Director Denise

Denise Browning is the general manager of the Radisson on John Deere Commons-Moline, a 162-room, six-story, 10-year-old hotel at the hub of the Quad Cities, where Iowa meets Illinois. Although Denise has been GM at the Illinois property only since April, she's been in tune with this prize-winning hotel far longer. Schooled as a graphic designer, she put in time in the Chicago area, crafting illustrations for non-profit and for-profit corporations. She later garnered valuable lodging experience at two Radisson hotels in suburban Chicago. But she missed her Illinois hometown, just three hours west of the Windy City, and four years ago, moved home so she could develop a hospitality career.

Working with Christine J. Adlfinger, controller of the hotel and its management company, Illinois Hospitality, the dedicated, meticulous Denise has steered this well-appointed, user-friendly property to the top of the Carlson Worldwide Hotels heap. In 2006, it won both the President's Award and the Pinnacle Award, in recognition of its top performance. The hotel excelled in property quality and cleanliness, property management, marketing and sales, leveraging the revenue generating tools of the brand and “delivering total guest satisfaction,” according to Carlson.

That's largely because of Denise's management style. Denise, who is 30, doesn't see herself as a boss. She sees herself as a coach, a leader to whom her staff can turn when needed. Denise says she's happy to run a hotel in which departments help each other rather than compete, and she takes pride in caring for the many facets of her operation, from the ever-morphing continental breakfast offering to housekeeping to maintenance to sales.

Denise doesn't view the Radisson, an attractive, airy building in an appealing commercial and civic setting, as an empire. She sees the hotel, which overlooks the Mississippi River, as a home. It's the kind of hotel that's so naturally appointed and comfortably furnished that guests, too, feel at home. The impulse to take a “souvenir,” like one of those little bottles of shampoo, is tamped down here. What's in these guestrooms belongs there. Like Denise herself.

For her, the Radisson on John Deere Commons is a perfect fit. She started there as a guest service representative 10 years ago, working there seasonally during her years at Illinois State University, where she pursued a career in graphic design. Hospitality continued to beckon, however, and she eventually turned to it full-time, working her way up through sales and front-office positions at Radissons in Arlington Heights and Schaumburg and a Wingate Inn in Schaumburg.

In September 2003, she and her husband, both natives of the Quad Cities, relocated from Chicago and Denise became front office manager. Last December, when the GM position opened up, Denise jumped at the chance, even though it was an interim post. “In April, I was offered the position permanently,” she says. “Many people have helped me learn as much as I possibly could, which helped me take on the general manager position. I am still learning daily and love the challenges that this position offers.

“Once I got the front office manager position,” she recalls, “I told my husband, ‘Give me 10 years and I'll be a GM.' It only took three-and-a-half. There were times I took on way more than I ever should have taken on. There were times that I worked way more hours than I should have been here. That's part of my personality. The busier I am, the happier I am. The more I contribute, the more satisfied I feel, whether it's teaching others or going for more.” Denise cites as mentors Sean Shannon, her predecessor at the Radisson on John Deere Commons; Chris Adlfinger, controller and human resources director for Illinois Hospitality, the Moline firm that manages the Radisson and the T.GI.Friday's connected to it; and Wendy Cozzi, GM at the Wingate Schaumburg, where Denise worked just before returning to her hometown Radisson. (Revenue for The Radisson and T.G.I.Friday's, owned by Ryan Moline LLC, was just shy of $7 million in 2006; the Radisson alone generated revenue of $3.9 million. As of mid-October, ADR was $90.17, occupancy year-to-date a shade under 76 percent.)

In late September, Lodging Hospitality visited this exceptional Midwestern Radisson to see what makes it perform so well. What makes it tick is Denise Browning and the 52 people who work there. Spending a day with Denise as she made her rounds, working with staff to solve problems, put out small fires and plan ahead, you learn that a general manager's work is a) never done; b) involves a lot of detail; c) runs on trust and delegation; and d) exemplifies the hospitality at the heart of lodging.

Let's accompany Denise as she works her way through a typical day. It starts before breakfast in her office, where she checks her e-mail. Then it's off to the breakfast room.

SECURING THE YOGURT

That Sept. 26 begins with an inspection by Tom Fitch, of the city's health department. The Moline official is there to see that the food the Radisson offers guests in its spacious breakfast room is properly refrigerated and contained. He tells Denise and Kim Beardsley, the front office manager, there might be an issue with keeping the yogurt containers in a bowl of ice. “Yogurt shouldn't be immersed because people's hands go in that water and there's no chlorine,” Fitch scolds. Kim and Denise accede, telling Fitch they'll acquire a small refrigerator with a glass front in which to keep the yogurt cool and sanitary. Fitch also wants the hard-boiled eggs — a recent addition to the hotel's continually changing breakfast menu — similarly housed, rather than in a bowl of ice. The women agree to Fitch's suggestion and go to Kim's office to select a fridge from a Sam's Club catalog. Denise and Kim also discuss what kind of “heat wells” they need for their hot offerings. Ones that won't scald guests when they open the lid are essential. After that, they go to the kitchen off the breakfast room to inform breakfast room attendant Fabiola Rodriguez about the upcoming changes. “I have been here for a year-and-a-half,” Fabiola says, “and the yogurt has always been like this.” She buys into the plan, however. We next visit Letha Birch, executive housekeeper. On our way there, Bill Thieme, the one male on Denise's executive team, disposes of an unwelcome pest who wandered into the hallway joining the hotel to the T.G.I.Friday's in the complex. “We live on a river,” Denise notes dryly. “When it comes to fixing things, they come to me,” says Thieme. “When it comes to picking colors, they leave me out.” Thieme notes he has two older sisters.

CUTTING THE KEYCARDS

Letha Birch cuts a keycard for security reasons. “We want to eliminate any sort of error,” she says, noting that some keycards can be used improperly, to get into rooms other than the guest's own. Denise says bracelets that girls often wear can demagnetize the key cards, requiring they be cut up and replaced. In addition, the magnetic stripe on the back can wear out. Tracking such security issues is a major part of Letha's job. She's been at the Radisson since it opened 10 years ago, coming to the property from the Blackhawk, a recently shuttered hotel across the Mississippi in Davenport, IA. Letha is one of Denise's most trusted colleagues. She arrived at the Radisson with the former general manager, Sean Shannon, and clearly knows the workings of the place. Another familiar face is Maria Luz Martinez, who works with Lidia Garcia in the laundry room down the hall from Letha's office. “Sometimes, when it's very busy, we do laundry all day,” says Maria, who also has been with the hotel since its opening. “Too much laundry,” says Lidia, who's worked at the Radisson for a mere nine years.”Sheets? Oh, my God. Too many.”

DENISE TAKES A BREATHER

After we check out the laundry room, we return to Denise's office, where she catches up with her voice mail, notes key messages on a skinny pad and muses on her job. Her biggest challenge? “Time.” Would she like a 25-hour day? “28.”

“There are days when you're working with this manager or that on this project or another,” Denise says. “You want to help with the staff. I could work 9 to 5; I could just do my job. I could just go home. But I don't think I'd give the staff they attention they deserve. If you take care of your employees, they'll take care of your guests. If I'm sitting in an office at a desk doing paperwork and analyzing and not interacting, I'm going to be miserable.”

How does Denise relax? “We live on a lake. When I go home, I have about a 20-minute drive through corn fields. There's the stereo, the road and me.”

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

The Radisson on John Deere Commons attracts managers from other area firms, like Kris Ratigan, director of sales and marketing, and Debra Yonish, sales and catering manager. Kris came from the i wireless Center, an arena-conference building across the street, two years ago. Debra left the Radisson Quad City Plaza in Davenport in May for the Radisson in Moline. Both talk business with Denise several times a day. Kris says the hotel is corporate-driven; weekday business is 75- to 80-percent business-transient and group, though weekends boast leisure and weddings business. Among the local companies this Radisson depends on are John Deere, the area's signature employer; Gemvision, a manufacturer of jewelry equipment that brings jewelers into the area for training; KONE, which makes elevators, escalators and automatic doors; and various state associations based in Springfield, the Illinois capital.

The Radisson has one small meeting room, and the continental breakfast room can also be pressed into service for meetings. After 12 years at the i wireless, moving to the Radisson on John Deere Commons was a “perfect fit,” Ratigan says. Debra, meanwhile, works closely with the T.G.I.Friday's, which caters roomservice to hotel guests and meeting attendees. “We will handle the guestroom block. We will handle the function,” she says. “When we were built, we were built with that partnership in mind,” Denise says of the relationship between the Radisson she runs and the i wireless Center. Denise also enjoys meeting with staff outside, behind the hotel. But there are limits. “We do lunch out here,” she says. “We tried having a staff meeting out here,and all the papers flew away. We took it inside.”

TAKING CARE OF THE CUSTOMER

Toward the end of the morning, Denise drops in on Tracey Markin, a guest service representative working the front desk. “I enjoy the people,” Tracey says. “You meet interesting people.” “You weren't here for Britney Spears,” Denise says, recalling a Spears concert at i wireless in 2004 (it recently hosted the Hannah Montana tour, the year's hottest ticket). But Tracey did meet Lily Tomlin — and Ric Flair, a World Wrestling Entertainment fixture on SmackDown! Tracey likes the work, though it has its ups and down. “There might be a day when I'm in a bad mood, with guests breathing down my neck,” she says. “I just take five seconds, take a deep breath. Sometimes I go in the back, have someone else come up front.” “Sometimes, they just grab each other for support,” Denise says.

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