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Marriott memories: Charleston hotel turns 30 (video)

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Dolly Parton stayed at the Charleston Marriott Town Center in 1990, room service captain David Robinson walked a chef's salad up to her suite.

After Robinson handed the country star the plate lined with hardboiled eggs, Parton picked up one of the eggs and tossed it into her mouth.

"She picked up an egg and just ate it," Robinson said last week. "It made me feel comfortable and relaxed."

Later that same day, Linda Wolfe, lead server in the hotel's restaurant, ran into Parton as she stepped out of the elevator.

Without thinking, Wolfe said she looked right at the singer and shouted, "Dolly Parton!"

"She probably thought I was crazy," Wolfe said last week with a laugh.

Robinson and Wolfe -- along with five other "charter associates" -- have worked at the Charleston Marriott since it first opened its doors 30 years ago.

The Charleston Marriott is celebrating its 30th anniversary today with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m. at the hotel. The public is welcome to sample foods from the hotel's new 50-seat day/night bar.

The hotel's new owners have invested $8 million in renovations. Before guests see the sleek new bar and seating area, they will notice a brand new lobby studded with modern furniture. The bright, beige walls surround a new fireplace, front desk and gift shop.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based Inland American Lodging Group purchased the Charleston Marriott for $25.5 million from Forest City Enterprises in 2011.

In its 30 years, West Virginia's only full-service Marriott hotel has served more than 2.8 million guests, including many celebrities.

The Eagles, Pat Benatar, George Jones, Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali, Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson are among those who have slept in Charleston Marriott beds.

Larry Walker, a banquet supervisor and charter associate, said he had to "keep the women calm" when Tom Selleck stayed at the hotel.

When country star Lee Greenwood needed new pants while staying at the Marriott, he bought a pair at the Charleston Town Center Mall across the street and had a housekeeper hem them, said Jeff Messinger, the hotel's director of engineering and a charter associate.

 

'A real big deal'

Of the seven charter associates, Virginia Brown, a housekeeper; Reba Nichols, a banquet server; and Barbara Duff, administrative assistant in housekeeping, were not available for this article.

In 1982, most of the seven -- and 3,000 other people -- stood in the line at the Charleston Civic Center to apply for the 300 jobs at the new Marriott.

"It was like concert tickets went on sale," Messinger said. "There was nothing like the Marriott in town."

Former West Virginia University and NFL great Sam Huff, who was also a Marriott vice president at the time, encouraged the hotel's president to bring the first and only Marriott to his home state in the late 1970s.

The hotel was built in a "Superblock" development plan that included a new Civic Center and a $100 million shopping mall. Huff had to convince executives to build in an area that was once scattered with homes.

The 15-story, $17 million Marriott hotel with an indoor pool and hot tub and workout facility opened to the excitement of the whole city, Wolfe said.

Wolfe -- who had worked at a Yeager Airport coffee shop for 13 years -- didn't expect to get a job at such a "fancy" place, she said.

Robinson and Walker, who attended Stonewall Jackson High School together, applied when they were just 19 years old.

It was "a real big deal" for Messinger when he landed his job at the Marriott because the construction company where he worked in Montgomery had closed, he said.

Thirty years later, they are a small group who help and confide in one another and still have that passion for serving the Charleston Marriott's guests, Walker said.

"We want the company to continue to improve, so it's nice to know you can rely on them. If I need something from Larry or Linda or Jeff, I can go to [them]," Robinson said.

With a tray full of breakfast, Robinson might see a guest at their hotel door, and hours later, Wolfe refills their drinks at dinner in the hotel's Whitewater Grille.

When groups host events in the Marriott's meeting rooms, Messinger has to "strike a medium" with temperatures to ensure the speaker isn't too hot and the audience too cold.

Every group has a meeting planner who is always in panic mode, Walker said, but he is there to keep them calm.

"If something isn't going right, how quick we react eases their worries," Walker said. "People who come to the Marriott know what to expect and that hasn't changed."

 

A 'prime tourism partner'

But what has changed is the hotel's appearance.

Messinger calls the renovations "the most dramatic change we've ever done here."

Every seven years, different areas of the hotel are revamped, he said.

Workers spent four months completely upgrading the 352 guest rooms. From new plumbing to repairing the ceilings for the first time, the renovations have been a "hectic time," Messinger said, but "exciting times."

The ballroom and meeting rooms -- 17,500 square feet of space -- will be upgraded next.

People want an updated, fresh feel in a hotel and the Charleston Marriott has accomplished that, said Jama Jarrett, vice president of office operations and communication at the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The Marriott is one of our prime tourism partners," Jarrett said. "It's great to have a full service hotel, for us, because when we're out selling Charleston, to try to bring business back to Charleston, the Marriott is one business we are able to promote. Thirty years speaks volumes to the dedication they have to the city."

The Charleston Marriott has had a $90 million economic impact on the city, according to Charles DiClemente, director of hotel operations for the city's Marriott.

For the charter associates, the hotel has had an unexpected, positive effect on each of their lives.

They each agreed that they learn something new every day working at the Charleston Marriott.

Messinger has received training and certifications he said he wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for the Marriott. He even remembers when the Charleston Marriott got its first computer.

Wolfe learned quickly to "serve from the left and clear from the right" at the restaurant's tables.

"I've really learned from these people," Wolfe said. "People talk about their job getting boring; mine never gets boring."

Walker's managing team won a Marriott contest, and, as a reward, he and his wife got to go to Aruba.

Robinson has learned to make guests happy, "whatever their needs and desires are," he said.

"The people I've met over the years who come [to this Marriott] make it easy. My co-workers, too. We're all in this together," Robinson said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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