h digitalfootprint web 728x90

A Closer Look: Matt Felling


Chances are you have met the Fellings, late of Cedar Rapids, now living near Wakonda Golf and Country Club. Matt and Mary Felling arrived in the metro in April, when Matt was named general manager of the Hilton Des Moines Downtown, the $100 million, 330-room convention center hotel that is scheduled to open March 21 at Fifth Street and Park Avenue in the shadow of the Iowa Events Center. Though their most recent stop was in Cedar Rapids, they have lived and worked in cities large and medium-sized as Matt followed his career with Hilton Worldwide. And in those cities — Kansas City and St. Louis, Durango and Colorado Springs, Colo., Tucson and Phoenix — they got to know the city by getting to know the people, and they got to know the people by dining out several times a week. And if you ask, Matt Felling is quick to suggest a downtown spot for dinner tonight, even carryout.

What is the key to making the convention center hotel a success?
The key to this is going to be getting the groups to come to town now who did not come to town because we did not have a hotel connected to this convention center, and then finding that good mix of group business and transient business. Where is that mix? You need both. We need to make sure we balance the occupancy of this hotel with that group business that has food and beverage and other things mixed into it — breakfast, lunch and dinner — but they are taking their business across the street to the events center. The success will be in going after those groups that now want to come visit Des Moines and the groups that have been coming, and giving them good service, quality service, so they’ll return. We’ve got to have them going away from the hotel and the city saying, “We enjoyed it here.”

You plan to open March 21. What are bookings like at this point?
There is a list of 21 that we were able to get the last year that are coming here now. You have to be careful because of how far out the bookings were made. People are booking business for two and three years out. 

Will you be full when you open?
Probably not full, and that’s planned. Hilton will allow us to take reservations for March 21, our opening day, only when we get close to that date. You don’t take reservations and fill your hotel up and then all of a sudden call up 330 families and people and meeting planners and say, “Just kidding.” It doesn’t sit well. Right now we are taking reservations for May 1 and beyond, and the closer we get (to the opening date), there are conference calls, people come in from Hilton and look at our progress, look at our construction, and we all agree that the closer we get to March 21, that we open up those dates. We will let that run until about two weeks out. Each day there is an update, and it keeps running all the way along until that date. We have a list of people who want to be here on March 21, and as soon as that happens we are going to pick up the phone and call all of those people and say, “Now we can take your reservations.” We don’t pull that trigger until it’s 100 percent certain that we will open; no way are we going to miss that date.

Are you concerned about competition for hotel rooms?
We need those hotels to renovate, we need them to stay up. Our hotel is 330 rooms, and we need large conventions to come to town. When they walk away from Des Moines, we need them to say, “We had a good experience in Des Moines.” It takes all of us. In the future, we are going to need more hotels. In order to get bigger, you have to have the resources for those people to come to town.

How has technology affected the hospitality business?
You have to have the personal connection, you have to have the interaction in the restaurant and bar. However, the requirements of the traveler today and the requirements of the millenials, the first thing we have to do coming into this new hotel is we have to make sure the high-speed internet and the circuits are large enough to handle all of the technology that is coming in here. Hilton provides digital check-in, people are checking in on their phone, they are bypassing the front desk, then their smartphones are going to talk to our thermostats in the room — we have purchased that infrastructure — and it will put their personal settings when they check in on that thermostat, and it’s going to read their Netflix, and their Spotify and they will be on the television when they check in. Right now they can communicate with the hotel by texting, they can text down and say, “I need towels” or “my water isn’t hot enough,” or order room service. 

Does that mean you need fewer people to run the hotel?
It doesn’t reduce my labor, it changes what those people are doing. You still need those people; somebody has to make everything happen. If they have to, guests will come down and visit with the front desk clerk. One of my biggest things when I check in is I go to the front desk because I want to know where are they getting those local brews or where are the restaurants. I want to go to those local places. I can get a lot of information on the smartphone, but I still want that local information. There are a lot of people who walk in that front door and they are looking online, they are looking at Yelp or they are looking at TripAdvisor, and out they go. If you don’t have that technology, they will go somewhere else.

How did you get into the hospitality business?
As a young man, I read the book “Hotel” and watched the television program “Hotel,” and that was it. But the biggest thing is my grandfather was the proprietor of the hotel across the street from the Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo., and my other grandfather was in St. Joseph, Mo., and a relative of the Hotel Robidoux family in St. Joseph. But my original connection was a friend called me up and said, “Come work for me,” and it was a 500-room Holiday Inn in Kansas City, Mo. I started out as a bellman.

Why did you stick with it?
It’s a great business. It’s the only business out there that I know of that you experience everything from birth to death, and everything in between. Children are born in hotels, people die in hotels. They celebrate every part of their life in between in hotels. I’ve been in the business my entire career. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve been with Hilton for 36 years. I was on my way to school (at Johnson County Community College), and there was a big sign in the middle of a cornfield that said, “Future home of Doubletree Hotel.” It was 1981. I called them and made an appointment to meet them before the hotel opened. I opened that hotel in 1982 and have been with them ever since. (Now called DoubleTree, the hotel has been a Hilton Worldwide brand since 1999.)

Facebook Notice for EU! You need to login to view and post FB Comments!

dbt web 040123 300x250