Hotel veteran launches own firm: A Q&A with local hospitality leader Tim Worthington

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While he was a student at Indiana University, Tim Worthington spent summers washing dishes, cooking breakfast and delivering room service for locally based General Hotels Corp.

It was the beginning of a 31-year career that would include 14 years as president of the company.

Worthington, 60, retired last February but quickly realized he wanted back in the action.

So he and partner Michael Arnold, also a former employee at General Hotels and a 20-year veteran of the hotel industry, launched The Worthington Group. The Indianapolis-based firm focuses on hotel development, management and hospitality consulting. Worthington also is teaching a course on hotel management at IUPUI.

The veteran hotelier recently sat down with IBJ to talk about his new venture and the hotel landscape in Indianapolis, including plans for a new JW Marriott convention hotel near White River State Park (which won out over a proposal for an InterContinental hotel on Pan Am Plaza) and a sluggish start for the new Conrad Indianapolis hotel, which is aiming for the city’s first five-star ranking.

Besides his work with General, which owns 10 hotels including the Crowne Plaza Union Station and two Homewood Suites hotels, Worthington also has served in various civic roles.

He was on the city’s Capital Improvement Board when it built Victory Field and Conseco Fieldhouse. And he was chairman during the most recent expansion of the Indiana Convention Center.

IBJ: How has the Indianapolis hotel market changed over the years?

WORTHINGTON: We’ve had a huge increase in room supply. In 1995, we had about 15,000 rooms. Now, we have 26,000. When we built the Holidome at the Pyramids, there were two of us. Now there are more than 80 hotels on the north side. Downtown, there were 2,500 rooms. Now, there are 6,000, and we’re getting more.

IBJ: Have the city’s incentive packages for new hotels been appropriate?

WORTHINGTON: Oh my gosh, yes. I think they’re ahead of a lot of cities. I think we have the best downtown convention center combination of any city in the country-the way it’s laid out, the way it’s been planned. It’s convenient, there are plenty of rooms, good restaurants, cultural tourism has come a long way. A lot of people send their people up here to study us.

IBJ: Did the city choose the correct option for a new convention headquarters hotel?

WORTHINGTON: Part of the reason they went with White Lodging was because they had the land. The owner of the parking garage under Pan Am Plaza lives in New York. The plaza is falling apart-the brick needs replaced, the garage leaks and needs repaired. It’s a great location.

IBJ: Is it a missed opportunity to build somewhere besides Pan Am?

WORTHINGTON: I guess I look at it this way: You have a plaza that needs fixing. But I’m on the outside, looking in.

IBJ: What do you think about Marriott?

WORTHINGTON: I think Marriott is one of the toughest brands there are. You have to redo all your guest rooms within a certain number of years. JW Marriott is a great hotel. I’m curious to know what the new owners of the Marriott across the street think about it.

IBJ: Do you view the Indianapolis hotel market as stable?

WORTHINGTON: Yes, very stable, and heading upward. I know there are some concerns about new rooms [coming onto the market, creating an oversupply], which is typical of hotel operators.

IBJ: Is there a part of the city that’s over-served or under-served by hotels?

WORTHINGTON: I think the north side is over-built. With all that’s going on at the airport, I think you’re going to see more hotels developed there.

IBJ: What’s the toughest hotel market in town?

WORTHINGTON: I’d say the east side. They’ve lost a lot of the corporations, like Western Electric. There’s just not as much industrial base as there used to be.

IBJ: What do you make of the decision to build a Conrad here?

WORTHINGTON: I think the hopes were great, a five-star hotel. The Conrad is really an international affiliation for Hilton. I don’t know. If you look at where they are with that product: New York, Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas-Indianapolis is an upcoming city, but at the present time it’s not a Seattle, a San Francisco, a Chicago or Miami. I’m just surprised. The restaurant was very mediocre. Anytime you open a new hotel, you do go through tough times. I just think it needs to be recharged.

IBJ: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the business?

WORTHINGTON: I think [hotel operators] are very conscious that service is one thing; exceptional service is another. Hotels are trying to do more in the service category to make sure their customers are happy and leave with good feelings about the city of Indianapolis. We’re a Midwestern city. We’re easy to get to. We’re affordable. We’re convenient.

IBJ: How have hotel brands changed?

WORTHINGTON: We didn’t used to be segmented like we are today. Years ago, when Jim Dora opened his first Holiday Inn, that was a big deal. You couldn’t find free ice, or room service, or dog kennels. It was basically just mom-and-pop hotels. Even Holiday Inns have also become segmented. The chain now includes InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites and Indigo.

IBJ: How have you adapted to teaching?

WORTHINGTON: Every one of my students has a job. I have 50 students. They’re working their way through school. It’s kind of fun for me to give them experience from what I’ve learned in my lifetime. And I learn from them, too. I ask the kids who work at front desks to come up to the front and share their toughest challenge.

IBJ: Tell me about your new venture.

WORTHINGTON: We are basically looking at new opportunities that come our way. We have about eight different projects we’re working on, nothing that’s totally completed yet. They’re mostly development projects, and mostly in Indiana. I can’t give any specifics. What I have learned is, in operations we’re used to things happening fast. Development takes time.

IBJ: What’s the best-run hotel in the city?

WORTHINGTON: The next one we build, maybe. There are a lot of good hotels in the city.

IBJ: What’s the worst?

WORTHINGTON: Probably I’d say Worthington Inn. It’s on [U.S.] 40 as you go out of town. Seriously, all hotels have their opportunities.

IBJ: What drew you to the hotel business?

WORTHINGTON: My main reason I’m in this business is, I like people. I’ve met some really interesting folks over the years.

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