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Creating Experiences at The Pfister
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At 6 feet 6 inches tall, it's little wonder Joe Kurth made his career decision based partly on basketball.
Kurth, now general manager at The Pfister Hotel, transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie to play basketball in 1989. When he found out the college was strong in hotel management, he decided to pursue that as a major.
Twenty years later, he leads arguably the most famous hotel in Milwaukee, managing 350 employees at the historic downtown property on the corner of North Jefferson Street and East Wisconsin Avenue.
In Kurth's four years at the hotel, he has overseen several projects, including renovations to the guest rooms, parking garage, ballrooms, Blu bar and The Cafe at the Pfister. He also has introduced innovative concepts such as the Artist in Residence program and the Pfister narrator, continuing to make a stay at the Pfister a unique experience in an industry that puts increasing emphasis on cost savings.
Kurth knew he was facing high standards when taking over the Pfister in July 2007. The 307-room hotel, built in 1893, is a historic icon downtown, and one of two hotels in Milwaukee to receive four out of five diamonds in AAA's annual ratings. It was the first hotel bought by Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. in 1962 and today is the flagship property for the company's hotel and resort division.
"Our company takes the responsibility of owning the Pfister very seriously," said Bill Otto, president of Marcus Hotels & Resorts. "It really is Milwaukee's hotel."
As such, the hotel takes a special person to manage it, and Marcus recognized the proper qualities in Kurth, Otto said. He has a great sensitivity to the importance of the hotel and a maturity that allows him to deal with the celebrities and special events that come through with a sense of dignity. Although his height might be intimidating, his warm smile and thoughtful attitude keep him a friendly face to the staff and guests.
Kurth has overseen the introduction of several new programs to enhance the Pfister experience. In 2008, the hotel was looking for a way to inexpensively market itself during the recession. It came up with the Artist in Residence program, launched in 2009, which hosts one artist each year in a studio and gallery on the first floor.
The program is a way to connect guests with the art inherent in the building's architecture and decor, Kurth said. It has been one of the most commented-on features of the hotel.
"That level of engagement, watching a painter in the lobby, just isn't done in hotels," he said.
Last year, the hotel introduced its narrator program. Every six months, it chooses a new narrator to roam the hotel writing about what he or she sees.
This year, it started offering a service allowing a guest to borrow a digital camera from the hotel and turn it in before he or she leaves. The hotel then takes the guest's top 10 photos and creates a personalized photo website for the guest. The hotel also has introduced four Apple iPads for customer use that allow travelers to check in on flights and print boarding passes, read the newspaper or play games.
For Kurth, it's all about creating an experience in which the hotel plays a background character, not the starring role.
"This is a hotel that takes moments and turns them into memories," he said.
The Pfister struggled like all hotels during the recession, when travel declined drastically. It didn't see the kind of drop that happened at higher-priced luxury hotels, but it did have to cut hours among its staff, Kurth said. That was hard for Kurth because he realizes many of his employees live paycheck-to-paycheck.
But staff hours are starting to grow again as the tourism industry recovers, and the hotel spa has hired eight new massage therapists in the last four months, he said.
The hotel survived the recession by staying the course, relying on Marcus Corp.'s strong financial position along with the cut in staff hours. In fact, Marcus has invested millions of dollars in the hotel over the past few years, upgrading just about every facet of the property. The Cafe at the Pfister just reopened after a renovation this spring, and next up is the renovation of the tower guest rooms. The hotel's Well Spa + Janice Salon and signature restaurant, Mason Street Grill, opened around the time of Kurth's arrival.
"The day you sit back and say, 'People should come here because we're the Pfister' is the day you open the door for someone else to take market share," he said.
Meet Joe Kurth
Title: General manager, The Pfister Hotel
Education: Bachelor of science degree in hotel and restaurant management from University of Wisconsin-Stout
Experience: Front office manager and executive housekeeper for Hyatt hotels in New Orleans, Denver and Milwaukee; executive assistant manager for Adam's Mark hotel in Memphis, Tenn.; director of food and beverage at The American Club, Kohler; executive assistant manager at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif.; vice president of customer relations for Pulte Homes in Sarasota, Fla.
Family: Wife, Andrea, and two chocolate Labrador retrievers
Best business decision: "The creation of the Artist in Residence program has added a new national stage for the Pfister, allowing us the ability to tell our story to a growing audience. The appreciation and support for the arts is a critical part of the DNA of the Pfister."
Toughest business decision: "The recent years of recession have brought many opportunities to reduce services and take shortcuts in the hospitality business, which we have seen throughout the country. The toughest decisions have surrounded the ongoing commitment to both a level of service training and focus on ongoing renovation."
Hobbies: Golf, spa, travel, "spoiling my wife."
Favorite vacation spots: Hong Kong; Malaysia; Champagne, France; Rome
Last book read: "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Fun fact: His parents were missionaries and he lived in the Republic of Malawi, Africa, for a time as a child.
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