“It is an art apart. Saint Francis of Assisi said, ‘All saints can do miracles,’ but few of them can keep hotel.” – Mark Twain
Having been introduced to hospitality as a busser at a restaurant in Iowa named El Rancho (lovingly referred to by locals as El Raunch-O), and after graduating from Tulane before the Earth cooled, it seemed perfectly logical that my professional path should lead to hotels. Thus was my career hatched at New Orleans’ Royal Orleans Hotel where, as a clear endorsement of my professional velocity, I was provided the ego-stoking title “‘Sales” (“Representative” was a step up). Sweetening the pot, I was paid a handsome salary that covered my $75-a-month rent and was seated in the “bullpen” among the clerical team where the office manager welcomed me into the hotel business. In truth, my colleagues and I regarded ourselves as hoteliers, and hospitality was our raison d’etre.
Unknown to me, at that point in time the Royal Orleans may well have been the most innovative hotel in the country. Little wonder why. The Royal Orleans introduced the first Sunday Jazz Brunch presided over by the legendary pianist Armand Hugg; designed the first lobby bar, also presided over by Armand Hugg; was the first hotel to introduce female assistant managers and, as implied by Hugg’s preeminence, was the first hotel to boast black senior management. Running annual occupancies in the mid-90s, the 374-room hotel opened with five restaurants, four bars and was abuzz from the break of dawn, albeit slowly, until 1 a.m. every day. It was magical.
What made hotels like the Royal Orleans so special? As grand as they were, it wasn’t the exquisite antiquities and artwork, the individually appointed suites, the internationally acclaimed restaurants or an exotic lobby bar with sophisticated jazz and coffees flamed tableside; it was the people and what is affectionately called “Southern Hospitality.” This was a time before security rotation when room attendants regarded their rooms as their personal domain, when guests requested individual attendants because, say, they enjoyed her gospel singing (that would have been Miss Cleola). Or a telephone operator, Miss Eleonore, who frantically called me at home late one night because she was worried that a travelling journalist had not picked up a message left for her the day before. Later the journalist, who had to remain in Lafayette because of inclement weather, was kindly admonished by an assistant manager who had been trying to find her. “You can’t leave without letting us know where you are and when you will return…our operator hasn’t slept a wink!” Or a garage manager, Larry, characterized as one of the “Ten Most Important People to Know” in New Orleans. That is what makes a hotel family special, and that was what was called the hotel business.
My good fortune continued at other professional stops including the legendary Broadmoor, the only hotel to have been recognized as “5 Star” since the award’s 1958 introduction, and the Windsor Court Hotel that was selected by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler as the “Top US Luxury Hotel.” (Note: at the awards luncheon the magazine’s editor added, “We don’t have a ‘world’s best’ hotel designation but, based on these ratings, this should have been the first.”). So, among these giants, which hotel received the most breathless compliments? Actually, none of them. That honor would go to Little Rock’s own 94-room Capital Hotel.
In the eyes of customers, Little Rock and the Capital are delightful anachronisms. The Capital consciously developed an approach to service called Southern Comfortable. Far more than a catchy phrase, the term was the outcome of a laborious exercise directed by local wunderkinds, Melissa and Martin Thoma. It begat a variety of core values that establish ground rules basically intended to underscore the ability of the hotel staff to operate independently in fulfilling guest needs or to immediately address problems without the obligatory need to “ask my manager.” A few of those values typically invite clarification, such as “Be Huggable” or “Never Choose Easy Over Right,” but from the first get-acquainted conversation in HR to a requisite meeting with the chief operating officer, every effort is made to identify prospective additions who exhibit an instinctive and irrepressible sense of hospitality.
Academically these are the textbook elements that describe one hotel’s approach to service. In reality, however, our little corner of the world spawns a strain of southern hospitality that guests from all demographics and from all over the world individually define as friendliness, sweetness, sincerity, approachability, a lack of pretense and a desire to make visitors happy. These are treasures.
Perhaps architect Ed Cromwell sensed this magic when he also perceived the pioneer nature of visitors and proposed a plan for resurrecting downtown Little Rock by coaxing business and leisure travelers to the city’s point of origin on the Arkansas River. His modus operandi included the development of the Statehouse Convention Center and the Excelsior Hotel (late Peabody/Marriott) as well as the restoration of the Capital Hotel. It was a bumpy road at first, but a half century later, downtown is a profoundly different place with impressive residential growth, a budding restaurant scene and incubating small businesses.
When asked about the change a local will inevitably reply, “You should have seen this 30 years ago…” Unfortunately, the travelers or developers for whom we compete along with Northwest Arkansas, Memphis or the explosive capital cities Nashville or Austin, may not give extra credit for effort, but we have an abundant supply of hospitality, an ingredient money cannot buy. Combined with a potential walkable footprint stretching from Argenta (including Dickey-Stephens and the arena) to South on Main, which rivals world-renowned destinations Charleston or New Orleans, it might be time to consider another investment in expanding or refining Ed Cromwell’s original, long-term vision.
Chuck Magill is director of sales and marketing for the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.