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Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center: A big save for Baton Rouge

Courtesy Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center

Everyone in Baton Rouge had a story to tell about the old Heidelberg Hotel in anticipation of its long-awaited reopening, or so it seemed to Tina Rance, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

In the months before the hotel’s Aug. 30, 2006, debut as the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, Rance’s phone rang and rang.

“People wanted to tell me their stories about the old hotel — about when their 4-H club was there, how they met their husband there,” she said.

They offered her memorabilia they’d saved — matchbook covers, old hotel bills, guest room keys. She put together a journal, a record of the memories shared.

“The community was so excited, anticipating the return of the grandeur they remembered,” Rance said. “My grandmother was even telling me how much it meant to the city. You felt you were a part of something much larger than the opening of a historic hotel.”

The impact of the 290-room hotel’s reopening was viewed as an ignition switch for sputtering downtown Baton Rouge. The $72 million spent to restore the hotel’s luster after 20 years of vacancy and vagrancy made it the largest private redevelopment project in downtown Baton Rouge’s history. It seemed fitting for the hotel that had long been at the capital city’s core, where the infamous Gov. Huey Long felt at home.

Back in the spotlight
Four years after its reopening, the Hilton is looked upon much as it was when it opened as the Heidelberg in 1927, one year before Long became Louisiana’s most flamboyant leader.

There are reminders of those days all around, such as Kingfish, the hotel restaurant that bears Long’s nickname; the Huey Suite, where the color scheme and furnishings were carefully chosen to reflect Long’s tastes; and “Cronies,” a painting of two political types at the state Capitol by local artist Simone Burke, part of the hotel’s fine-art collection.

“This hotel is a celebration of this city, the past, present and future of Baton Rouge,” said Austin Van de Vate, general manager.

The Hilton has given legislators a place to regroup after sessions at the statehouse down the street, A-listers like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton a proper place to stay, and corporations and associations a reliable and genial place to gather.

Mark Shelton, who organizes an annual training meeting for local firm Gas and Supply, agrees with the latter. “Really and truly, it is the only hotel I’ll consider having a meeting at here in Baton Rouge, because no one else has the level of facilities or the level of catering.”

The lone Four Diamond
The Hilton is the city’s only AAA Four Diamond property, and it is also a perennial in the Hilton chain’s top-10 list for customer service, no small feat considering there are 525 Hilton hotels worldwide. The Baton Rouge site is sixth in customer service worldwide and third in service in Hilton’s North American region.

There are multiple reasons for the superlative rating. From the start, the hotel was selective in its hiring, said Van de Vate, choosing staff with diverse backgrounds but with a common concern for the guest.

Training staff at the outset was key. Management realized that the painstaking renovation could quickly be undone “if we didn’t put money into our people and give them the tools, the knowledge and the history of this unique building,” said Rance.

That emphasis on training continues. As an example, the hotel routinely offers a two-hour etiquette session for new staff. It covers everything from proper place settings to table manners.

“Because of the hotel being in the capital of Louisiana, we do get a lot of dignitaries. All the presidential candidates were here; we’ve had Oprah and Patti La Belle,” said Van de Vate.

Employees’ hard work is rewarded. Each August, before the busy Louisiana football season begins, the staff celebrates the hotel’s birthday with a themed party. One year it was a Wii bowling championship; another, its own version of the Olympics. Daily meals are provided for staff; the hotel also pays for their parking downtown.

Such moves have made for a stable workforce in an industry where that is uncommon, said Van de Vate. “Out of the original 85 employees, 51 are still here.”

The continuity is noticed and appreciated by meeting planners. “One of the things I enjoy is that some of the same people who were there when the hotel opened are still there. They know me, they know my group, and they know what to do,” said Shelton.

The Hilton staff also try to make his meeting run smoothly. He’s noticed that the hotel adds staff to handle the arrival and departure of his 150 attendees. The hotel has also worked with Shelton to develop a batch check-in so that his attendees, who arrive in the early morning, don’t have to check in at the hotel’s front desk and can go straight to their meetings.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association of Greater Baton Rouge was the second organization to use the Hilton after it reopened; MDA has held its annual telethon there ever since.

The staff not only know executive director Monique Simpson by name, they also seem to read her mind, the MDA executive said. “Toward the end of one telethon, I was needing a Diet Coke real bad, and one of the staff members saw me looking around and said, ‘What do you need, Monique?’” I told him, and he said, “You go back to your job running the telethon, and I’ll find a Coke and bring it to you.” He did.

Views from two ballrooms

The hotel’s 20,000 square feet of meeting space can easily be augmented by some of its neighbors. The Shaw Center for the Arts sits across the street (See sidebar below); the Baton Rouge Convention Center is two blocks away. The new 93-room Hotel Indigo will open soon across the street in the old King Hotel building.

Except for the 10th-floor Heidelberg Ballroom, a 3,234-square-foot showplace dripping with crystal and heavy drapes, the hotel’s meeting space is all on the first floor, in the hotel’s newer section, opened in 1954.

The 7,236-square-foot Riverview Ballroom might not be as architecturally stunning as the Heidelberg, but its wide river views more than make up for its lack of glitz. There are seven other small meeting rooms on the first floor, as well as a boardroom. The Riverview can also be divided into two sections.

Groups often use the Heidelberg for special functions; his first year at the hotel, Shelton used the 10th floor ballaroom as his main meeting space but soon realized it was not a good fit for his group. “With 60 percent of the group being smokers (and the hotel being 100 percent nonsmoking), it was a long way down to the first floor so they could go out and smoke,” said Shelton.

If not restored, replicated
Because of its historic significance and the use of tax credits for its restoration, the old Heidelberg was carefully reworked. The building was gutted, and historic elements that could be saved were; those that were in too much disrepair were reproduced.

“What was not structurally intact was painstakingly replicated,” Van de Vate said.

Some structural aspects, such as hallways, could not be altered. Foreseeing the disruptions that could create, “we went in and cut eight service elevators, at great expense” in the back of the house, said Van de Vate.

Not every general manager could have counted on hotel owners to make such an investment.

Ownership is another way in which the Hilton Baton Rouge differs. Owner Commercial Properties is the for-profit arm of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, whose mission is “to better Baton Rouge,” said Van de Vate. “They celebrate the hotel as revitalization of downtown Baton Rouge.”

Ramping up for bowlers in 2012
It is likely that the owners will agree to some additions that Rance and Van De Vate hope to make before the U.S. Bowling Congress Open Championships roll into Baton Rouge in January 2012. The bowling tournament brings teams into the city every week for six months.

The Hilton hopes to add a bar and grill on the pool deck where bowlers can gather after their games and enjoy the river views, and a piano bar or other lively venue near the Tunnel, an underground passageway purported to have been used by Long to get undetected to the King Hotel across the street. A flood closed the Tunnel shortly after the Hilton opened.

Adding the new gathering places makes good financial sense, considering the hundreds of bowlers who will be eating and drinking at the hotel for the first half of 2012.

“What a great reason to spend money — to be able to pay for it in six months!” said Van de Vate.