Bob Conley at Genevieve’s6/1/2017
To people who know him well, Bob Conley is associated with generosity and a sense of humor that ranges from dark to ironic and sometimes totally inappropriate. That’s at least partially a by-product of growing up in a funeral parlor. To those who merely know of him, he’s a gadfly to the city council, a champion of local business and an avowed opponent of carpetbagger-incentives. We asked the controversial hotelier to lunch recently at his Genevieve’s, named for his mother, in the Holiday Inn-Mercy Campus.
Our waitress greeted him by saying, “It’s so weird seeing you in the dining room.”
Turns out Conley usually eats in the kitchen with the staff.
“If you’re too good to eat with your employees, then you don’t deserve their loyalty. I am proud how long so many employees have been with me. Our employees get free meals each shift. The first guy I ever hired here is now an equity partner,” he explained.
Soon after that, Conley noticed a guy in military gear.
“Is that a third infantry patch on your jacket soldier?” he asks.
“No sir, first infantry.”
Conley then thanks him for his service and offers to buy his lunch.
“Thank you, sir, it’s already paid for,” he hears.
Conley shares a few Army stories with the solider, a Louisiana native in Des Moines for training at Camp Dodge. Asked about his purple heart in Vietnam, Conley explains, “You don’t get those for being smart. In my case, I was zigging when I should have been zagging.”
The two vets contrasted their salaries.
“I was getting overseas pay and hazardous pay, and the most I ever made was $280 a month,” Conley explains.
“I don’t get any bonuses, but I make $5,200 a month,” says the master sergeant.
How did Conley get from an Army hospital to the hospitality industry?
“When I came home from Vietnam, I got 30 days leave before being reassigned to Fort Lewis in Washington state. I flew out to the Pentagon and asked to see someone about changing my orders. They finally sent a lieutenant colonel out, and he looked amazed that I would ask such a thing. I told him I really wanted to finish my tour closer to home. He looked over my record and said, ‘We can do that.’ When I got to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, they had no idea what to do with me, but I had special orders from the Pentagon. I made it home for Christmas. I went to work after that for Johnny & Kay’s Hyatt on Fleur Drive,” he recalled.
Has the hotel industry changed as much as the Army?
“There are a lot of constants in the hotel business. Payroll has consistently amounted to 33 percent of your gross. I remember when that amounted to $8,000 every two weeks in the old days for a 200-250 room hotel. Today it’s $80,000. The story of the industry is that everyone looks to add a new amenity as a competitive edge — air conditioning, TV, color TV, cable TV, free Internet, bathrobes, spas, athletic clubs, etc. Pretty soon the amenities are standard, and the price of the room has to go up to compensate,” he explained.
Conley gained his most significant experience working for Ramada Inn as sales director for both the eastern half and western half of the U.S. at different times.
“Ramada was a great company until they decided to get into the casino business. They built the Tropicana in Atlantic City and got their lunch handed to them. Cost overruns and contractor problems led to a record setting cost of over $1 million a room, for a 400-room hotel, at a time when they were borrowing money to pay for it at 21 percent interest. They bought another Tropicana, too. It destroyed the company,” he recalled.
What were some of the more interesting problems he dealt with?
“I used to read all the letters of complaint from all our hotels. I remember one guy threatening to sue a hotel because he contracted the clap while staying there. He claimed a maid was irresistible bending over to clean. I told him that since sex was not a regular service of the hotel, we would fight his lawsuit,” he recalled.
“Another time a guy sent a big-black splotch. He said it was a bug he found at an Arizona hotel that he had put through a copy machine. He was keeping the original it seems. Once after an insurance convention in Hartford, I walked by a naked guy sleeping by a soda machine with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign around his neck. In Lansing once the roof began leaking after days of rain. We used bus tubs to catch it on the top floor, but the maintenance guy who was emptying the tubs fell through the floor and onto the bed below where a couple was having a nooner. The woman beat him with her purse. Since the guy registered with a phony name, we never got sued. Probably lost a regular customer, though.
“Maids tell me that when a customer requests the same room on repeated visits, it has nothing to do with the view or nostalgia. It’s because he hid some contraband there. I have found the most disgusting magazines in the world in some of those rooms,” he related.
How has the business changed the most in Des Moines?
“Used to be almost all our hotels were locally owned. Now Ev Scott (Holiday Inn Airport) and I are the only ones left. The carpetbaggers have taken over. That’s too bad because local owners will always treat employees better. The brain trust of the city encourages this with incentives. If the city brain trust were a gene pool, there would be no diving — too shallow. We are taxed to give breaks to our competition. During the flood of ’93, the city shut off our electricity and water, ‘as a precaution.’ Our computers went down, so we lost all kinds money. I personally cleaned the guest room toilets with swimming pool water. I paid employees for time lost, and my insurance company called the city’s move an act of God and paid me nothing,” he recalled. ♦