By From the Lowell Sun
By Jennifer Myers
LOWELL -- Leif Ericksen landed in Lowell five weeks ago.
He has been working for Aramark's Higher Education Division, which runs eight hotel facilities including those at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University, for two years. He was tapped to take on the role of general manager of the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center when the company was awarded the contract to manage the new facility by the university last month.
Coming straight from working at the Desmond Tutu Conference Center in New York City, a mixed-use property on the grounds of a historic seminary built in the 1800s, he said he enjoys the challenge of reinventing a building.
"You can feel the soul of the hotel when you walk into the building," said Ericksen, who grew up on a horse farm in Birdsboro, Pa., and cut his teeth in the hotel business working at a seasonal hotel in Cape May, on the Jersey shore.
Before that, he taught high-school biology and chemistry and worked in college food service at a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia.
The university purchased the 252-room former DoubleTree Hotel on Warren Street from the Procaccianti Group of Rhode Island for $15 million on July 31. A $4 million renovation blitz launched immediately after the closing.
One month later, 400 UMass Lowell students moved in.
"The greatest challenge, by far, was the condition the hotel was left in when we arrived," said UMass Lowell Dean of Students Larry Siegel.
"We were shocked."
For instance, the university's team found 100 pieces of china -- and no two pieces matched. They had to start from scratch in many areas, including technology.
"We put an enormous amount of financial resources into upgrading the Internet, telephone, sound and video systems," said Siegel, adding that the entire building now has wireless capabilities. "What was here was a little better than a couple of orange juice cans with a piece of string between them."
Ericksen said a job fair drew 450 applicants last month, which led to the hiring of the facility's entire 40-person staff. The staff includes two full-time UML students. The facility also will be using UML work-study students and interns from the hospitality program at Middlesex Community College.
Ericksen said he and his staff worked 14-hour days, seven days a week for two-and-a-half weeks.
"Cleaning everything was the biggest job," he said. "And we changed every light bulb in the building, making them energy-efficient."
All vendors, from uniform services to landscaping and window washing, about a dozen in total utilized to open the facility, were local, Ericksen said.
About 40 percent of the rooms had included one king-sized bed. Now all have two full-sized beds, with high-quality pillow-top mattresses. Now, all are the same.
The lounge of the former DoubleTree has been reinvented into a cozy dining hall, with televisions and access to the patio, which on a nice afternoon is teeming with students working on laptops. Siegel said that one night last week, a group of students brought their guitars to the patio and jammed.
Mike Mizzoni, president of the UML student government, lived in Fox Hall last year. This year he is at the Inn and Conference Center and says the two experiences cannot be compared. His new digs boast more comfortable beds, private bathrooms and control over the hearing and air conditioning system in each room.
"It has been awesome so far," said Mizzoni, a junior political science major from Littleton. "It still feels like a hotel and I love being in the downtown."
"It is a great way for the students to become part of the city," he said. "The chancellor's (Marty Meehan) goal has always been to strengthen the partnership between the city and the university."
Siegel said that in focus groups he has held with students, "almost none of them ever felt they were part of the city. A very small percentage really ever left campus or realized a city existed outside of it."
Now the focus is promoting the university and selling the city.
All hotel staff has been trained by the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. Staff has visited the National Park, taken the canal tour and a walking tour of the city and have visited the museums.
"They are all ambassadors for the city, not just people who know a few things about it," Siegel said.
Additionally, the university has partnered with the Merrimack Repertory Theatre and local restaurants to offer a dinner and a show package. The Inn and Conference Center has secured 100 tickets to each MRT show.
"So, parents can bring their child back to school on a Sunday and for $20 or $25 and see a show and have dinner," Siegel said. "Suddenly bringing your child back to school becomes an event."
Students are also utilizing the "U Card," a specialized debit card that parents or students can load money onto that can be used at participating businesses, university laundry machines and vending machines. So far, Siegel said, 25 businesses are on board and another 15 are in the pipeline.
The Inn and Conference Center is entering into the second phase of its overhaul, which includes renovating the first- and second-floor guest rooms that will be opened to the public, creating a full-service dining hall in what was formerly the mini-ballroom, and constructing a separate student entrance on Warren Street to separate the guest and resident areas.
Siegel said the goal is to open guest rooms as they are ready, phasing them in with the inn being fully operational by the end of May.
Meanwhile, Ericksen has been busy booking events.
Two weeks ago, a social-worker training company from Colorado held a two-day conference there. Visitors enjoyed the experience so much, Ericksen said, that they canceled reservations for the following week at a Boston facility and booked Lowell for their second event.
The first big community event: The Taste of Lowell on Oct. 23.
"We cannot wait to invite the community into our living room," Ericksen said.