloise?” Exactly. And we didn’t have an Eloise tour. [Eloise is the fictitious 6-year-old in a series of 1950s books by Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight; she lived on the “tippy-top floor” of the Plaza.] It inspired me. So along with my team member, Randee Glick, we created an Eloise tour. When they wanted magic, it was my job to find the magic. It made me want to disconnect people from the reality of their lives. All this little girl wanted to do was to find Eloise. When I was at the Nickelodeon Hotel, we had a young lady who had previously expected a SpongeBob celebration. So we did it. We reacted and got a SpongeBob party for her. Everyone cried. The passion comes from making people’s dreams come true . . . the great wine, the dinner, the big chocolate cake, the really nice room. . . . We try to connect. Being able to deliver — that is really something fun.

What was the biggest challenge that you discovered at the Plaza Hotel?

Financial difficulties at the time, and trying to provide the level of service people expected from the Plaza, on tight budgets with limited staffing.

What’s your biggest pet peeve about hotels when you stay in a hotel?

Everything. Everything bothers me. When I walk up and the perimeter is not clean, employees don’t look me in the eye, the person at the front desk doesn’t have a uniform, dirty rooms, and dirty carpeting.

Got a good story about something that has bothered you?

At a hotel I ran, there was a rock star, very famous, who stayed in this suite and after he checked out, we checked someone into it. The guest came down the stairs screaming — she went to iron her blouse and there was urine in the iron. Someone had peed in the iron. What do you say to a woman who has pee all over her blouse? “Never, ever use the water that was left over from the previous guest, because it just might be urine ”? The rock star is still alive and relatively reclusive and he was in a band with four people — and it’s not The Beatles. I’ve never told anyone else that story.

What is the worst-case scenario that you have fixed on “Hotel Impossible”?

The biggest challenge for people is to truly understand that I’m there to help them. I’m not there to embarrass them or find drama for the sake of finding drama. I’m there so that when I leave, they don’t lose their hotels. They think I’m a TV celebrity and not a hotel guy. That’s a challenge.

Do staff people shake in their boots when they discover who you are at the hotel you are fixing?

They know I’m coming. I think before I get there they are petrified, and after 20 minutes they start to realize things are going to be OK . . . or they won’t be OK and we will deal with it. When I show up, I’m a regular guy.

What can the average person do to ensure that he will have an optimum experience at a hotel?

I believe that if you’re in a bad hotel, you’re not computer savvy and you’re not paying attention. Our industry is so transparent, there are so many opportunities to see what fellow travelers are doing. Google or TripAdvisor, there’s so much out there that if you’re in a bad hotel, it’s shocking. If a good hotel makes a bad mistake, that means there are people who are willing to fix the problem. In our industry, it’s the recovery that people talk about and remember. . . . I remember when I was running a hotel in Times Square, housekeeping accidentally threw out a young girl’s playbill for her favorite show — and it had been signed by all the actors in the Broadway show. It was horrible. Within 24 hours there was a new playbill, signed and Fedexed to her. I had told the concierge to go to the stage door, get signatures on a new playbill, and we shipped it in 24 hours. That is a story that girl will be telling for 100 years.

What did you do at the Lucerne Hotel to make it such a success?

A. The first week there I wrote a mission statement: What do the guests expect, what do the owners expect. I made everyone carry this mission statement in their wallet. Everyone had my cell number. Professionalism is the goal. You’ll get everything you need, but you will be held accountable for your goals. We will not accept mediocrity. We accept excellence — clean rooms, friendly service, and engaged employees. Very simple. We also did not have food service at the hotel, so we ran it through the diner down the street. I told the diner, “You can have all of our business, but you need to answer the phone, and you must deliver the food in 20 minutes by someone wearing a suit and tie, and you tray it, keep it warm, and our guests will never know it’s from an outside restaurant.” People thought I was out of my mind. It was successful beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend. Our first guest in-room service was Coretta Scott King. She needs room service. . . . She doesn’t want to sit in a restaurant and have everyone stare at her. She had a cheeseburger and baked potato. It was an exceptional service for her, out of the box, and first-class.

You masterminded the overhaul of the famous Algonquin Hotel. Tell me about that, and also about the $10,000 martini you instituted there.

It was done in 29 days. The first time the hotel was ever closed. Everyone thought I was crazy. . . . I convinced the owners to close the hotel. We renovated all the rooms, including cleaning and painting and wallpapering the bathrooms, but also new furniture, draperies, new policies, and procedures. We worked our butts off for 29 days. The secret was closing it and opening it the right way. When we opened, we needed something bigger. I tasked my marketing company with coming up with the big idea. Carla Caccavale Reynolds came up with the $10,000 martini. I gave her a standing ovation. We got so much coverage. We won all kinds of awards for that creative marketing strategy. [ The hotel’s in-house jeweler placed a diamond in the martini.]

Many of the hotel owners you work with on the show have no previous hotel experience, which is astounding. Why do you think so many people want to get into the hotel business?

Because they see the numbers, and if you run it well, the operating income can be very good. The real estate will also be more valuable. If you run a hotel well, the value of the real estate can double or triple.

What goes through your head when you speak to hotel owners and GMs on the show and discover they don’t have a clue about what they’re doing?

Well, typically at this point I’m expecting that they don’t have any hotel experience. But they do have common sense, and if they want to listen, and have a passion for success, they will be successful. I’m looking for those traits.

How long did it take you to sell your idea of “Hotel Impossible” to the Travel Channel? What are some of the innovative things you did, to convince the Travel Channel of the potential success of this show?

I felt that I had the experience to teach people — one at a time — or I can have an audience of millions of people. The hotel biz was very misunderstood, and I wanted to educate people, but no one really knows what happens in the office of a general manager. My passion for wanting to show that to the world, it was a good thing. I came up with the idea, and I wrote it down with two partners — Leo and Lynn Rossi — and we collaborated on the idea and we put together a TV sizzle reel, a few minutes of me on film talking and interviewing some people, and worked with a few production companies. One of them picked it up, Travel Channel liked it and bought the rights, and now we’re in our fifth season.

You always wear great clothes on the show. Where do you get your suits?

I have my own designer and tailor. He’s in Italy.

How do you manage to stay in such good shape, when you’re working and traveling all the time?

As I’m speaking to you I am eating oatmeal, I just got home from the show and I stepped on the scale and I was three pounds lighter. It’s from working out and eating right, and the success of the show. I work out three to four days a week.

What luggage do you use?

Tumi.

When you travel for pleasure, what hotel chain do you stay at?

For business, I typically like Holiday Inn Express, because it’s efficient, people are efficient, rooms are very clean, I’m always in a rush, I have no time for roadblocks or a rude desk agent. One hundred and 10 percent of the time, I’ve had nothing but great service and great rooms. And I don’t get paid to say that.

What are your three favorite hotels in the world?

La Residencia in Majorca, Spain. The Algonquin in New York. And The Four Seasons Maui. Don’t die before you go to the Four Seasons Maui — and after you check out, it’s OK to die. Maui itself is so spiritual, but I went there for the show and was punched in the face by the spiritual quality of Maui. It’s a very, very beautiful island and never feels busy. The Four Seasons Maui and the way is it positioned, manicured, and its services — that’s the way you’re supposed to travel. Travel allows you to smell, taste the food, hear the person — you’ve forgotten about your bills and your job. When you travel, and get to the Four Seasons Maui — it cracks you open and you’re the kid standing on first base who made the hit at the right time. It just awakens your senses and you say, “This is life.”

What hotel did you stay at on your honeymoon?

We had several trips: Plaza Hotel, Royal Caribbean cruise, and St. John’s.

Where would you go on your second honeymoon?

My backyard.

Interview was edited and condensed. Debbi K. Kickham can be reached at debbikkickham@hotmail.com.
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