It was Wednesday, March 31, 2010. The Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport was bustling with activity. For the first time in years, every single room was filled for a week straight, and at any given time there was a line four deep at the front desk. Rolling suitcases slid and zipped across the slick marble of the lobby. Small groups gathered around tables and on sofas, and happy chatter echoed in the high ceiling. The Outer Marker Lounge was full at 11 a.m., and the libations flowed freely. Even The Landing's lunch buffet was popular. On most days, the deep metal trays of fix-em-yourself burgers and small steaks and soup would be rolled away untouched after two hours. But on this week of weeks, the restaurant was full, and everyone wanted seconds.
It was Final Four week. The CPIA took on the overflow of out-of-towners that couldn't find places to stay downtown. There were West Virginians and Michigan Staters, and there was a circulated rumor that Tom Izzo and the Spartans were staying there too, that it was the team's official Final Four hotel. That turned out to be a hoax, but for one week the Mid-Majority's headquarters was, finally, all about basketball.
There was a giant banner draped across the central overbridge with the official slogan: "The Road Ends Here." The staff spent all of Tuesday evening decorating the place and adding flair. There were bunches of orange balloons on every table, with homemade pennants and photographs of old short-shorts Indiana high school games on the walls. Guido the lifesize stuffed piano man played "We Are The Champions" on the upright player in the second-floor Gallery.
The spirit of celebration wasn't quite universal. Early on Thursday morning at the abandoned Chanteclair French restaurant on the fifth floor, where I'd go to write every morning, three men in suits sat around a table with cups of coffee. Their talk was anxious and worried. "We're not going to get any momentum from this," one said. "The last six months have been flat, and it's not as if any of these people are going to come back."
"This isn't going to help us with corporate, either," another chimed in. "We could still lose that star."
There had been whispers ever since January. The hotel had received some kind of warning that it was not providing the level of services necessary to maintain an industry-standard three-and-a-half star rating. It was a Catch-22: the place was always empty, which depressed finances, so it couldn't afford to maintain the level of staff it had when the airport terminal was a quick walk away. The CPIA was likely to lose at least half a star, and go down to three, and the worst-case scenario was that it would lose a full one.
And there were expectations tied to the emblem as well. When it was a Holiday Inn, the bar was a sports-themed hangout called "Benchwarmers," which would get rowdy and drunk, especially after Colts games. When the rebranding occurred, it became the more upscale Outer Marker, with sleek and dark Scandinavian furniture.
As winter turned to spring, the changes were sudden, drastic and awkwardly abrupt... if not a little desperate. The energy of the employees turned from relaxed and poised to manic and hectic. "Can I help you with that?" "Are you sure
you don't need a wake-up call?" "If there's anything, anything
, that's not to your liking, we will make it right." "Can I offer you a beverage coupon?" Everybody had become Robots.
Everyone except the night-desk girl with the dark copper hair. "They're all freaked out," she told me one evening, punctuating with a two-handed, finger-wiggling gesture. "Apparently, the world is going to end if we become a three-star hotel."
The biggest adjustment had to do with the Executive Lounge. What used to be a free perk of staying on the fifth floor -- a room with free coffee, a stocked refrigerator and a rack full of cereal -- became a $30 per night luxury add-on. At 6 p.m. every weeknight, a full wine selection and two buffet trays would be wheeled in, and a pretty young woman would tend bar. But most nights, it would be just me, typing away in the comfortable chair at a cold marble table. Even though I didn't drink (doctor's orders) or eat meat (seven-year vegetarian), I stuffed the empty tip glass out of pure guilt.
One night, the girl sat on the sofa with a Dean Koontz novel, but not before pleading with me. "I know nobody would ever ask you," she said. "But just in case, please don't tell anyone you saw me sitting down."
In March, at the empty Chanteclair, I approached the table once there was a suitable break in the executive conversation. "Excuse me," I said. "Are you the owner?"
A large man, built like a linebacker, wearing a big dark suit looked up and nodded. I extended my hand for him to shake. "My name is Kyle Whelliston," I said. "My mailing address is in Rhode Island, but I stay here at least five nights a month. I stay here so often that I consider it a home. I know I don't care about the CPIA as much as you do, but I love this place and would be heartbroken if it ever went away."
He clearly wasn't prepared for such gush that early in the morning. But he quickly switched to public relations mode. "I appreciate that, Kyle," he said, clasping my hand with a hard grasp. "What's your favorite part of the hotel?"
That was a difficult question. I loved the bank of second floor rooms that overlook the pool, and the fitness center, and the Lounge (especially the sofa), and the glass elevators, and the Simpsons Bowling game in the fun center. But I knew I shouldn't have said her name but then it was too late and it just slipped out.
"She does such a great job," I said. "Hands down, she is the friendliest and nicest person on your staff. You should really give her a raise."
In the late evening of December 10, 2010, I was in the empty Outer Marker drinking red wine, the house cab and keep-it-coming. As the bartender poured me another one, she said, "Looks like you're my best customer tonight. This place is dead."
"Is it usually like this?"
"Yeah," she admitted. "It's usually like this."
From talking to her previously, I knew she was a hard-working single mom with two kids at home. "Don't you get worried?" I asked. I didn't even need to finish the sentence.
"I don't," she said. "I know this place is going to be here for a very long time."
"Wait, I don't get it," I replied, gesturing around the empty room. "How can it survive like this?"
She told me what had recently happened. The CPIA had entered into a large contract with a local jet engine manufacturer to hold banquets, meetings, symposiums and various gatherings. So the staff increased -- now there were three rotating bartenders. Things had returned to a relative normal, too. The overeagerness disappeared, and the Executive Lounge stopped serving unnecessary meals. I didn't have to pay $30 per night to get my Froot Loops anymore. And most importantly, it remained a three-and-a-half star establishment.
I went back up to my room. It was 424 this time, in the front bank, a room with a glass sliding door and a patio overlooking the lobby and the hundreds of inward-facing windows of other rooms. Only a few lights shone from them -- mostly airline pilots and stewardesses on stopover, I supposed. Below, in the courtyard, a large table with a black tablecloth and shiny serving trays, all in preparation for a Saturday evening buffet.
And that's when it hit me, when it all came together, when I understood exactly how much we have in common. Neither of us can fill our rooms. The CPIA is one step ahead of TMM though; I once tried to subsidize existence with a single primary benefactor, but maybe my mistake was choosing one in the same business. Hoteliers and engine manufacturers are very different beasts, and both have something to offer each other, something different. For long-term assured survival, I just had to figure out what my banquet would be.
As I fell asleep, a jet roared overhead, on a flight path that now crossed over the roof of the hotel without an airport. I counted stars: one, two, three... half.
All the CPIA-related essays from the past several years can be found here.