Fish, Ferris Wheels and Fun: Bob O'Loughlin's vision welcomes families back to Union

Fish, Ferris Wheels and Fun: Bob O'Loughlin's vision welcomes families back to Union

Bob O’Loughlin’s aquarium welcomes families back to Union Station.

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Established in 1986, Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM), a Maryland Heights-based developer, is an independently owned and operated lodging and hospitality management company. In the past 32 years, LHM has expanded its portfolio to 18 hotel properties — both upscale, independent and brand-affiliated hotels, eight restaurants and two commercial properties.

Chairman and CEO Bob O’Loughlin has managed some of the industry’s top properties and has directed regional hotel operations throughout the United States. During the last recession, O’Loughlin was busy buying and renovating hotels at very opportunistic costs. LHM bought the Doubletree in Chesterfield, the Marriott at the airport, the Crown Plaza at the airport, The Cheshire, Union Station and Westport Plaza. “We are well-positioned in St. Louis,” O’Loughlin said. “We are filling the needs of our guests, providing jobs for St. Louisans, and we’re having fun doing it.”

O’Loughlin’s next venture is a $160 million makeover for Union Station that includes an aquarium, Ferris wheel and other interactive features. The project is currently in demolition mode and will span three to four months. The entire project is gauged to take 14 to 18 months and should be complete by spring or early summer 2019. The aquarium will be 125,000 square feet and located in the former mall area.

Tell us about your career.

When I finished school I saw an ad in the paper for a Hilton Hotel in Hart- ford, Connecticut. I took the job as an assistant controller doing a full set of books because of my accounting degree. I noticed the general manager lived in a 3,000-square-foot suite in the hotel with food and beverage and maid service, and I thought that was a pretty cool job. I worked there for three years before being promoted.

My first general manager’s position was at the Hilton in Oakland, California. I met numerous personalities and celebrities working there, including giving Tom Hanks his first job as a bellman at the hotel.

By that time I worked at Hilton for nine years and came to St. Louis to work for the Stouffers hotel chain. We had eight hotels at the time and over a nine-year period the chain grew to 60 hotels.

I established LHM in 1986 as a third-party management company and started buying hotels in 1996. I ended up buying and selling somewhere around 50 hotels.

What factors into your decision making when purchasing a property?

The projects are not cookie-cutter hotels, they are unique. For instance, The Cheshire had a great reputation during its heyday. There are very few boutique hotels in St. Louis, and The Cheshire is charming and has a great location. I put some TLC into it and made it unique.

Or take the Marriott Pavilion, now the Hilton at the Ballpark. I went to Chicago and saw a rooftop bar and really liked it. I knew with a location like the Hilton we could do a 360 rooftop bar where you could see into Busch Stadium, the Arch and the river. It is 26 stories tall — the right height to show off the city. It has been voted one of the top ten rooftop bars in the world for the six years we’ve been open.

It’s not just about location, although location is a big driver. I like replicating the fun concepts that I have seen throughout the United States and Europe. People look forward to experiencing hospitality, excitement, unique venues, and we want to provide that for the metro area.

Tell us about the revitalization of your two commercial properties?

When I came to St. Louis, Westport Plaza was going strong and eventually lost its allure — same with Union Station. Today, we have four hotels in the Westport area: The Doubletree, the two Sheratons and Homewood Suites which we built this past year. We also developed all of the retail and office space at Westport Plaza — 42 acres and a million square feet of space.

Last year we developed the very popular Westport Social Club. We took an old movie theater which was 12,500 square feet and converted it to a sports entertainment venue with games like foosball, shuffleboard, ping pong, big screen TVs, karaoke rooms and live music on the weekends — it’s doing extremely well.

I don’t think there is a mixed-use venue like Westport Plaza in the Midwest. We have 14 bars and restaurants, office space, two hotels – the only thing missing are apartments, and we may add those at a later date.

Union Station did well during the 80s and then retail fell to the wayside, but the hotel still did well. It’s a good location — an iconic property. We’ve renovated all of the guest rooms, added 50,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space for a total of 150,000 square feet. Conventions book it because they like to have their exhibits within the hotel which is a very rare combination.

However, we are the largest city without an aquarium. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle for St. Louis. When we add the aquarium, we will be a destination hotel for families, businesses and conventions.

What are some of the features guests can expect at the aquarium?

It will be different from most aquariums because you’ll not only have the underwater species, but we will have several interactive features. The aquarium will have one-of-a-kind exhibits and tanks with 1.3 million gallons of water. We will have touch tanks for the sting rays and other activities like a zip line that goes over the lake.

The aquarium will be part of a family entertainment complex. A big focus of the aquarium will be education and conservation. It is important all children in the area have access. This year we formed the St. Louis Aquarium Foundation which offers free admission to children who want to attend and qualify.

Other features will include a 200-foot Ferris wheel and a train ride. The Ferris wheel is a throwback to the 1904 World’s Fair, and it will tell a part of the fair’s history. It will have 30 fully enclosed, climate controlled gondolas that seat up to six adults each. The train ride features a boarding pass for guests that provides a timeline into the history of St. Louis.

We will also have chartered train rides from St. Louis to Chicago for the Cubs/Cards games.

What impresses you while visiting other hotels?

A great lobby and warm hospitality. A lobby allows people to congregate and interact with the space. I’m also impressed with customer service and attention to detail.

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