|By Steve Lackmeyer, The Daily Oklahoman
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 16, 2005 - Bill Otto stays at some of Oklahoma City's finest hotels, but he still remembers when he was a lowly desk clerk at his hometown Holiday Inn.
He developed an interest in hotels as a child, helping his mother with her catering business. In his climb to the top job at Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels and Resorts, he won accolades from Wisconsin former Gov. Tommy Thompson for his contributions to that state's tourism and was a delegate to a White House conference on travel and tourism.
Among the 15 hotels the company owns or operate, four historic properties have been renovated: the Phister Hotel and Milwaukee Hilton in Milwaukee; the Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Miramonte in Indian Wells, Calif.
By the end of 2006, Marcus Hotels and Resorts, which also operates a chain of theaters, hopes to have 4,000 hotel rooms -- including a reopened Skirvin Hilton hotel.
Otto's involvement in the long-awaited Skirvin renovation has grown over the past three years, to where his company is both the major financier of the $50.4 million job and future operator of what he promises will be the city's premier full-service hotel.
The Skirvin, Otto said, is similar to the company's original flagship hotel, the Phister in Milwaukee. Both hotels have "good bones," historic ties to their communities and dramatic architecture. And both projects had their challenges as historic building renovations.
Otto said historic hotels require patience. Historic renovations and repositionings may take longer to mature and stabilize as hotels than new properties.
Otto thinks the payoff makes the extra work worthwhile.
"Every city needs a hotel that is the personality of the city," Otto said. "In Milwaukee, our Phister Hotel plays that role, and I think that the Skirvin will do the same for Oklahoma City."
Sitting in the lobby of the Chase Tower next door to the Skirvin, Otto shared details about his career and interest in historic hotels.
What led you to seek a career in hotel management?
My mother was in the catering business and got me involved at a very young age. I got a taste for the hospitality side and liked it. I thought the hotel side looked interesting, and that's when I first went and applied for a job at the Holiday Inn. I liked the hotel business a lot and decided that's what I wanted to do.
How many nights a year do you sleep in a hotel room?
I would say between 75 and 100, on an average.
Did you ever visit Oklahoma City prior to becoming involved with the Skirvin hotel?
Unrelated to the Skirvin? No.
Where do you stay when you're visiting Oklahoma City?
We stayed at the Sheraton when it was a Westin. Members of our team have stayed at the Marriott Courtyard. But most of the time, because of the convenience and the very nice way they treat us, we stay at the Renaissance.
When FaulknerUSA pulled out as the financing partner for renovation of the Skirvin hotel, your company stepped in and expanded its role from operations to financing. What made you decide the project was worth the risk?
We always liked the project, from day one. When we first were reintroduced to the Skirvin and became a part of the team, it was under the pretense of Marcus having a small slice of equity and be the manager in the transaction. That pretty much met the profile of how we wanted to grow our company. Through getting involved in the project and all the different changes and events that occurred from those early stages, we became more fond of Oklahoma City. When we continued to analyze the deal, we thought it made sense to step into Faulkner's place and are delighted to be doing so.
New hotel construction or old hotel renovations: Which do you enjoy more?
It's much more fun to restore an old hotel. Much more fun. Far more difficult, however. Even your best planning and thinking through everything, there is a surprise that comes everyday that you hadn't thought about, a commission you hadn't anticipated. There are challenges. But it's exciting because you're taking something, and regentrifying it and making it very special.
It's not that you don't do nice things with new hotels, but with those, you pretty much do your planning, get your budget done, turn everybody loose, and if everybody follows plans, things go well. In a project like the Skirvin, you're constantly looking at it. And at all the stages, as you move forward, a style point might change. And that's what makes it fun.
What is the biggest misconception about renovating an old hotel?
I think oftentimes people think that if you take an old building and restore it, costs will be less than they would be for a new building because you have a shell that is already there. That can be the case, but often it's not because there are so many conditions you have to abandon and things that have to be fixed. So it can cost more than having something new built.
Web site: www.marcusresorts.com.
Family: Wife Michelle; children Christopher, Nicholas, Jeremy.
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in hotel management, University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Community involvement: Board member for the Preferred Hotel Group; past chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Wisconsin; past chairman of the Wisconsin Inn Keeper Association; past chairman of the Governor's Conference on Tourism, Wisconsin.
Hobbies: "I love to golf, but I'm not very good." This year he played St. Andrews in Scotland, which he said was "amazing."
Favorite hotel: "My favorite hotel outside the Marcus group of hotels and resorts is the Peninsula Hotel of Hong Kong due to its impressive architectural design. It's a historic building which has been sensitively renovated with the modern convenience of today, much like the Skirvin."
On the nightstand: "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman.
Compact discs in his car stereo: Eric Clapton, Norah Jones, Doobie Brothers and some mix CDs his sons created of favorite classic rock musicians.
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