|By Kevin Collison, The Kansas City Star,
Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 2, 2008 --Philip Strnad, the Hilton President Hotel general manager, was discussing the first three years of the historic hotel's return when an elderly couple wandered into the Walnut Room.
They had missed the cutoff for breakfast service by five minutes, but Strnad assured them someone would prepare an omelet or bring coffee. Seconds later, the couple was seated, savoring the warm ambience of the wood-paneled room, morning sun pouring on the patterned carpet and 1930s music playing quietly in the background.
"Guests overall are taken by the property, just as we are," Strnad said. "They like its historic nature, the attention to detail in the renovation and their attention as a guest."
The President, which reopened in January 2006 after a $45.5 million renovation, was ranked 10th in guest satisfaction among all the Hilton full-service hotels. That's just one of the pleasant results of a project that overcame great odds, including demolition threats, to return as a popular Kansas City landmark.
"It would have been an awful loss for the city if it would have been torn down," Strnad said. "It's not just a business, but a legacy and an important part of so many peoples' lives. It's part of the fabric of the history of Kansas City."
The President opened in 1926 and was a social hub through the early 1960s before it began a slow decline and ultimately closed in 1981. Developer Ron Jury announced its redevelopment in 2001 but confronted influential downtown interests and financial setbacks before finally reopening the property as a 213-room boutique hotel.
That first year was tough. The building at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue was in the middle of a construction zone that included the H&R Block and Power & Light District developments. Occupancy averaged 41.3 percent the third quarter of 2006.
These days, the hotel is performing well, with recent months approaching 90 percent occupancy. The third quarter 2008 average was 76.1 percent. The average occupancy rate for all downtown hotels this year is 59.1 percent. It's also generating adequate revenues to repay the tax-increment financing bonds issued by the city to assist its redevelopment.
"I'm very pleased with how we have met our objectives. Even with the economy down, we're expecting to do better next year," Jury said.
The hotel draws regular corporate customers from businesses, including H&R Block next door and HNTB, and casual guests attracted by its unique atmosphere and proximity to the new downtown attractions, particularly the Sprint Center and the AMC Midland Theater.
Strnad said the hotel experienced a 36 percent increase in weekend business after Power & Light businesses began opening in earnest last March. The President offers a $179 weekend package called "Plug and Play" that includes a $50 gift certificate to the entertainment district's restaurants and bars.
Prominent guests so far included John McCain and Sarah Palin. The Republican presidential candidate stayed appropriately in the $2,000-per-night Presidential Suite while the vice-presidential nominee encamped in the $800-per-night Reagan Room.
Other notable guests have included comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks, KU basketball coach Bill Self and Jesse Jackson. Hillary Clinton attended a reception but didn't spend the night.
Strnad is off to Las Vegas this week to lobby Major League Baseball to have its teams stay at the hotel when they're in town.
Council luncheon The Downtown Council annual luncheon is 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center. This year's guest speaker is Jeff Chu, senior editor of Fast Company, who will discuss why his magazine recently picked Kansas City as one of 12 global cities to watch. Floor seating is $50 for council members and $75 for nonmembers; general admission stadium seating is $30.
For more information call 816-421-1539 or visit www.downtownkc.org.
To reach Kevin Collison, development reporter, call 816-234-4289 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.
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