Ron Alicandro has lived the hospitality business his entire adult life.
He started managing restaurants around his native Pittsburgh — one with a late '70s disco called Valentines that still makes him shudder. Since then, it's been all about hotels. After working as a food and beverage manager and assistant hotel manager in the Northeast, Alicandro landed in the Tampa Bay area 15 years ago.
He's been general manager of St. Petersburg's Bayfront Hilton and the Embassy Suites in the West Shore District of Tampa. Alicandro was between jobs when hotel developer Impact Properties hired him as general manager for its new Westin on Rocky Point.
He talked to the Times recently about continued tough times for the business, how the Westin is coping and why hotels wish you'd stop calling long distance from your room with that cell phone.
Between the recession, the condo bust and a Super Bowl, you had some real challenges getting the Westin built and open in January 2009, right?
I guess we could have picked a worse time to open a hotel, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one. This initially was going to be a condo hotel with 193 guest rooms and 20 condos that folks would own as a residence. Fortunately, we were able to catch that in time and fix it. We have 255 guest rooms.
We opened the week before the Super Bowl but didn't start taking reservations until literally four days before we opened. We still ran about 90 percent occupancy because of all the people who came in from Pittsburgh and Arizona.
Because we were brand new, we held back 5 percent of our rooms in case there were mechanical difficulties, like an air-conditioning issue or a flat-screen television issue. We didn't have to use a single one.
How much of a hit are hotels taking from guests using laptops for in-room entertainment and cell phones for long-distance calls?
It's definitely gotten worse. Telephone (charges) used to be 8 to 10 percent of revenue going back 10 years. Little by little that was reduced to the point now where it's a loss, a (free) amenity like shampoo and soap. We have two phones in every room. We don't charge for local calls. We charge for long distance, but nobody uses it.
For in-room entertainment, there are so many sources — the laptop, Netflix downloaded movies, high-speed Internet access. But (in-room movies) are run by a third-party operator, so it's shared revenue (that's lost).
Travelers are becoming more selective in their eating habits. When you think of special-occasion destination restaurants, very rarely do you think of a hotel restaurant. Having an AquaKnox, a Ruth's Chris, a P.F. Chang's or a Morton's steak house as the all-day dining option in the hotel is becoming more and more popular.
The profit margin on the room side is greater than on the food and beverage. It's an amenity. You're required by the (hotel) brand to have a restaurant. The 80-20 rule applies — they're 80 percent of the effort and only 20 percent of the profit.
How much room inventory do you sell through online travel agencies like Travelocity, Priceline and Expedia?
Four percent is a pretty safe number to go with. We limit third-party inventory during the week. But on weekends, that's where everybody plays. And it's a buyer's market.
Do you shop those sites for your own travel?
I don't, especially the ones where you have to buy in advance. You just don't know if your plans are going to change. If you shop around, you can get just as attractive rates and not be committed.
E-Brands recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, blaming the economy for cutting into its earnings. Has that caused problems at AquaKnox?
AquaKnox is doing well, does a great job. They've got the same management team, the same staff. We have a cohesive working relationship.
What happened to plans for your rooftop bar?
Initially, the idea was (for E-Brands) to open the space as a high-end sky top bar. But they didn't right away because opening the restaurant and hotel was more important. They asked for an extension. At the beginning of this year, we (told them) we needed the space back for more banquet space. We had approximately 5,000 square feet, but we really need 8,000 to 10,000 square feet to be competitive.
So what kind of events do you expect for the space called BluVu?
Corporate receptions, weddings, bat mitzvahs, class reunions. Inside, we can accommodate 200 people; outside, 80 to 100. It's premium event space on the 16th floor. You can see the airport, Raymond James Stadium, downtown Tampa. Tropicana Field looks like you can touch it. You can see North Pinellas, Pasco, even SheiKra at Busch Gardens.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.