Walking down a quiet hallway, before the next weekend occupation by football fans, you could hear the soft, pleasant voice of a maid singing as she worked cleaning a guest room.
"Happy staff," said Bob Megazzini, the new general manager of what officially is The Cornhusker, a Marriott Hotel. "That's how we win."
Winning customers, their loyalty and their repeat business, is, after all, the point.
And with more hotel rooms than ever competing for occupation in Lincoln, The 31-year-old Cornhusker is at the top of the game, after two years of transition in ownership, restoration of the coveted Marriott brand and $11 million in renovations.
That $11 million is almost twice what the hotel brought in revenue during the 2013 fiscal year, according to the Marcus Corp.'s financial statements. Marcus is 73 percent owner in a joint venture with the company that repossessed the hotel to satisfy the previous owner's debt. When they took over two years ago, the hotel and its Burnham Yates Conference Center were assessed at $15 million in value, the adjacent Cornhusker Plaza at $7.3 million. Marcus never disclosed how much it was spending on renovation until last week.
Megazzini, Julie Campbell, the director of sales, and Aaron Bambling, director of operations, were showing off the hotel's new looks, accommodations and features intended to keep the city's biggest-league hotel at the top of local and regional business, convention, events and travel business at a time when both tourism and the economy are picking up.
"Every inch of the hotel was renovated," the company said in a press release: mechanical systems, elevators, HVAC, the lobby, food service, indoor pool, carpets, ballroom, guest rooms, furniture, suites, meeting rooms, hallways, window and wall coverings, right up to the Marriott brand's trademark Great Room, replacing the Five Reasons barroom on the second floor, and on up to the 10th floor Marriott Concierge Lounge, for the sole use of Marriott's highly valued Elite customers.
Tri-North Builders of Wisconsin was the primary contractor, but 90 percent of the work was subcontracted to locals, Marcus said.
What used to be a lot of red decor is now softer earth tones, more natural light, subtleties abounding. They refinished the woodwork in the lobby, all of it, including the spindles in the balcony railings. Pale gold onyx shades the two-story pillar lighting in the lobby. Corn Maiden masks, from the earlier Cornhusker Hotel, demolished in 1982, are reproduced in three-dimensional metal on the guest room doors. A lot of the interior doors move back and forth on rollers — barn doors — so space isn't invaded by swinging open.
Guests get high-speed internet access, 32-inch flat-screen LCD TVs and work desks with ergonomic chairs. The Great Room is redesigned to make it the kind of work/play/eat/drink and socialize space that appeals to Millenials. USB ports everywhere. "Designed to meet the needs of today’s high-tech, savvy travelers ... the great room features modern work stations, a media center, complimentary Wi-Fi and five large flat screen TVs ..."
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The corner suites — About $290 a night, compared with a $169 for a guest room — offer guests more luxury and better views of the Capitol and surrounding cityscape.
The restaurants were remodeled and renamed first as the Miller Time Pub and Grill and Cafe at The Cornhusker.
Megazzini came to Lincoln from Cleveland. He has already spent 30 years with Marriott. People who know the lodging industry tend to emphasize the practical business value of the "flag," and Marriott's is arguably the highest-flying.
Megazzini arose to general management through food service, not unusual in the lodging business. He attended the University of Massachusetts hotel school, and became a chef and an executive chef.
Good training for management, he says. "That's a lot of money with food costs," he said. Now he's got eight departments, "lots of moving parts," and a quick, economical way with words.
Reviews of the renovation and the hotel, so far, have been all Marcus and Marriott could have asked for.
From TripAdvisor: "What a great hotel for a Husker game weekend. You just don't find better service or accommodations in Lincoln. The classic charm, wonderful service and high-end amenities were right on point. I would highly recommend for any occasion. We plan to return with the kids on our next trip to Lincoln."
The 175 employees will make this hotel the winner, Megazzini said. "We refer to our associates as hosts," he said. "We train them to host brilliantly. There's a difference between hosting and servicing.
"I think our product is the best in the marketplace. Ours is new. That's my plan, anyway."