By Francine Silverman
"My goal as long as I can remember was to live and work in the United States."
Growing up in England, Michael Littler craved the ample sunshine, open
roads, humor and vibrancy that he gleaned from American movies and magazines.
It took him almost 40 years to realize his dream but he's never been disappointed
in this country. He retains the unhurried manner of an English gentleman,
but, alas, has lost most of his accent.
Vice president and general manager of the Millennium Broadway / Millennium Conference Center in New York's theatre district, Littler recounted his circuitous path to the Big Apple. Outside his office window a crane loomed as high as the 52-story hotel, blocking two-thirds of crosstown traffic on 44th Street. Scheduled for completion in January, 1999, the 22-story Millennium Club is being built next to the historic Hudson Theater, which will afford access from one hotel to the other through its marbled lobby. Littler will be manager of the Millennium Club as well.
As a youngster, Littler envisioned joining the British diplomatic service as a vehicle abroad. But he lacked the grades to get into Oxford, the only route into the service. "I was devastated that that route was closed to me," he recalled. Sensing his dismay, his step-father, a well-traveled businessman, suggested the hotel industry and Littler rebounded. He enrolled in South Devon College, one of the few schools offering an undergraduate degree in hotel management.
But he graduated in 1966 during the Vietnam War and postponed his journey. "It was clear that young men of my age who were fortunate enough to emigrate to the U.S. might be shipped off to Vietnam," he said. "I didn't feel quite ready for that."
Interestingly, he considers his first position as executive steward at the Carlton Tower in London as the "defining job in my career" and "a wonderful way to cut my management teeth." Though he had "no clue" where he would be placed, "on reflection it was quite a big position to hold at an early stage," he said.
Littler was supervising a staff of 50 in the kitchen, all minority workers from Pakistan, India, West Indies and Portugal. These immigrants spoke little or no English, and "in those days, in that environment, they were treated as almost invisible workers," he said. Moreover, "the quality of the output had not been good." Littler's challenge was to raise morale and instill pride in the workers. "I have a good organizational mind and was able to put together an organization that was ultimately extremely efficient," he said. "It was a lot of fun for me."
To communicate with his staff, Littler used visual cues. "If I wanted to express how I wanted an area of the kitchen to be set up on a permanent basis I would produce drawings and post them in the work area so they could see visually what was expected." Also, with help from the human resources department, English As A Second Language classes were implemented. "A good part of it was just patience," and constant supervision, Littler said. Eventually, those who understood conveyed the steward's wishes to their colleagues, and within two years Littler was promoted to assistant food and beverage director.
Ten years later, while working at another property, he was recruited back to the hotel as general manager. He was then 31 - the same age as the Piper Cherokee he flies near his summer home in upstate New York. Though the newspapers proclaimed Littler "the youngest general manager of a Five-Star, Five-Diamond hotel in the city," he was concerned that the executives he once served might not accept him. The opposite occurred. "I learned they were happy about the appointment," he said. "The role I played as executive steward had apparently been so impactful in raising standards of quality."
Littler came to New York as part of a team of 13. Phil Alfus, whose firm recruited them all, said "it's probably my proudest achievement." He explained that the hotel had been through "hell " and that Littler kept it afloat. "We put together an incredible team, " he said. "Michael was the captain of the team. He kept the team together."
Littler's attitude toward staff - that the manager is part of their organization - has not changed over the years. Overseeing 730 employees (and another 80 when the adjoining hotel is built), he views a hotel as a village and the staff as citizens who must be informed of the manager's needs, how they can participate, and what the benefits will be. "Let's create a buzz right from the beginning," is his credo. "People really like being communicated with, one on one, in groups, in large meetings, through memos and newsletters," he said. "We all want to be informed. It's the worst thing if the work force is unsure about what's happening."
In the late 70s, Littler moved from the luxury market to the fledging conference center concept as general manager of the Heathrow Hotel at Heathrow Airport. It was the United Kingdom's first combined hotel and conference center and the airport's largest hotel. The conference center guidelines set forth then still apply, he said - distraction free rooms and conference space separate from banquet space. "It helped separate us from the competition," said Littler, stressing that "a hotel can do very well dedicating itself to servicing meetings. You don't have to provide what most hotels provide, which is a combined space. Most hotels can't give up on this belief that you can't make money by just servicing meetings. What I learned from my experience that is not so."
The Millennium caters to business travelers, who comprise 90 percent of its guests. Yet unlike many hotels, which "talk about having a banquet space that is available for a meeting," the Millennium has both a conference center manager and a banquet manager, and elevators that are divided between guest rooms and conference rooms. "This is what we do here in the extreme," said Littler. "It's very expensive to develop and maintain. We charge a high price."
Occupying 600,000-square-feet from 44th to 45th Street, the hotel lobby has an Art Deco look. The Millenium was previously the Macklowe Hotel and the stunning black marble walls can be credited to Harry Macklowe. "Michael understood Harry's vision," recalled Alfus. "Harry was a black and white type guy. That hotel is beautiful because it's simple. The only colorful things are the two big paintings in the lobby."
There are 33 executive style conference rooms on five floors and nine Club Room floors that provide amenities like in-room fax machines, large-screen TV, and lounge for small meetings. Littler likens these rooms to business class in an aircraft. "When our new tower is built, it'll be like the first class cabin," he said, "the amenities even more luxurious."
The Millennium must be doing something right. Its Conference Center was named a 1997 winner of "Successful Meetings'' prestigious Pinnacle Award for outstanding meeting service.
Also part of the Millennium Broadway is the restored Hudson Theater, opened in 1903 with "Cousin Kate" starring Ethel Barrymore. Technologically modernized, it's now used for meetings, corporate events and large product presentations that border on the theatrical. It's been used to introduce new Microsoft software by company CEO and Chairman Bill Gates, by rock singer Meatloaf, and by Coca Cola to introduce its new label. "I don't think any hotel in the country is able to offer this service," said Littler. "It's Broadway. Broadway is entertainment."
Before coming to the Millennium (then the Macklowe) in 1990, Littler was general manager of the Five-Diamond Award-winning Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia for three years. The Millennium is a four-star property, which is as it should be, said Littler. "A Five-Star, Five-Diamond hotel doesn't suit the environment," he said.
That may change, of course. After the Macklowe opened in 1990, it had to position itself in the marketplace through discounting, which sent out a false message about its level of service. Business travelers began frequenting the area and "were looking for more amenities than we were providing at the time," said Littler. "This was our opportunity to provide those amenities and commence a program that would help make a statement about where we wished to position ourselves in the market. Our mission statement is that we intend to be the premier business hotel in the Times Square area." Today, the hotel's occupancy ranges from 86 to 100 percent.
A member of the board of the Times Square Business Improvement District, Littler credits Rockefeller Center as the catalyst for bringing business to Times Square. "Rockefeller Center was the first of the areas that deliberately set out to accommodate businesses in the office buildings," he said. "It has helped bring focus to the west side. It's not hard to understand offices would continue to radiate out and begin to envelop the Times Square area. Times Square is the center of the world. New York is the center of the world."
Littler's other outside interest is the non-profit Roundabout Theater a few steps away. A member of its Advisory Board, he has great respect for the "imaginative and creative survivors" who rescued it from bankruptcy and built a loyal following. "They put on successful productions - and they are making money," he said with a smile. "I support them because I like them. It fits my idea of what a good business is all about. You never give up. You strive for the best."
Littler, who came to the U.S. in 1980 to assume the role of general manager at Chicago's Whitehall Hotel, prefers the American attitude toward workers. In Europe, he said, many hotel employees stay at the line level and "see it as a position they have to take because they can't do any better." American society, in contrast, "is relatively classless," he said, citing its "founding theme" of immigrants arriving "here believing in themselves and believing they can make a difference. A bellman here may well have aspirations to become a pharmacist, a journalist or an actor. No matter what level they work at, they don't label themselves as losers. They are responsive to new ideas. They're far more openminded."
Are there any problems? Littler said that a survey was sent to 3500 clients - business, restaurant, conference center, and tourists - asking what brought them to the hotel and what they like and disliked. The overwhelming response was that the hotel "is trendy, very New York, geared toward a younger audience and very customer friendly," he said. "It was everything I wanted from the profile and I was surprised to discover how unanimous it was."
The survey also convinced Littler not to change the format at Restaurant Charlotte even though it's not always filled. He learned that the primary patrons are senior business executives who view it as a peaceful enclave. The manager reasoned that it's less important to be filled everyday than "to be the restaurant of choice among an influential group of business people."
Littler is the father of two boys and a girl. His daughter, the eldest, recently graduated Cornell's School of Hotel Administration and is a personnel manager at a hotel in Atlanta. When the day is done, Littler returns home to the Upper West Side. He has never lived in any hotel he worked for. "I didn't want my children growing up believing that milk came from room service," he said.
Although he ardently supported construction of the new hotel, Littler was worried it would impede access. "I had tremendous fears it was going to be a real inconvenience to guests," he said, but here again his fears were unfounded. "The response has been one of wonderment" at this "incredible piece of equipment," he said. "New York is a city full of surprises. People expect surprises."
In the wake of falling construction beams and bricks in the city lately,
surprise is beginning to turn to fear. But if it becomes a problem, Littler
will surely find a solution.
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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