AIRCOA ALUMNI REMINISCE

The company hasn't operated under its original name in nearly 20 years, but those associated with one-time management company giant AIRCOA maintain close ties with each other and have fond memories of the firm and its charismatic founder Will McFarlane. Over the past 15 years, groups of former AIRCOA officers, managers and employees have met periodically in Denver, AIRCOA's one-time headquarters city, to reminisce, catch up on each others' live and careers and to honor the now-ailing McFarlane.

More than 40 alumni met in late September at the Warwick Hotel in Denver for the third such event. Organized and hosted by former AIRCOA and Choice Hotels executive Steve Parker, the weekend event was a combination celebration and requiem for a less-complicated, more-collegial era of innkeeping. Given the 24/7/365 nature of the hotel business and the close working conditions, the attendees had a lot of stories to share of the exploits, failures and successes while working for AIRCOA.

But mostly the reunion was a chance for his former associates to honor McFarlane, fondly called “the big kahuna,” for his work-hard, play-hard attitude and his devotion to his workers and the hotel industry. As one attendee remarked, “We learned from Will that we're family in the hotel business. We always assumed other hotel companies were like AIRCOA, but we found out they weren't.”

One highlight of the weekend was a riveting presentation by former AIRCOA manager Donna Brown, who now runs the Gulf Hills Hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brown told the group of her post-Hurricane Katrina travails in September 2005. As one of the few buildings in its community on solid ground, Brown's hotel became an extended home for stranded guests, employees, members of the community and the few rescue and recovery workers who made it to the Gulf Coast to assist the region in its recovery.

Brown and her staff worked non-stop for weeks to provide the kind of hospitality and service she says she learned from McFarlane and the AIRCOA corporate culture. At an awards presentation as part of the AIRCOA reunion weekend, Brown was named manager of the year.

According to Parker, the next reunion is tentatively scheduled for 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the company. In 1989, Regal Hotels absorbed the remnants of AIRCOA and it ceased to exist as a standalone company. The memories and spirit of the company live on.

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