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Doing what needs to be done for change

Matthew Pica:
Doing what needs to be done for change

When GF Management Inc. in July tapped Matthew Pica to run the Four Points by Sheraton Rochester Riverside Hotel, he accepted on one condition.
At the time a vice president in the parent firm’s Moorestown, N.J., corporate headquarters, Pica agreed to the move on GF’s promise that it would be the last the company would ask him to make.
The offer had come up quickly. GF had promoted former Sheraton manager Benjamin Seidel to its flagship property in Valley Forge, Pa., in a hurry after the manager there quit unexpectedly.
Pica knew next to nothing about Rochester. He took two days to tour the area, decided he liked it and gave GF his conditions.
At 36, Pica has worked more than two decades in the hotel industry. The trade is by nature peripatetic. But like Ulysses, he figures that 20 years of wandering is enough. He wants to set his oars down.
Pica’s eldest daughter was born in Dallas and has since lived in five different cities. Pica wants the 9-year-old and a younger daughter, 7, to have the luxury of spending more than a year or so with the same friends and teachers.
His short acquaintance with this area notwithstanding, Pica seems to genuinely like Rochester. He and his wife, Patricia, bought a house in Webster within a month of his accepting the Sheraton general manager job. And Pica is enthusiastic about downtown’s possibilities, maybe more so than some longtime area residents.
That GF was asking him to take over a hotel at the front end of a hoped-for turnaround did not worry Pica. Much of his career as a hotelier has been spent as a troubleshooter, he says, so turnarounds are nothing new.
In three years at GF, the company has put him in charge of three hotels in two cities. At one property, Pica boasts of raising occupancy some 40 percent over two years.
“I do what I need to do to make it happen,” he says.
Some of what needed to be done at the Sheraton had already happened by the time Pica arrived, but the work is far from over.
The hospitality firm took over the 466-room downtown hotel in January, pumping some $5 million into a stem-to-stern refurbishing effort to do long-deferred maintenance.
What the hotel needs now is guests. Occupancy has been on the wane for several years, declining to a dismal low-40 percent range. Pica is supposed to see that the Sheraton fills.
Given the sums GF is pumping into the hotel, industry experts say, the company needs to see a 20 percent boost in occupancy.
So far, guest numbers have not greatly improved. But then the Sheraton has been under construction for the past nine months or so.
Pica is confident the numbers can be pushed up. Still, he concedes, the Sheraton is fighting a reputation sullied during its last few years under the former Holiday Inn Genesee Plaza flag.
But while he acknowledges “horror stories” concerning the period, Pica is sanguine to a point of near nonchalance in his own ability to lay such stories to rest.
Built in 1971 and operated as a Holiday Inn by Holiday Inn Worldwide until GF bought it and switched flags this year, the Sheraton had been owned by an aging group of investors whose main interest was to cash in on their substantial equity, Pica says.
Several years ago, Holiday Inn Worldwide put the group on notice that it would pull out of the property when the lease expired at the end of 1996. And while the hotel firm and the owners waited to exit, neither put very much into the property.
Even before Holiday Inn Worldwide put the owners on notice, the property suffered from a growing perception of turmoil, says Joseph Floreano, executive director of the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.
The state of the Sheraton is of more than passing interest to the convention center, which sits directly across Main Street from the hotel. The quality of the Sheraton’s accommodations, for one thing, affects the center’s ability to attract meetings and conventions. The hotel’s meeting and banquet spaces also can serve as backup for the center’s overflow.
Before GF bought the hotel, Floreano had noted its deterioration with some dismay.
The property’s actual problems were compounded by several years of speculation over its future–or possible lack of one, he says.
Rumors of the hotel’s possible shutdown surfaced even before Holiday Inn Worldwide announced its impending pullout, and the announcement did little to quell them as the property sat on the block for some two years.
Such speculation is an anathema to convention and meeting business. Planners book events up to three years in advance. They are understandably nervous over possibilities such as having to rebook several hundred rooms because of a hotel shutdown.
Floreano is, of course, tickled by the money GF has poured into the Sheraton. His impressions of Pica are so far positive but limited.
“I assume GF must have confidence in him if they gave him this hotel,” Floreano says, “but I can’t say I know much about him.”
Floreano at the same time says he is much encouraged by Pica’s apparently quick acclimatization to Rochester and by the hotel manager’s apparent resolve to make the city his address for the foreseeable future.
Since taking over the downtown hotel less than a year ago, GF has named three managers.
Continuity of management, says Floreano, can only help the Sheraton.
As to Pica’s ability to boost occupancy, if he repeats his performance at the Charlotte, N.C., Holiday Inn Charlotte Center City, Rochester can expect a lot, says Melvin Tennet, director of the Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The 300-room downtown hotel’s history bears some resemblance to the Rochester Sheraton’s.
The Charlotte Center City was Pica’s first assignment for GF, which hired him away from a rival firm in 1994 to manage a turnaround at the hotel.
Although not subject to rumors of closing or under the gun of an enforced flag change, the Charlotte property’s occupancy rate–some 35 percent–was worse than the Sheraton’s.
Tennet says the hotel, which is some 10 or 15 years newer than the Sheraton, suffered from nothing worse than indifferent management.
By the time GF moved Pica to another, larger property in downtown Charlotte in 1996, occupancy at the Center City was at 75 percent, and GF in apparent gratitude had dubbed the Holiday Inn’s restaurant “Matt’s.”
Pica’s own take on how he managed the turnaround is simple. The business, he says, is one of people and relationships. Improving a hotel’s numbers is mostly a matter of seeing that guests are happy and that people who can help you–local tourism and government officials, and national sales contacts–are happy, too.
One of Pica’s most significant moves at the Charlotte Holiday Inn, Tennet says, was to reconfigure the front entrance, improving guests’ all-important first impression.
Pica also took an active role in civic affairs. He was the first hotel manager to sit on the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
Tennet says that Pica also arranged regular networking-opportunity luncheons for local movers and shakers that helped the hotel and invitees alike.
“He introduced me to people I didn’t know,” Tennet says.
Hospitality was Pica’s first and only career choice. A New Jersey native, he started working in the business as a high school student, when a friend of his father’s who was in the catering business got him a low-level hotel job.
The business appealed to him from the start, and Pica methodically advanced to more and more responsible positions at various hotels as he worked his way through a bachelor’s of science program in hotel and restaurant management at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J.
After working as a busboy, waiter and valet, and then tackling front-desk responsibilities as a student, Pica started on the front desk of the New York City Sheraton after graduating college in 1983.
By 1985, he had moved to Hyatt Hotels Corp. as an assistant executive housekeeper. From there, Hyatt sent him to Greenwich, Conn., to act as projects manager for the opening of a Hyatt Regency and to Dallas as a front-desk manager.
Pica next went to work for the Fairfield, N.J.-based Prime Hospitality Corp. as a general manager in 1988. He ran a Howard Johnson Hotel in New Jersey and a Holiday Inn in Reading, Pa., for the company until leaving to take over the Center City for GF in 1994.
GF moved Pica to a downtown Hilton in Charlotte in 1996 and then put him in charge of a Holiday Inn and a golf course in Philadelphia before moving him briefly to corporate headquarters and then handing him the Sheraton in Rochester this year.
Aware of the challenge the downtown Rochester hotel poses, Pica is clearly in his element as he prowls its newly refurbished rooms and corridors.
A virtual dynamo, he proudly steers a visitor’s eye to newly hung wall coverings here, a neo-art-deco light fixture there, to freshly laid carpet or to the palatial expanse of the spanking-new presidential suite.
In the lobby, Pica bubbles over plans to install concierge stations near the newly remodeled entrance.
As he passes chambermaids pushing carts through the halls or spies the banquet manager in a meeting room, he hails each cheerily. To a bellman encountered in an elevator who replies “OK” to Pica’s query as to how it is going, Pica shoots back: “Just OK?”
The bellman replies that he just came on shift, and assures Pica that his positivity will climb as his stint continues.
Staff, Pica explains, must be kept pumped. It is all part of seeing that guests’ impressions are positive.
Word of mouth is the key, Pica says. One satisfied guest tells a friend or co-worker about the place. Another tells another, and so on. If the buzz is good, pretty soon your numbers go up. It is that simple.
Besides, he loves to prowl the building. He loves the hotel business. It is, he says, always a challenge, always fresh.
Says Pica: “It’s never the same thing twice.”

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