Caps a 40-year Career for Hotelier Bill O’Connell
|By Sandi Cain
Orange County Business Journal Staff
The opening of the Doubletree Guest Suites hotel in Anaheim next month is set to cap a 40-year career for hotelier Bill O’Connell. The Doubletree also is the first full-service hotel to open in Orange County in more than a year.
O’Connell and two partners of Orangewood LLC earned a developer of the year award from Hilton Hotels Corp. in 2004 for their efforts with the 251-room Doubletree. It’s his first venture into the full-service hotel market.
“I think this has always been his dream,” said son Brian O’Connell, a vice president at Universal Studios.
The Doubletree has 7,200 square feet of meeting space, a fitness center, a restaurant and lounge. A Disney Welcome Center also is part of the mix for the hotel, just down the street from the Disneyland Resort.
The former general manager of the Sheraton Anaheim, Jeff Morse, has been tapped to run the hotel. Former Disneyland Resort executive Donna Sue Davis is handling sales.
You might call O’Connell an accidental hotelier.
In 1957, while still in high school in Arizona, the Ohio native got a job washing dishes at Al Stovall’s Space Age Lodge in Gila Bend.
Stovall, a former bandleader, mining magnate and friend of President Dwight Eisenhower, was convinced tourism in the Southwest would grow in the postwar era.
When Stovall visited Disneyland in 1962, he saw its potential and decided to build hotels around the park.
By then, O’Connell was assistant manager in Gila Bend. Stovall asked him to move to Anaheim to manage the first hotel. O’Connell was 23.
During the next 12 years, Stovall built four hotels—all with the Space Age theme that would define Anaheim for the next decade.
The hotels—the Space Age Lodge, Inn of Tomorrow, Cosmic Inn and Galaxy—had a shuttle bus with a rocket on top and “space rock” gardens with stones brought from Stovall’s mines. (Stovall’s original hotel in Gila Bend, the Space Age Lodge, still has a flying saucer on the sign.)
“It’s a no-brainer to want to bring people to your city or state to spend money and then leave again,” O’Connell said. “But you can’t expect people to come without marketing.”
Stovall and O’Connell were among the first to work with Disneyland to generate business, to lure sports events to town and to bring in travel agents to learn about OC.
The hotels were among the first to stay open all year, before Disneyland started staying open all year.
Like others in the area, Stovall’s hotels gradually ditched the Space Age motif and took on new names.
By the late 1990s, O’Connell was managing partner of the Stovall family’s hotels, a position he earned after Al Stovall’s death in 1974.
Walt Disney Co. ended up buying three Stovall hotels as part of the expansion for Disney’s California Adventure. “We could see the long-term benefit,” O’Connell said.
Today, the remaining four hotels operate under the Best Western name as Stovall’s Inn, Park Place Inn, Anaheim Inn and Pavilions.
O’Connell’s work has gone beyond hotels.
He has served on the board of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau for more than 30 years and the board of the Anaheim Hotel & Lodging Association.
In the 1980s, he launched Pacific Coast Sightseeing with his brother, Jerry O’Connell. That venture later was sold to CoachUSA, part of Britain’s Stagecoach Group PLC. Son Brian O’Connell managed the Anaheim operation until recently, when he left for Universal Studios.
Jerry O’Connell is an investor in the Crowne Plaza Anaheim Resort in Garden Grove.
Bill O’Connell has served on the boards of St. Catherine Military School in Anaheim, Cypress College and Anaheim YMCA. He has chaired the Anaheim Budget Advisory Commission and sat on the Orange County Human Relations Council Advisory Board and Outreach Concern Advisory Board.
He said he hasn’t yet considered retirement. But the topic has come up in conversations with his wife, Jean.
“Between the Stovalls, Disney and the city, I couldn’t ask for a better career,” he said.
Bill O’Connell and Al Stovall were big Anaheim boosters.
In the 1960s, it was the only way to keep their hotels open in the off-season, when Disneyland was closed and there were few other reasons to come to Anaheim.
First, they worked with the new Disneyland Hotel, which had a fledgling business hosting groups and meetings, to house any visitors it couldn’t accommodate.
After the Anaheim Convention Center opened, O’Connell and Stovall started bringing in travel agents to learn about Orange County.
“We were the first to do that here,” O’Connell said.
Disneyland tickets and Los Angeles Rams games were part of the pitch.
“We’d do barbecues in the parking lot (of the hotel) for the agents,” he said.
Once the program grew, the partners turned it over to the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau to operate. Today, it’s known as TAG Days, and is offered each fall.
“Part of the success was that agents and airlines would sell our hotels,” O’Connell said.
Another Stovall family member, Jack Stovall, launched a sports clinic in the 1970s that ran for 20 years.
|Also See:||No Debuts and a Few Less Rooms Mark Hotel Scene in Orange Country, California / Sandi Cain / May 2005|