|By Robert A. Nozar H&MM Editor-in-chief
It was opening day at the Holiday Inn in East Lansing, Mich., in 1987, but the person who developed-and was going to operate-the hotel, was not even on the premises. At a time when most other hotel operators might be in a panic mode, trying to see to it that everything was done before the first guests arrived, Bill Gudenau was out making friends for his new property.
Were these friends that were being made the leaders of local companies and organizations who would soon be pouring huge amounts of money into the city's newest hotel? After all, who could blame Gudenau for courting-even on an incredibly busy and important day-people who were vital to the success of this new property? Nope, not even close.
The people Gudenau was spending time with were not only decidedly not members of the city's governing or business elite, or the type of person who would direct the infusion of big bucks into his hotel's coffers; these were people who barely had two nickels to rub together-who, in fact, might have been seen as some of the city's least desirable denizens-college students.
Was Gudenau at Spartan Stadium along with 80,000 other people attending an important Michigan State football game? No again. He was in a rather small classroom with about 30 students talking about a topic dear to his heart-the hotel industry.
You see, there was no real danger in not being present at his just-opened hotel. Gudenau was well experienced in hotel operations by this particular day in the late 1980s, and if anyone could put together a staff that would not miss a beat in the absence of the boss, it was Gudenau. Furthermore, it was not just that Gudenau had no particular affinity for spectator sports that kept him away from
Spartan Stadium that day. No. 1: There was no game on that particular afternoon. No. 2: To Gudenau's mind, there was more excitement to be had in a classroom with 30 people considering a career in hospitality than there was in the grandstand at a football game.
"I was glad to be in that classroom, working with those students," Gudenau said.
"They wanted to know everything there was to know about developing a hotel, and what it took to be ready for opening day."
The students learned quite a bit, but he wasn't done. This was a case of tell and show.
Just to keep his hotel staff on its toes, Gudenau invited the entire class back to his new hotel for lunch-a perfect break for a perfect day.
One might have interpreted Gudenau's absence on opening day as indicative of things to come in a long-running hotel career for the Detroit native. Was he getting bored with being a hotelier?
"I still enjoyed the development side, but no longer did I enjoy operations," Gudenau said. "It was time to try something else."
In slightly more than 20 years, Gudenau had gone from being a hotel's credit analyst to being the founder of Select Hotel Management, a company with a 12- property portfolio, to his current position as one of the senior partners of
Insignia/ESG Hotel Partners. Gudenau had been chairman of Hotel Partners International, which is one of the world's leading brokers of hotel properties. In April, Gudenau and his partners agreed to merge Hotel Partners with Insignia/ ESG, a subsidiary of Insignia Financial Group in order to increase the company's scope.
"We are an expanding worldwide service company that is now able to penetrate capital markets in a way that we could not do before," Gudenau said. "We could not do [this penetration] without a strong infusion of capital. Now we are on a fast-track growth mode for all corners of the world."
Maintaining a highly visible presence in the hotel industry for about three decades, Gudenau has gained a broad knowledge of hotel and resort operations and real-estate, both domestically and internationally. It all started rather inauspiciously.
He attended the University of Detroit as a liberal arts major with no particular interest in the hotel industry.
"My goal at the time was to get out of college as quickly as possible," Gudenau said. "I was a party person who enjoyed the excitement of being with people and having a good time. Getting a job as a bartender to help pay tuition, I started to realize that I enjoyed the hospitality business."
Upon graduation he went to Chicago, because "that was where the jobs were," and he answered a help wanted ad in the Chicago Tribune. The Conrad Hilton was in need of a credit analyst.
"I didn't have a clue what that was, but I applied, was interviewed and started to work the next day," Gudenau said. "At that time, this 3,000-room hotel was the largest in the world. I was making $75 a week and thought that was all right."
Part of his job was to approve credit and to take deadbeats to hotel court. That wasn't much fun and so he stayed for a year, then headed back to Detroit where he was hired by a downtown Holiday Inn as a manager trainee. Within a year, the general manager of that property left for a job in Washington, D.C., and took Gudenau along to help with the new challenge. Gudenau learned a lot, and by the age of 24 he was the g.m. of a hotel in Virginia, a property at the end of the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel, which never brought the traffic the hotel's owners expected. Gudenau eventually took over operations at a Holiday Inn in Binghamton, N.Y., where he stayed until 1969. It was then that Gudenau headed back to Michigan, where he landed a job managing two Holiday Inns in Ann Arbor. It was a job that would last 20 years.
By 1983, Gudenau had enough equity in the properties so that he was able to put together a group and buy the hotels outright. A dealmaker was born. "We eventually developed Hampton Inns in Ann Arbor and Traverse City, and then that Holiday in East Lansing," Gudenau said. "It was a property that became almost a laboratory for the hotel school."
It was then that Gudenau finally met the person who would become his partner- Paul Jones, who was exploring the purchase of one of Gudenau's hotels. "He came to see me about buying one of our properties, and we kept a dialogue going," Gudenau said. Eventually, it was Gudenau who was involved in hotel real-estate, and coincidentally he and Jones were representing different potential purchasers of a Marriott in Toledo, Ohio.
"It was then that we decided to become partners, so neither one of us would lose, no matter which of our clients bought the hotel," Gudenau said. As it turned out, neither client was the eventual buyer, but a partnership had been formed that was to grow to international proportions in just a few years.
"I knew only hotels and he was a real-estate expert," Gudenau said. "We felt that we had a partnership that could be a big success because of our diverse expertise."
The need to diversify eventually led Gudenau and Jones, and a third partner-Russ Urban-to form a sister company, Hotel Partners Capital Group, which was an answer to client needs for services such as mortgage brokerage, debt and equity placement, asset management and other real-estate services.
"I would like to see us build up our management business, where there will be a lot of opportunity in the not-too-distant future," Gudenau said. "Many of those who are currently invested in the hotel industry have experience only the good times, and the leaner times will mean that people such as these will be in need of help. We are perfectly suited for that task."
As an asset manager, Insignia/ESG Hotel Partners does not handle day-to-day operations, but acts more as an overseer of the management company-a role that Gudenau said the management company does not resent, but, in fact, welcomes as a type of agent that can better help owners understand the needs of operators, and vice versa.
Gudenau's interest in building up that aspect of his company's business
does not mean he sees a decline in the side that handles real-estate transactions.
"Now is a good time to enter the industry," Gudenau said. "As long as you
do your due diligence, there are excellent opportunities in select markets."