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An Interview with Steve Shalitof Leawood, Complex Manager for Westin Crown Center
and Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center

By Cindy Hoedel, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 04, 2012--Steve Shalitof Leawood is complex general manager for Westin Crown Center and Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center (formerly Hyatt Regency Crown Center). The two hotels, which have a combined 1,450 rooms and 150,000 square feet of meeting space, are owned by a subsidiary of Hallmark and, as of last month, are managed by the same company, Starwood Hotels and Resorts of White Plains, N.Y. Both hotels be renovated in the next two years. This conversation took place on the mezzanine (waterfall level) of the Westin.

Q. Are you originally from here?

A. No, I grew up in Michigan and went to hotel school at Michigan State University. I have a link to Kansas City in a roundabout way. My first job was with Western International Hotels as assistant manager in a three-meals-a-day coffee shop called the Coffee Garden. It was in the sister hotel to the Westin in Kansas City, which also had a Coffee Garden. I visited the Westin in Kansas City for the first time in 1978.

Q. The Westin was an exciting place to be in 1978.

A. Right. It's always been a very special place to me. I met the Hall family through my career at a hotel in Hawaii where they were staying in 1998 and at a hotel in Tucson (Ariz.) where Don and Adele (Hall) celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, so when the opportunity came to come here, I jumped on it.

Q. Tell us about the transformations that are coming to the two Crown Center hotels, which are landmark buildings in Kansas City.

A. Most of the work this year will be at the Sheraton. Guest rooms are being updated now, including adding flat-screen LCD TVs, and last year we did work outdoors and in the lobby to improve the sense of arrival.

Q. Improve it how?

A. We've softened it up with more plantings and installed matching flagstone outdoors and indoors for greater continuity. The porte-cochère (portico) will change to create a new first impression. The exterior work is being done by 360 Architecture of Kansas City and the interior is being done by Barry Design Associates from Santa Monica, Calif. -- that will be an incredible new look. Bob has done amazing work for hotels all over the world. The floors will be redone, the fountain will be replaced, there will be front desk pods instead of the long counter and new lighting.

Q. What is going to happen to Skies, the revolving restaurant that closed last year? That was a spectacular place to have a drink after work.

A. Half of it will be a concierge-level lounge, serving breakfast and late-afternoon hors d'oeuvres to (VIP) guests. The other half will be used for small, catered cocktail parties.

Q. Will it still turn?

A. No.

Q. Bummer.

A. Revolving rooftop restaurants have been in decline everywhere. It was a design element of the '70s. But I can flip a switch for you and make it turn again.

Q. Is that something you would offer customers if they wanted to rent the space and have it turn?

A. Yes.

Q. What changes are coming to the Westin? You're not going to clad the concrete, are you?

A. We can't. There's too much of it.

Q. That's a relief. And the waterfall?

A. The waterfall stays. We're going to take (architect) Harry Weese's original idea and update it to something that will last another 25 years. (The last renovation was in 1988.)

Q. Along with Skies, Benton's in the Westin and the Peppercorn Duck Club in the former Hyatt have also closed. Do you have any plans to add a fine dining restaurant in either of the hotels?

A. No.

Q. Does having both hotels under the same management give you a competitive advantage in booking conferences and conventions?

A. Yes. We have always been able to draw large groups, but before, meeting planners had to deal with two salespeople and two convention services people -- now it's just one.

Q. What is the most important part of your job?

A. To provide a great work environment. Because the staff are the ones that deliver the experience and the memories to guests. After that, I focus on how we can improve the customers' experience.

Q. Can you give us examples of that?

A. I think about trying to make a big hotel small, meaning I know something that is special and personal about our guests. If we can acknowledge why they are traveling here and if we can remember their pillow preferences, foam or feathers, or if we know they prefer Coke over Pepsi, all those things make a difference. If we remember them, they can make a customer for life.

Q. What would people who work for you say you are a stickler about?

A. Using guests' names. Taking action and being accountable. If a guest has an issue, I want it resolved at the lowest level. If it's not right the first time, get it right immediately.

Q. How do you compete with other hotels to get prestige accounts, like traveling sports teams?

A. The key is, once you get that business, you have to deliver on it. Anything that is contractually agreed upon, you've got to get it right. There are security details that have to be followed, there is explicit timing for wake-up calls and banquet meals and so on. This property has been very successful for years in housing sports teams. The Westin has tended to get the traveling teams and the then-Hyatt was getting the Chiefs for many years.

Q. The other hotel that gets a lot of celebrity business is the InterContinental. They have the (Country Club) Plaza. How do you position yourself against them?

A. The InterContinental has done very well with the upper end, based on its design and location. We position ourselves by saying we deliver the best customer experience, which comes from having the best employee satisfaction rates. And Crown Center is at a very exciting point with the addition of Sea Life and Legoland this year. And the fact that covered walkways connect the hotels to Crown Center Shops and the revitalized Union Station. There's also the World War I museum and the American Restaurant. So we are selling the destination.

Q. What kind of a hotel guest are you when you travel?

A. I'm always observing. I'm looking to see what's being done right and what I can copy. So basically I'm working the first week and by the second week I can be a guest. And service people are the best guests because they know what you are going through.

Q. So, you are a very patient guest?

A. Ye ... (Stops.) Until something is wrong.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/cindyhoedel.

___

(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services NYSE:CCK,



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