The Travel Channel
Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 | 4:01 p.m.
It was a great name to give a Las Vegas hotel — Hotel Fortune — but it turned out to be the most unfortunate name as it slowly slipped into a mire of problems. Chinese owner Huiyan Chang bought it a year earlier when Ramada Inn gave up on the East Flamingo Road property steps from the Strip.
Hotel Misfortune, as it should have been called, went farther downhill with occupancy dropping to as low as 40 percent with old and outdated rooms in need of a transformation. With no hotel experience, Huiyan had another hurdle to overcome: He spoke no English, and he had to work with a translator to have his marketing director, Justin Campese, also become its general manager.
The property, one of the most brutally critiqued hotels here according to Yelp and other online reports, became the subject of Travel Channel cameras for “Hotel Impossible” with host Anthony Melchiorri, as we reported last November.
His task was to rescue a “hotel from hell” losing more than $500,000 a year and make it heavenly again for visitors to its 150 rooms and the 24 employees. The show donated new sponsor products, new bedding materials and hospitality-management courses. Tonight, viewers get a look at its makeover and new life when “Hotel Impossible” airs the Las Vegas filming at 10 p.m.
Anthony, who has 20-plus years of experience as a hospitality-industry guru and hotel fixer, is now in Season 4 of “Hotel Impossible” and in the weekly one-hour program turns around hotels struggling to survive or not living up to potential. Anthony, who began his career at New York’s Plaza Hotel, has a proven record repositioning properties coast to coast, including the first Nickelodeon Hotel and Resort and the landmark Algonquin Hotel.
I talked with him over the weekend before tonight’s broadcast.
Has there ever been a more unfortunate hotel in the world than the Hotel Fortune in Las Vegas?
I think there has been, but this one was bad in the sense that you’re in Las Vegas, and you’re right off the Strip, and people think that because you’re off the Strip that you have to be something you’re not. A lot of people want an off the Strip hotel. You don’t have to deal with the big elevators and valet parking and all the conventions that are going on. So there’s a need for a product like that. They just had to try to be who they were. They weren’t the worst hotel, but it was just confusing.
How much of a challenge was it for you?
It was challenging for two reasons. One, the gentlemen who owns the place happens to be Chinese, and he didn’t speak any English, so that was difficult because there was a translator involved. It also was difficult because the general manager didn’t have any experience in any hotel.
This is Hotel Misfortune.
Yeah, well hopefully they’ll turn it around. You know as well as anyone that a hotel like that in that area has a lot of competition, so you really have to target market the right clientele who’s really more just driving through Las Vegas or just there for a night and doesn’t want to get involved in the whole tourist area. There is a clientele for that hotel.
The challenge was to transform the hotel back to what it’s supposed to be: an off the Strip hotel that has better service, a better quality product, with a set vision of what it should be. We did a huge makeover of the lobby, focused on the front desk to give it jewelry box appeal, just a beautiful little area that when you come in, you get so lost by this lobby that really encapsulates you and makes you feel you’re in Las Vegas, but you’re not in Bellagio.
How is the hotel today in terms of what we’ll see Monday night, and how’s it doing?
I don’t know how it’s doing right now because I haven’t been back in touch with them. From what I’ve heard, they seem to be getting better in some areas, not so much in others. They say that they are turning a profit, and it’s getting better by the month. The owner still speaks Chinese, but there’s English spoken at the front desk. The general manager still doesn’t have full hotel experience, but he’s gaining it one guest at a time.
So you refer to this as a work in progress that’s still improving?
Yes, I think that’s exactly right. Give them the tools to fix themselves; I give them the direction. I always say if you listen to my road map, you’re going to be successful. It depends on if you want to listen to my road map. Some people don’t listen to directions, and they wind up getting lost, so it’s really up to them.
How many hotels have you saved since the series started?
That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that, but I figured it out the other day. I’ve given the tools to reposition 47 hotels. We have a pretty good batting average. We’ve only had one hotel close, and that hotel was in bankruptcy before I got there. Three hotel owners sold their properties for a profit and were very successful. I’m happy that they got out of the business successfully and not getting out in bankruptcy. The rest are successful, and a few are marginally successful.
I know you’re bald, but when you started the show and if you could look at your hair today four seasons in, would it all be gray?
Well, you know, if I grow my hair in, it’s gray hair. Having a bald head, though, is effective because I’m the first bullet through the door. When I go into a hotel, I don’t see the cameras. When someone signs a contract to be on the show, they’re pretty desperate. I mean, how desperate do you have to be to want to be on my show and be criticized on national television? So I take that very seriously, and I respect the fact that these people are desperate.
I never try to take a shot at them just for the sake of ratings. I’ve never tried to do anything to disrespect them. I don’t make you look like a fool on TV. It’s up to you whether you want to be silly or do this the right way, and the right way is to talk to me like a businessman.
When you talk to me like a businessman, then we don’t have any problems or complaints or arguments, and we try to fix your business. I’m not here to embarrass anyone. I’m here to do one thing and one thing only: to save your business. If you’re calling me, you’re pretty desperate.
Now in Season 4, how many times have you had cameras filming in Las Vegas?
This is the first one, but I would love, love, love to do a huge, thousand-room struggling property in Las Vegas. Some of the room rates are frighteningly low — in some cases just $10 less off Strip than on Strip. Sometimes the big-brand hotels are priced the same as the mom-and-pop properties. That’s a problem I’d love to solve. The smaller properties are getting hurt because who wants to stay at a small property when you can stay at a mega Strip resort for a good price?
Do you love what you do turning people’s lives upside down and tackling hotels about to shut?
It’s beyond love. It’s an infatuation; it’s an obsession. The obsession is this: When I was at the Plaza Hotel, a little girl walked through the revolving door when I was a young manager, and she wanted to know where Eloise was, and we didn’t have an Eloise tour at the time. That was intriguing to me because she wanted to know where Eloise was, where Eloise stayed, where Eloise ate breakfast.
So I always go back to when people go through the doors of a hotel, especially in Las Vegas, they expect magic; they expect to be swept up in that dream. So in the hotel business, it’s our obligation, it’s not something we should do to make money, it’s a legal obligation to take care of people because they spend a lot of money and a lot of time.
My daughters, we’re going to vacation in Chile; my daughters are counting down the hours. So when we are on vacation and all of a sudden it’s a bad vacation, my children’s hearts are broken. So I take it very seriously. If you’re a businessman and you need Wi-Fi and you need a quiet room so that you can do your business or sleep because you’ve got a presentation, we have an obligation to ensure that you’re comfortable, safe and well provided. I take it ridiculously seriously.
Can you ever check into a hotel when you’re not working, perhaps on vacation or in downtime, and still not look under the bed?
I will look under the bed, but I won’t do a full inspection. I always look at the bathroom — especially the grout. I look for bedbugs, and I look under the bed.
You can’t leave it alone?
It’s just been something I’ve been doing for a long time, and I never know what’s under the bed. A long time ago, there was a loaded handgun underneath the bed that one of my housekeepers found. Just recently, we found a syringe in one of the hotels in Hollywood full of blood in one of the drawers. I try not to get sick over what we find. I have three kids, so I don’t want my kids finding a loaded handgun or a syringe in the drawer.
It’s unbelievable what people leave behind in hotels.
You know what are the most common lost-and-found items in hotels left behind? Cell phone chargers and sex toys. People don’t want their charger back, but sometimes people will call for their sex toy back, and if they don’t get, it’s like you’ve just abducted their child.
“Hotel Impossible” airs tonight on the Travel Channel (Cox Channel 66) at 10.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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