Kansas City hotel redefining its legacy
04 DECEMBER 2013 7:14 AM
In July 1981, 114 people died when skywalks collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center in Kansas City. Today, the hotel looks to put its tragic past behind it.
KANSAS CITY, Missouri—The floors in the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center lobby are shiny. A massive silver sculpture hangs from the ceiling, sparkling from the sunlight that beams in through the windows. Masses of guests hurry in and out of the automatic doors, on their way to or coming from shopping excursions, business meetings at nearby Hallmark Cards, conventions throughout the complex or sporting events.
Unless they are native Kansas Citians or Midwesterners of a certain age, today’s guests would not remember the 1981 skywalk collapses in this very lobby that killed 114 people and wounded hundreds more. Most guests aren’t aware of the tragedy 32 years ago that shut down the hotel for 75 days.
And that’s just the way management would like it.
“It’s part of the hotel’s history and we’re very respectful of that,” said Steve Shalit, GM of the hotel. “But it’s not part of how we’re moving forward.”
Indeed, the 40-story, 731-room hotel, once the tallest building in the state of Missouri, has seemed to—despite its tragic history—accomplish what developer Don Hall hoped it would when it opened in 1980. Hall, who also owns Hallmark Cards, built the hotel to anchor the revitalization effort on the southernmost edge of the city and make Kansas City a major Midwestern convention destination.
The hotel, formerly the Hyatt Regency Crown Center, recently wrapped up a renovation that, combined with neighboring Westin Kansas City at Crown Center, totaled $22 million.
The ghosts of Sheraton’s past
The Hyatt Regency Kansas City opened in a blighted but transitioning area on the southern edge of downtown near Hallmark Cards’ corporate headquarters. Like many hotels located in cities that aren’t major tourist destinations, the hotel attracted the local market with upscale dining, including a revolving restaurant on the top floor with stunning views of the city.
Its lobby was also large enough for functions, and it had become the place to be on Friday nights when Big Band-era music played for contestants in tea dances.
However, on 17 July 1981, a fourth-floor skywalk collapsed, sending concrete, steel and the people who were standing on the structure watching the popular tea dance competition onto the third floor skywalk, and eventually onto the dancers below.
The disaster ultimately killed 114 people and wounded more than 200.
A history of the disaster, published by the Halls, said: “The loss surrounding the Hyatt disaster was great enough, and the city small enough, that everyone knew someone who was personally touched by the tragedy.”
“The past 18 hours have been the darkest of my life as one of the worst in Kansas City history,” Don Hall wrote in a letter to his employees the day after the disaster. “I find it difficult to even talk about the events of last night, as I know many of you do.”
The disaster took an emotional toll on the Hall family, and $3.5 billion in lawsuits threatened not only the future of the hotel, but the future of Hallmark Cards, a major employer in the area.
The effort to push the company forward began almost immediately. Within 18 months, the company had accepted liability and began assembling a settlement package that eventually totaled more than $140 million.
In 1985, investigators concluded that a last-minute design change regarding the placement of a rod was the cause of the disaster, placing blame on the engineers and exonerating the hotel owners of fault.
Rich Roberts, principle of RDR PR, did not work with rebuilding the Hyatt Regency Kansas City’s reputation, but has studied how hotel disasters have affected properties and brands.
He said the Halls’ quick action to settle the lawsuits and not wait to see who was indicted for being at fault helped the hotel on the long road of putting the disaster behind it.
“The fact that they are community members and they give back to the community I’m sure has also helped,” Roberts said.
The Halls’ philanthropic efforts included contributing to a memorial to remember the victims of the disaster, as well as the first responders who assisted. The Hall Corporate Foundation has contributed $25,000 to date and pledged $25,000 to complete the fundraising. Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, which didn’t take over operation of the hotel until 2011, has also pledged donations to the effort.
“Hallmark has always believed that any memorial project would most appropriately be led by the people whose lives were affected by the tragedy,” Hall said. “Once the current organization formed a few years ago to provide that leadership and stepped forward with a plan involving the whole community, Hallmark was pleased to support it.”
Anchor in a competitive market
The popular tea dances ended that night in 1981, but the hotel now hosts wine tastings and other events in the lobby. It boasts the largest ballroom in the city, which draws many large wedding receptions and other local functions.
Rusty Macy, who was GM at the hotel from 2002-2011, said the focus in those years was to fulfill the vision of making the hotel and the surrounding complex a major convention destination.
“As the Kansas City metropolitan area has changed with growth, the hotel has remained a base for the business traveler,” said Macy, who is now GM at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
When Sheraton took over management of the hotel in 2011, the company closed Skies, the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel. Today, 65% of the hotel’s business is convention business and 35% are leisure travelers, Shalit said.
Hall said he believes the hotel’s legacy will be its ability to fulfill the original mission of drawing convention business to Kansas City, not the tragedy that filled a summer night more than three decades ago.
“Its contribution and legacy are the economic impact it has had in attracting convention guests and tourists, which result in spending, which results in jobs,” he said.