"One of the most important keys to success is to create a team of very smart, top people in their fields of expertise," says Frits Huntjens
, head of the Greater Richmond Convention Center
, shown in the main ballroom.
paused briefly at the enormous windows lining the hall on the east side of the Greater Richmond Convention Center
Squinting against the glare of midwinter sunlight, Huntjens
looked across Fifth Street at the Richmond Marriott Hotel.
"They called it a white elephant when I first came here," he
said of the hotel."And anyone who knows Richmond knows the challenges."Huntjens
, the new general manager of the convention center, knows the challenges well.
Eighteen years ago, he
was on the other side of the street.Sent by Bill Tiefel, then-president of Marriott Corp.'s
hotel division, to open the company's 800-room hotel at Fifth and Broad streets, Huntjens
faced enormous doubt about the hotel's ability to survive.
"There was enormous pressure to succeed," Huntjens
recalled."My biggest challenge was not to let anybody down."He
didn't.The hotel's first year of operation surpassed the hopes of Marriott
and city leaders, with a 73 percent occupancy rate.
faces a similar challenge from the other side of Fifth Street.When completed next year, the $163.5 million convention center will have 640,000 square feet across a six-block area.The building, like the hotel that preceded it, is the centerpiece of efforts to revitalize downtown.
Hospitality is the key, Huntjens
said.The tools he
used to establish a successful hotel in 1984 are in use once again.
"It is first of all important to set a positive tone," he
said."I work extremely hard to create a positive experience for everyone."
And that's not just for those who come to the center, but also for his
team of about 50 staff members.
"One of the most important keys to success is to create a team of very smart, top people in their fields of expertise."
, taking care of people is genetic.He
represents eight generations of hospitality experts.His
father owned a 26-room hotel and restaurant.Growing up, the son did everything from waiting tables to cleaning rooms.
"We really like to take care of people," said Huntjens
, adding that his
80-year-old mother recently earned a volunteer of the year award for serving people at her
bridge center.At 21, Huntjens began working toward his own professional goal: to become general manager of a five-star hotel.
The first step was a stint in the Dusseldorf, Germany, accounting office of Intercontinental Hotels.He
later followed some of his
former co-workers to Commonwealth Holiday Inns of Canada.
"They had built stunning hotels in Europe - all very pretty, four-star hotels," Huntjens
started out as the assistant food and beverage director at one of the chain's premier facilities, the Marble Arch Holiday Inn
way up to general manager of the 243-room hotel, which boasted the highest average occupancy rate of any hotel in the United Kingdom.
"It was a tremendous experience to manage a hotel that was so busy all of the time," he
work drew the attention of Tiefel at Marriott
, who invited Huntjens
to join the company's rapidly expanding hotel division.
"At the time, the company was expanding internationally, and the plan was for me to spend a year in the United States learning the company and then return to Europe to manage one of its hotels there," said Huntjens
, a native of the Netherlands.After a little more than a year as resident manager at Marriott's Key Bridge hotel in Northern Virginia, Huntjens was asked to move to Athens, Greece, to serve as general manager of a hotel.
"At that time, my wife, Annie, and I were beginning the process of adopting a little girl from Korea.It is a very complicated procedure and would have been almost impossible in the middle of a move to Greece," he
asked Tiefel if he
could have a little time to see through the adoption by remaining in the United States.The company agreed and asked Huntjens
to open the hotel in Richmond.
"It was a big leap of faith on their part.It was the first time I had ever opened a hotel."
left the Richmond Marriott in 1990 to manage the chain's Griffin Gate Resort and The Mansion Restaurant in Kentucky, he
friends and connections in central Virginia.
Two years later, Huntjens
returned.As chief executive officer and general manager of the Hermitage Country Club
took on a budget with debt.A little more than four years later, the budget at the Manakin-Sabot club
was back in the black.
"I simply tried to improve the product with better food service and facilities," he
In 1997, Huntjens
own hotel company, Huntjens Hospitality Corp.He
built a Microtel hotel near the airport and began consulting for other hotel chains.
With the new company, the family tradition continues.His son, Ron, is general manager of the Microtel.His
daughter, Kim, a Godwin High School senior, also hopes to follow in her
father's footsteps."Frits is a recognized fixture in Richmond," said John F. Berry Jr., president and CEO of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
...Huntjens is employed by Global Spectrum of Tampa, Fla., which has contracted to manage the facility.
stands for quality and customer service.
, the objective is the same now as it was 18 years ago across the street.He
remains focused on the positive.
"My philosophy hasn't changed.I want people to be proud of this facility.I want to offer people a quality experience."
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