|By Susan Feyder, Star Tribune,
MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 13, 2007 - It never occurred to Paul Wischermann to look around for other things to do when the bottom dropped out of the travel business after 9/11. Instead, he decided the time was ripe to leave a secure job with Carlson Companies' hospitality group and strike out on his own.
Five years later, Wischermann's gamble appears to have paid off. Minnetonka-based Wischermann Partners has emerged as one of the area's busiest hotel management and development consulting firms, with Wischermann serving as the point man for Starwood Hotels & Resorts' recent expansion in the Twin Cities.
So far, Starwood has three completed projects here and has several more in the works. They include some of the Twin Cities' most notable hotel developments, such as the new Westin Minneapolis downtown, the Sheraton Midtown on the redeveloped site of the old Sears complex at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue and the W hotel planned for the renovated Foshay Tower.
"It took awhile to get going," Wischermann said. "I believed there was a light at the end of tunnel, but at first it seemed like that tunnel was very, very long."
Taking the long-term view helped, Wischermann said. But he acknowledges that he stayed in the hotel business because it's all he's ever known.
The 42-year-old native of Germany comes from a family of hoteliers, with his father and sister still running a hotel near Dusseldorf that was opened by his grandfather. Wischermann learned the business by working at the family hotel, studying culinary arts and working as a chef at upscale hotels in Germany and England.
He also studied hotel administration at Cornell University.
By the mid-1990s, Wischermann was working for Carlson, helping it establish its Country Inns & Suites chain in Europe. Carlson later put him in charge of a joint venture with Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies to develop residential complexes that would combine condominiums, townhouses and upscale resort-style hotels.
In 2002, Carlson abandoned that venture as it dealt with the industrywide impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the need to restructure its hotel network. Wischermann said he declined an offer to stay on as head of franchise sales and set out on his own.
Wischermann's business has thrived, partly because the travel business has rebounded. Hotel construction nationwide in 2002 hit its lowest level since 1994 but has since risen close to record levels, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Room starts jumped by more than 67 percent nationwide last year and are expected to keep growing through 2008, PricewaterhouseCoopers said.
Wischermann said the Grand Hotel, which opened in 2001, and the Graves Hotel, which opened in 2003, paved the way for more upscale hotels in downtown Minneapolis.
"You could see that the customer was willing to pay for a more upscale establishment. It created a new benchmark for rates and was the opportunity for a hotel like the Westin," he said.
Wischermann's partnership with Starwood has been important to his recent success.
For years, the New York-based chain's Twin Cities presence was limited to two Sheratons and two budget Four Points by Sheraton. Conversations with Wischermann helped persuade Starwood that it didn't have to resign itself to being outflanked in this market by Marriott, Hilton and Intercontinental, whose brands include Holiday Inn.
"Paul has a very keen understanding of [hotel] brands, what they stand for in people's minds," said Bob Hermany, senior vice president for Starwood's central region. That understanding was crucial as Starwood evaluated the Twin Cities, deciding what type of hotel might be suitable for a given site, he said.
Under Wischermann's guidance, an upscale Westin aimed primarily at business travelers has opened at the renovated Farmers & Mechanics Bank building in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and a trendy W is in the works at the landmark Foshay. The north side of downtown near the new Guthrie Theater is getting an Aloft Hotel, a more moderately priced version of a W aimed at a younger crowd. Near the Minneapolis Convention Center, a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel is being developed as part of hotel and condominium complex in the renovated Ivy Tower.
Jeffrey Laux, whose firm is developing the Ivy project, said he and Wischermann traveled throughout the country evaluating luxury hotels before choosing Starwood's brand. Hotels in Starwood's Luxury Collection bill themselves as having unique design features. At the Ivy, some of the hotel's 136 rooms will be in the historic tower, as will its signature restaurant. Five of the suites take up an entire floor and one takes up two, offering guests panoramic views. The hotel, which Wischermann's firm will manage, is scheduled to open in November.
Laux said Wischermann is a stickler for details "right down to the fabric on the chairs."
Collin Barr, president of Ryan's Minnesota operations, agrees.
"Paul can talk intelligently about what type of silverware there should be, how the menu should be crafted, design details, the operating pro-forma, how a hotel should be financed from a development point of view," Barr said. "Most people in the hotel business are experts in development or management. Paul is an expert in both."
Wischermann's attention to detail was in full view on a recent visit to the Sheraton Midtown. In a queen-bedded room, he straightened the errant corner of a duvet. Striding up a stairway from the lower-level fitness center, he leaned over to pick up a tiny fleck of lint on the carpet.
"Growing up in an elite hotel in Europe, this is how I've been trained," Wischermann said. "I'd rather spend a lot of time and effort to make sure our guests are happy from the start. Then I don't have to apologize later or say we'll do better next time."
Wischermann said the Midtown hotel recently has been ranked in the top 10 nationwide among Sheratons and has drawn beyond its original projected market of visitors to the adjacent Allina Hospitals and Clinics. Its recent occupancy was close to 75 percent, compared with 70 percent for Minneapolis hotels overall, according to hotel consultants GVA Marquette Advisors.
Wischermann's involvement with the Midtown Sheraton came about largely because of his earlier connection with Ryan in the short-lived Carlson joint venture. Since the Midtown development, Ryan and Wischermann have teamed up on other Starwood-branded hotels already built or in the works. They also are collaborating on one of Wischermann's first projects outside Minnesota, a Westin in Ontario, Calif.
The Midtown Exchange development also led to Wischermann's work on the Duluth Sheraton and the Aloft in Minneapolis. Sherman Associates, which developed some residential portions of the Midtown Exchange project, developed the Duluth hotel and is the developer of the mixed-use project that will include the Aloft.
Meanwhile, Wischermann is working on two Starwood-branded projects in Denver with Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson Construction. The two also are looking into a hotel that would be developed as part of the Phase II expansion of the Mall of America. It's unclear whether that would be a Starwood brand, although Hermany said Starwood is interested in having another of its hotels in the mall area.
As for downtown Minneapolis, Wischermann said that after the current crop of projects is done, the market for full-service hotels could be close to saturation.
"This is what the hotel industry always does to itself," he said. "Except for extraordinary events, like 9/11, the business has never gone into a recession because of receding demand. We just overbuild, and for a while it takes demand some time to catch up."
Susan Feyder -- 612-673-1723 -- firstname.lastname@example.org
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