|By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake Tribune|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 13, 2004 - There have been times, former Salt Lake City Chamber leader Fred Ball admits, when he drove to a hotel for a meeting only to find out he was at the wrong place.
At another time he would have been at the right hotel. But instead of being at the Hilton, which the building used to be, he was at the Sheraton. Where he needed to be was the hotel that used to be the Red Lion.
"As an individual who should know more than most people, I've been embarrassed because I went to the wrong place," says Ball, who ran the Salt Lake Chamber for nearly a quarter-century before retiring in 1995. "The frequent hotel name changes did cause consternation for us. You needed a scorecard to keep track of them."
Salt Lake City's core group of hotels has gone through a musical chairs-style game of name changes over the past 30 years. While name swaps were most pronounced in the 1990s, the trend was revived last month when Prime Hospitality Corp. put its name on the 14-floor, 381-room hotel at 215 W. South Temple.
That building was a Wyndham hotel in August of 1999 when it was battered by the freak tornado that whirled through downtown. Before 1996, however, it was a Doubletree.
The '96 switch was driven in part by Doubletree's acquisition of the Red Lion chain, whose sign hung on the hotel at 255 S. West Temple. Originally a Sheraton when it was built in 1983, that hotel is now a Hilton. The Sheraton flag currently flies over a hotel at 150 W. 500 South, which originated as a Hilton.
Similarly, Holiday Inn and Ramada have swapped buildings. And while old-timers usually think of the hotel at 161 W. 600 South as the Tri-Arc Travelodge, its longtime name, that building has operated under the banner of a Radisson, Olympus and Stellar Lone Star.
And now? It is a Red Lion, naturally.
"It happens in all cities," says Teri Burns, executive director of the Utah Hotel & Lodging Association.
Take San Antonio, for example. In the mid-1990s, Doubletree took over a Ramada, Red Lion acquired a Sheraton, then Doubletree bought out the Red Lion in a $1.2 billion deal.
Yet, Burns adds, "I've not seen it happen as often as it does in Salt Lake."
Neither she nor Steve Lundgren, general manager of the Marriott Downtown, 75 S. West Temple, are certain what drove the revolving door of hotel affiliations here, although Lundren notes that "our business is cyclical. There are a lot of changes. That's the nature of our business."
Within a competitive business environment, chains always look for buildings that better fit their niche and building owners are eager to hook up with a chain whose name pulls in more customers. "A name can drive occupancy up 10 percent," says Lundgren.
During the mid-1990s, Salt Lake City was a promising place for landing more business. The Salt Palace was being expanded to its present size, increasing chances of securing more hotel-booking conventioneers, and the city had just been awarded the 2002 Winter Olympics, guaranteeing that tens of thousands of additional visitors soon would arrive.
While the name changes may be confusing at times for Salt Lakers who only occasionally go to a function at a downtown hotel, it probably has not been all that troublesome for out-of-town visitors.
Travel agents do a good job of keeping up on lodging-industry changes, said AAA Utah's Rolayne Fairclough, and an individual hotel or a chain can update its Web site information quickly and easily for the benefit of people who book their own reservations over the Internet.
"If you go to a hotel's Web site it probably has correct information," she said. Leisure travelers who have never been to Utah do not know the difference between being on West Temple and South Temple, nor do they care as long as their hotel is close to what they want to see. In Salt Lake City's case, that is usually Temple Square, the state's largest tourist draw.
Same for infrequent business visitors. If they can stay close to their customers, it matters not that the hotel used to be a Quality Inn before it became a Best Western Garden Inn.
Frequent business travelers may be impacted the most. They usually form affinities to a particular hotel chain, earning extra amenities for staying often in hotels bearing the company's brand.
And if they come repeatedly to a city such as Salt Lake, Burns notes, "they form relationships with hotels. They don't like to be just a room number, to have to get to know a whole new staff" simply because their chain switched to a new building.
On the other hand, most frequent business travelers establish affiliations with specific chains because they appreciate the quality of service that hotel group strives to provide across the board. So if their chain switches buildings, those business travelers go with them.
"Marriott has more than 20 million travelers in our frequent traveler program. They choose our hotels because they want the benefits of our hotels," says Steve Lundgren, general manager of the Marriott Downtown, 75 S. West Temple.
"When a hotel (building) changes its name, it may lose customers," he added. "One of the issues new management or owners always have is communicating to former customers that 'we're at the same location, same staff." Hotels have to work through all of that."
The internal costs of switching chain affiliations probably impacts the involved hotels more than the potential loss of customers.
"When you lose your (franchise) flag, all of your linens have to be changed, all of your brochures and written material, uniforms for your people, even your china," Burns said. "It's a real costly thing for the hotel, so it better be able to keep its clientele or better its position in the market."
Lundgren's Downtown Marriott has always been a Marriott. But for a couple of years now, it also has been surrounded by some confusion since it is just two blocks from the Marriott City Center, 220 S. State.
The question invariably arises: Downtown versus city center, which is which when one is on 100 South, the other on 200 South."
Observed Ball: "I've had people call me and say. 'Which one am I supposed to go to?' And all I can say is, 'I don't know.'"
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