Wyndham Grand management: Business is picking up, construction project is progressing

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Brian Fitzgerald will be the first to tell you that the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown hotel, after years of turmoil and nine months in bankruptcy, won't hit its full stride in 2012.

But he is counting on progress.

"We're still building in 2012," said Mr. Fitzgerald, the general manager. "In 2013, we really expect to be hitting full stride."

For most Pittsburghers, the most tangible evidence of progress this year will be the outside of the hotel, formerly known as the Hilton Pittsburgh, where a stalled construction project finally got moving again last fall.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who became general manager of the beleaguered hotel in August, is promising that the long-delayed exterior addition will be completed this summer.

Before resuming in September, work had stalled for more than two years, leaving a rust-colored eyesore made of structural steel sitting at the city's doorstep. It posed such a blight that it was covered for the G-20 economic summit in 2009.

Since September, progress has been slow but steady. Much of the framing has been finished. A new swimming pool has been set in place and the concrete has been poured for the floor of new meeting space.

Mr. Fitzgerald said a new grand staircase to the meeting space and existing ballrooms -- the hotel has been missing one since the construction began several years ago -- should be installed in six weeks, although it won't be ready for use until construction has ended.

The staircase will give hotel guests easier access to the ballrooms and meeting space. Mr. Fitzgerald said there were two incidents this fall when elevators at the hotel malfunctioned, forcing guests to use back stairwells to get to the ballroom space. Those problems have since been rectified, he said.

No one is more excited to see the end of the construction than Mr. Fitzgerald. The 20,000-square-foot addition will give the hotel two additional meeting rooms, both with panoramic views of Point State Park. They will complement what already is the largest ballroom in any hotel Downtown.

"The mission critical area No. 1 is to get the meeting space finished up," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Fitzgerald hopes to return the hotel to pre-eminence in the city after several rocky years that saw the loss of the storied Hilton name and a dramatic drop in business.

The hotel, he said, "is an icon of the community. Coming through the bridge, it speaks volumes about what the city is all about, and our intention is to make sure we're at the forefront of leading the effort to bring more business to the Pittsburgh area."

As the chaos subsided and the hotel secured a new flag in Wyndham, Mr. Fitzgerald said business has been improving. Old customers lost to the turmoil have been returning and the hotel has been aggressively going after new business.

Revenues were up 20 percent last year over 2010. The hotel booked 16,000 more group rooms in 2011 than it did in 2010. It also saw a 30 percent increase in "transient" bookings from business travelers or others visiting the city in 2011.

"We're looking to continue that growth pattern into 2012," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

He added the formula for success is simple: "Good food, good service and sound management."

"Our experience has proved that the management team has fulfilled their promises to the city. They are a strong strategic partner of VisitPittsburgh and we have enjoyed the relationship," said Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for the tourism agency, which once suspended the hotel's membership because it hadn't paid its annual fees.

"The hotel community works very closely together in Pittsburgh and the Wyndham is a strong part of that relationship. They're part of every business conversation now."

Mr. Fitzgerald said the hotel currently has about 340 employees, up 40 to 50 over 2010. It hopes to add another 30 or 40 more this spring as business picks up.

The hotel is hoping for another 20 percent increase in revenue this year. As the economy improves, Mr. Fitzgerald is counting on more business and leisure customers, more group bookings and more new guests as the additional meeting space becomes available.

The hotel also will be upgrading the elevators and back room equipment as part of budget approved by Kiran C. Patel, the Tampa cardiologist who took over the Wyndham last year.

These days, rather than worrying about which bills are being paid and which aren't, what work is being done and what isn't, Mr. Fitzgerald is drilling into his employees the "10-5 rule" -- recognizing a guest from 10 feet away and speaking to them from 5 feet away.

That, he said, is just good business.

"We need to make sure we're sharpening those tools every day so we're delivering that service and responding immediately to the smallest guest request," he said.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published January 18, 2012 5:00 AM


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