As you coast southward from Chicago on I-65 through the heart of Indiana, Jim Nabors and his venerable Memorial Day rendition of Back Home Again in Indiana come to life. The new-mown hay contrasted by brilliant windmill farms flanking each side of I-65 heading south from Lafayette toward Indianapolis is a true sign of the times, a signal that the Hoosier state is very much on the move.
Known nationwide as the Crossroads of America, Indiana’s capital, Indianapolis, remains at the heart of concentrated state power, commerce, sports, media and most importantly, tourism. The city today is experiencing a renaissance, engulfed in construction, renovation and preparation. Roads downtown are being expanded, sidewalk pavement and storefronts spruced, and downtown Indy is abuzz in preparation for Super Bowl XVLI, Feb. 5, 2012, at Lucas Oil Stadium.
A stone’s throw away, and in perfect view of the stadium, is the historic Omni Severin Hotel. A stunning, historic four-diamond luxury hotel that originally opened its doors in 1913 as The Grand Hotel of Indianapolis, it is at the Omni Severin where the dynamism and spirit of Indianapolis are most fervent.
The Omni Severin is gearing up for a special milestone of its own. In 2013, the hotel will celebrate its 100th birthday, marking a century as the heartbeat of the city, hosting tourists, sports teams, airline crews, political events, weddings and other special occasions.
In gearing up for its centennial celebration, the hotel has just taken the wraps off an $8 million renovation of all 424 rooms and corridors of its 11 floors. From disruption avoidance management to nuanced and complex decision-making, renovating the Omni Severin is no small undertaking.
Since the renovation began in December, 2010, the hotel has held conferences, weddings, maintained a high occupancy rate with some sell-out nights with consistently strong guest satisfaction levels.
“The renovation is going great,” says Omni Severin General Manager Kevin Latone. “We want our rooms to be fresh, clean, and updated to the expectations of our guests. We’ve added 42-inch plasma TVs to every room, new furniture, wallpaper and paint, new carpeting, better lighting, artwork in the rooms and corridors, and a completely fresh, new look.”
Latone said as a four-diamond property, the Omni Severin has high service level standards and that the renovation was in keeping with those standards and guest expectations, while the hotel operated without any outward appearance of noise and general disruption.
Omni’s corporate operations team turned to the team at Cicero’s Development Corporation, a 40-year renovations specialist focusing on hotels. Sam Cicero, Sr., his sons Sam Jr. and Thomas, led a crew of more than 70 renovation specialists and experienced sub-contractors. On the front line was Cicero’s in-house architect Steve Glenn, assistant Jason Stace, and on-site project superintendent Bob Newberg who managed day-to-day operations. The team worked 12-14 hours a day, through weekends until the job was completed four days ahead of deadline and in time for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“One of the things we've been able to do with Cicero's is meet daily to discuss the next 24–48 hours and understand what their tasks are and the potential impact on guests,” Latone said. “If we know some work is going to be done, we will look at how our guests might be impacted. We want to limit the noisy construction to specific hours based on our occupancy and place guests in different areas of the hotel accordingly.”
The Omni Severin’s 424 rooms are comprised of 64 different room types, including 13 rooms specially designed to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. The Omni Severin’s last major renovation took place in 1986 when two new wings expanded all floors to accommodate demand for more guest rooms and expand the hotel’s majestic presence in Indy’s historic Wholesale District.
Each of the two wings was expanded and the center courtyard was filled in with a combination of meeting rooms. Stacked on top were additional guest rooms and suites, with the 12th and 13th floors comprising two-level luxury suites with picturesque views of the Greater Indianapolis area.
The Cicero’s crew renovated floor-by-floor, gutting and removing existing carpeting and wallpaper, replacing old furniture and artwork with new pieces, and delivering a fresh, contemporary renewal to each room.
Donning paint and sweat on their clothes, masks at times to protect from breathing dust, and an array of tools, shop vacs, tarp and protective covers, the team used just one service elevator to move material and furniture in and out of the hotel. Working closely with the hotel staff to schedule elevator movement between daily housekeeping and room service needs, as well as movement from the lower level kitchen to the second level banquet area, Cicero’s coordinated a tight schedule while maintaining a business as usual atmosphere for hotel guests. Another complicating factor—no loading dock or storage space, making additional off-site warehousing and transportation a necessity.
The renovation removed and replaced more than 22,828 square yards of carpeting and padding, refurbished 2,221 doors, painted 2,253 door frames and 41,169 linear feet of wood crown molding, base and trim, 871 grills and nearly 40,000 square feet of ceiling.
“We got it down to a system,” Cicero, Sr. says. “Earlier in the project we pushed hard, had a few hick-ups, but those were ironed out quickly. One of the things I think we are great at is surprise management: anticipating hurdles, evaluating options and preparing contingency plans for unforeseen scenarios.”
“You have to plan, then re-plan, and re-plan again,” Cicero, Sr. says. “Our team met twice-daily—early mornings and in the evenings. We shared ideas, looked ahead, and found that by writing out our ideas on wall-to-wall whiteboards, our ideas, goals and activities became much clearer and more defined over night. We became better prepared to hit the ground running the next day.”
Cicero’s would liaise on a daily basis with Omni management and key department heads to ensure quality on the job and efficiency in meeting deadlines. Cicero’s project superintendent Bob Newberg would lead 7 a.m. meetings with the crew and key sub- contractors, an 8:15 a.m. meeting with Omni Severin Chief Operating Engineer Carl Kelle, and more meetings with Burnelle Goldman (in charge of guest rooms and suites) and Latone to discuss any changes or alterations that may impact schedules.
As problems arose, the Cicero’s team value engineered workable, cost-effective solutions designed to solve issues and control costs for Omni.
“We communicated diligently with the hotel, discussing issues and sharing ideas. Top of mind was the guest experience and guest sensitivity to noise, along with other issues like parking, materials delivery and service elevator usage,” Newberg says. “Everything has to be coordinated tightly.”
"It's all a part of project management and planning is key,” Cicero, Sr. adds. “We want all of our clients to make money and that’s why they trust us with their projects.”
For Latone, the renovation boiled down to Cicero’s ability to understand the hotel’s needs."
“Cicero’s understood we are in the service industry and that our guests come here to rest, relax and enjoy themselves—they get it,” Latone says. “They partnered with us with that in mind and realize they are representing our hotel. The guests don't care if they are contractors or sub-contractors, they view the renovation team as representative of the hotel."
According to Cicero Sr., a solid and stable pool of sub-contractors, built on successful workmanship and collaboration, helped the renovation move at a lightening quick pace.
“We have a deep bench of sub-contractors. Not only do we have furniture coming in, but furniture being removed. We also are responsible for timely disposal of discarded furniture, so wear many hats in the process,” he says.
Joe Majewski, owner of Crete, Ill.-based Majewski Decorating Inc., has been painting on and off as a sub-contractor to Cicero’s for approximately three decades. Majewski and his team were responsible for finishing in most of the hotel’s 424 rooms, corridors, and two- story suites.
“We are also doing the corridors—removing existing vinyl wall covering and installing new ones, patching and prepping the walls, installing new vinyl wall covering, patching and painting of complete hall ceilings, painting of all base boards and door frames,” Majewski adds with a sense of pride.
Majewski also cited the early daily and weekly planning meetings before work starts as critical to an effective working relationship between general and sub-contractors.
Carl Kelle, director of engineering for the Omni Severin, served as the primary Omni executive overseeing, coordinating and managing the project on a day-to-day basis. Kelle was closer than anyone to the renovation’s progress and challenges along the way.
“It’s a continuous communication process and I speak with at least one of Cicero’s key staff at least five or six times a day,” he says. “You can have all the parts at the table, but if folks aren’t talking to each other you can’t expect a good outcome."
Kelle has been on the Omni Severin property for 11 years. Previously, he headed engineering at The Westin in Indianapolis, and previous to that he was a Navy engineer for 26 years, focusing on nuclear submarines and anti-submarine warfare ships.
“This is more difficult than my service in the Navy,” Kelle says with a grin. “My only focus in the Navy was to put that ship to sea. Here you have much more of a balancing act with many balls in motion and a hotel renovation so many components is a true balancing act.”
The mark of any renovation is in the quality of workmanship and ability to stand the test of time. Perhaps no one captured the spirit of both Omni and Indianapolis’ role as a true destination city, than assistant front office manager for the Omni Severin, Hershell Baird.
“In the hotel business it's about being the leader of the pack and offering high-quality customer service,” Baird says. “People have high expectations of four diamond hotels, and we have high expectations of ourselves. With the emergence of other hotels around us and the general growth and expansion of Indianapolis, we have to remain competitive.”
Baird says renovations historically can be tricky, with increased chance of complaints about noise and disruption in general.
“Yet our guest satisfaction scores remained high through the renovation, and all our feedback indicates the Omni Severin remains the hotel destination of choice in Indianapolis,” he says.
From windmill farms in Indiana’s rural expanses to a culturally and financially revitalized Indianapolis, the atmosphere is energized and the future is bright.
“Keep your eyes on Indianapolis, it’s about to surprise a lot of people,” Baird adds with a smile and a true sense of pride for his hometown.”