By Steve Novotney
He knows every employee by name even without peering at their ever-present name tags, and he greets each and every guest, often asking them if they are having fun during their stay.
And Bob Hitchman hates scratches, and he seems to see them everywhere. He is meticulous, can be stubborn, but he is obviously in love with his ancestry. Hitchman was raised within the business by a “hospitality” family with impeccable vision, beginning with his father and mother, and continuing with his stepfather, Roland Wagner.
Today, Hitchman and his wife, Steff, offer amenities at his Hampton Inn along National Road in Wheeling that go far beyond the minimum standards the hotel chain mandates, and he does this because he views his hotel as a large home and not necessarily as a business. Kings and queens and double-bed rooms, the Garden Spa Jacuzzi suites, the free Wi-Fi, 37-inch flat-screen televisions, hot breakfasts each and every morning, the high-tech business center, the fitness center, an outdoor kitchen with stainless steel grill, a gift shop, conference rooms, a staff that’s on 24-hour duty, and a shuttle service are all features offered daily.
Of course, there’s also the Aquatic Center, an indoor-outdoor waterpark playground that contains two hot tubs, an indoor pool, a splash deck, steam rooms, and a rain forest shower featuring eucalyptus oil.
Hitchman, though, seemed most enamored with a tiny, little machine located near the lobby’s stone fireplace. This motorized contraption constantly shifts the apple cider that’s free to all guests, and that’s because apple cider has a tendency to separate when not stirred often. And who wants separated cider?
It is about the customer experience with Hitchman, and not just so he and his staff can avoid the nasty reviews that often appear on websites like Tripadvisor.com and Hotel.com. His managers do pay attention to those reviews, however, and they also respond to those patrons in fast fashion.
For Hitchman, it’s about being a hotelier and not the owner of a hotel. There’s a difference, too – a huge difference. A hotelier cares about every aspect of the guest experience, and not just whether the cash register is functional. The litmus test is quite simple, really, and it’s something Hitchman’s mother always stated.
“She’d say, ‘If you don’t like having people in your own home, then the hotel business is not for you,’” Hitchman recalled. “And she was right about that. It has to be in your heart and in your soul.”
Edward Hitchman was the son of the owner of a coal mine, and the city of McMechen was initially founded as a Hitchman coal town. He was given an airplane before most adults owned automobiles, and his first business was an ESSO gas station on land he rented on the corner of 12th and Water streets in downtown Wheeling.
When Edward was preparing to serve his country during World War II, he hired Elizabeth Scheuer to operate the station. When he returned, he not only owned the business, but also the land because “Betty” worked the deal herself. Edward’s reaction was to propose marriage, and she accepted.
Edward then shared an epiphany about his war experience, but it had little to do with his duty in the United States Air Force.
“When he came home,” Hitchman said, “he knew the family had to get involved with anything that involved automobile travel because he believed that now that all of these men had seen the other parts of the country during their service while defending our country that they would want to see as much of our country as possible.
“What vision he had. Somehow he knew,” he continued. “And in 1950, the Hitchman family got into the hospitality business.”
The family’s first lodge was the Motel Fort Henry, a 2.5-acre facility opened n January 1951 that once rested along U.S. 40 in Elm Grove near the current Elm Grove Crossing Mall. The location was close to the railroad tracks, but it was considered prime real estate because it offered a stay-over point for those traveling the main route between Wheeling and Pittsburgh before the opening of Interstate 70, and the nightly price was $4.50. The family opened with 12 completed units, and a St. Louis physician was the first guest that registered 20 minutes into Day No. 1. Thirteen years later, Motel Fort Henry offered 64 rooms on two levels, but it has since vanished from the landscape, and the construction of a senior housing development is expected this spring and summer.
These days, though, Hitchman concentrates on the swath of land on which his father developed the Howard Johnson’s restaurant and motor lodge beginning in 1958. It was the old Dimmey family farm, but Edward ordered the construction of a facility that possessed three levels of rooms, orange roofs over the eatery and the office, and the positioning of the chain’s signature weathervanes high atop both.
But the Howard Johnson’s reputation worsened during the 1980s, and when the franchise agreement came up for renewal in 1988, the Hitchman family made the decision to opt out and jump to a new Hilton product, the Hampton Inn. The final day for Howard Johnson’s was March 22, 1989, and the first day of business for the new Hampton was March 23, 1989. Four current employees, in fact, trekked across the parking lot to help open the new hotel.
“When my Daddy built the 57th Howard Johnson’s in the country, Howard Johnson’s was huge in this country. At one time there were more than 1,000 Howard Johnsons,” Hitchman said. “But when we decided to take it down and go with a new product, I knew it was the time to say goodbye to Howard Johnson’s because they had lost it.
“They were no longer a preferred name, so we decided on a different direction. That direction was with the Hilton company, and the Hampton Inn product,” he said. “It was very tough for us to watch the demolition of the Howard Johnson buildings because of what it represented to us, but we knew the best decision had been made.”
Edward Hitchman passed away when his son, Bob, was only 7 years old. His mother remarried two years later, and Roland Wagner became his stepfather. Wagner was also in the hospitality business, and Hitchman explained how he imported to America the European notion of a continental breakfast. It just so happened it was the Hampton Inn that was promoting the same concept in the late 1980s.
“In 1984, the Hampton chain became the very first chain in the world to promote a continental breakfast as an integral part of their service,” Hitchman explained. “I grew up with Roland Wagner, and I learned a lot from him, too. He’s the reason why I wanted to go with Hampton, and I knew the history. So I watched them for about a year, and I visited a few of the hotels.
“You can have a very nice hotel, but if they are not operated by people who have a great deal of commitment to take care of the people staying with you, you’re not going to have the experience that you desire,” he said. “The continental breakfast is an important part of that experience, and we dedicate a lot to it today. It’s now expected at every hotel, and they offer it, too, because they have to.”
Hitchman left Wheeling after fourth grade for the Dayton area, where Wagner centered his own business ventures, and then he graduated from Mercyburg Academy. His earned his undergraduate degree from Miami University and then his MBA from the University of Dayton, but he intended to also gain a law degree.
That did not happen, though, and that’s because Roland Wagner died in 1976.
“I came home and went to work,” Hitchman explained. “But when I came home, I had a better understanding about business and why it was operated the way it was. As a child, I only knew we had to take care of the guests as best we could, but I didn’t know if I understood why.”
He does now, and that’s why Hitchman ultimately balked on an idea of spending $5 million to add two floors to the five-story structure after going so far to announce his intentions to city officials. He changed his mind.
“In the end, it just didn’t make any sense for me to do that,” Hitchman said. “Initially, I thought it was a great idea because of our occupancy, but then when it got down to crunching the numbers, it did not seem to be best thing to do at this time.
“Instead, we’ve decided to spend half of that amount on improving the guest experience for the people who stay in the rooms we have now,” he said. “And we’re going to add a rear entrance and parking in the back of the hotel along with a heated sports court where our guests can play games like pickle ball and volleyball.”
Hitchman and his bride have three grown children. Sarah is a paramedic in the Cleveland area, Sam is an artist living in Cincinnati, and Laura’s own hospitality career is based out of the Charleston, S.C., area. Hitchman and his wife took the reins of the company in 2008 following the passing of his mother in February 2008.
“What the future holds is an unknown right now, but I’ve been able to accomplish what I have accomplished thanks to the help from a lot of great people,” he said. “They mean a lot to me and their personal success is very important to me.”
Honor Thy Mother and Father
Even today Bob Hitchman still refers to his father as “Daddy.”
And why not? Hitchman was just in his eighth year when Edward died suddenly.
Hitchman is very proud when he speaks of his father, and that’s because Edward was a winner all the way around. He instructed World War II pilots, his wife loved him, his employees were loyal because of mutual respect, and new face after new face kept stopping by.
“When my daddy died, he was the biggest thing in my life. He was a pilot at a very young age, and I have talked with a lot of other pilots and they agree that when he was teaching at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, that he was probably the most accomplished flier in World War II.
“His father owned Hitchman Coal and Coke, which was the Shoemaker mine, and my father was born in 1906. As a teenager his father bought him a plane that was made in McMechen,” he said. “At that time there were a lot of people in America who didn’t even have a car, and he had a plane, and 30 years later we were in World War II, and he chose to teach other pilots how to fly. That’s always meant a lot to me.”
He and his two brother, Edward III and Bill, were competitive swimmers just like their father was, and Hitchman recalls more than a few occasions when all four Hitchman men would return home as victors.
“And then the next thing I know, my daddy was dead and gone. Out of my life just like that,” Hitchman said. “I was 7 years old, and that brought my whole world down. I didn’t have golf with my father and I didn’t have Boy Scouts. But I have this. I have this dirt.
“He was a hotelier in the era of America’s grand hotels, and my daddy wasn’t a developer who was going to building a stick-built hotel. He was a developer who owned a hotel, and he took great care of his guests,” he said. “I’ve always wanted another win for him all of my life, and finally to be honored by a company that has 4,000 hotels in 94 countries and to be named the best of the best was quite an honor.”
For the year 2013, the Wheeling Hampton Inn received the Hilton company’s Connie Award, an honor named after Hilton Worldwide founder Conrad Hilton. The winners are named based on their Total Quality Scorecard, the hotel’s loyalty score, and the quality assurance scores. The first celebration of two Connie’s captured by the Wheeling facility took place exactly 25 years ago to the day that the Hampton Inn Wheeling opened its door for the first time.
“I paid attention. I learned the business. I learned to work hard. I learned to respect everybody who works here,” he said. “And I learned to do the right thing by people. In 2014, 57 years after my daddy bought the property, we were recognized for being the best in the world. Not in America. Not in West Virginia. The best in the world, and that’s really quite remarkable.
“A hotelier – that’s exactly what you need to be if you are in this business,” Hitchman insisted. “You’re not a developer. You’re not a contractor. You’re not just a business owner. You are a hotelier. You’re here to spread the warmth and light of hospitality.
“You either have the warmth and hospitality in your soul, or you don’t. You are there to take care of all of the concerns of your guests, and you are there to take care of the things that your guests don’t even realize that they need in their life when staying away from their own homes. That’s what allows for a great hotel experience to happen,” he said. “I have this desire deep down to be the best hotelier that I can be in order to honor my parents, and everyone here knows that because I’m overboard about everything, and I like to honor my staff members as often as possible.”
The Connie’s and the Cash
There’s Jack, Jennifer, Kim, Tom, Stacy, Tracy, Leo, Robyn, Gladys, David, Missy, Karen, Jenn, Stephen, Jean, Josylyn, Leah, Phyllis, Karen, Renee, and Jim – to name a few.
Those folks joined the rest of Hitchman’s Wheeling staff to celebrate once again two weeks ago, and that means a second consecutive year every employees at the Hampton Inn Wheeling received a $1,000 bonus in appreciation for their hard and consistent work.
The scores that determine which facilities win and which do not are based on customer reviews and not by executives simply awarding friends within the global corporation.
“I don’t do that foolishly. They earn that money because of how they go about their jobs,” he said. “We set very, very high goals, and if they meet those goals they deserve to be rewarded. Why would not I do that for them when they do what they are doing for me?
“We have pros here. Unbelievable professionals who know how to go about the business the right ways. I’m lucky to have the people I have here.”
Those scores, Hitchman explained, are tabulated on a day-to-day basis, and the Wheeling staff members keep close watch on the standings for two reasons, he said.
“Of course, they want to earn their bonus, especially now that they have won it a couple of times,” Hitchman said. “But they also do it because being the best feels good. It makes me feel good, and it also makes them proud to be the best right here in Wheeling.
“I don’t know how many other people realize it, but the Connie Award competition puts us against all the other staffs at every Hampton Inn across the globe. Even I have to keep repeating that to believe it.”
Handing out those bonuses, though, is not the only way Hitchman shows his appreciation to his employees. He has created a culture within these walls, one that allows for camaraderie while the sheet-changing, the food preparation, the laundry-room operation, and the check-in and check-out processes all take place simultaneously. His employees are often celebrated on the hotel’s Facebook Timeline, too, for birthdays, anniversaries, and when they are singled-out by guests for providing above-and-beyond service.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be all about, right?” Hitchman asked. “What kind of workplace would this be if the employees are not shown respect? I say it all the time and I always will; my family is very lucky to have the employees we have here because it’s not just a job to them. It’s more than that, and that’s why we have so many employees that have been here for so long.
“Yes, there are some who have been with us since the days of Howard Johnson’s, but there are a lot more who have been here for 15 to 20 years, and I think that’s something that tells us we’re going about it the right way.”
(Cover photo of Bob Hitchman and manager Jennifer Tiano by John Grindley/Grindley Productions)
If you want to help the East Wheeling neighborhood offers a spoken history, two Wheeling playwrights wish to meet you … https://weelunk.com/playwrights-partner-tell-east-wheeling-tale/