30 April, 2006

The Lights Go Out...

It appears we have failed to help Hilton understand what a terrible mistake they have made in time for them to remedy the situation. According to an insider, it's all over and the doors to Fran O'Brien's will be locked at midnight tonight. I imagine that means that today will be spent cleaning and moving out any equipment, so there will be no customers and no meals served.

But there are many, many people who are dedicated to continuing the Friday Night Dinners elsewhere (including Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien), and I'm sure they will be successful in their goal. It won't be the same as Fran's, but it will be something. And hopefully there is a business in DC who understands what a tremendous opportunity is available now. A management professional writes in his blog:

Well if I was Marriot or Hyatt I would be telling one of my Washington DC hotels to find a place for Fran O'Brien's and then offer them a very favorable lease and offer to make any facility changes needed for the wounded vets.

Then just a simple announcement that they are honored to be able to show appreciation to the vets this way. And the only conditions on the lease is that the dinners continue and that they be allowed to help put them on.

This would pay back many many times over with the kind of good press that no amount of marketing money could buy. And at the same time they get to stick it to Hilton.
One more thought: when I spoke to Hal Koster last weekend I asked him about rumors that GM Kelleher was new and was alienating a lot of people (I was mostly referring to employees). He looked a little confused for a moment, then said,"Well, he did the same thing to the barbershop..." At that time I didn't understand what he could mean, but I didn't want to take up more of his time by asking for an explanation. After receiving the email I wrote about yesterday, I think I understand. I'm guessing Kelleher withheld guests' payments to the barbershop, demanded remodeling before a new lease, and ultimately drove the barbershop off Hilton's property.

That idea certainly clarifies some things. It sounds to me like the "new kid on the block" has some big plans for the property. I woulldn't be surprised if he has a new tenant already lined up who will pay big bucks for the space within walking distance of the White House after it's been completely cleared and renovated next year. However, that doesn't excuse the underhanded behavior, and he's been terribly short-sighted by playing hardball with an institution like Fran O'Brien's. A new tenant may initially pay a lot in rent, but there's no guarantee of its success, and as described above, the PR available from associating oneself with Fran's is beyond purchase. And conversely, the bad PR he has created by not being upfront with Fran's is going to hurt the Hilton name for a very long time.

Maybe it really was "just business" after all. But bad business nonetheless. A case study in how not to get a tenant out of your building. I'm still shocked that Kelleher hasn't been fired for how he has mishandled this...

[Background on the Fran O'Brien's story here]