Hotel's cleaners also its builders

Tucked inside all the renovations at the Broadview Hotel is the ultimate cross-training story.

The hotel's longtime housekeeping staff swapped brooms for jackhammers over the past 15 months as Drury Southwest remade the historic hotel into a modern 200-room facility. It is expected to re-open later this summer.

It's a tale of nine women who've stuck with a hotel through years of job-threatening economic turmoil.

And it's a tale of a new owner intent on rewarding that loyalty.

"They've been amazing," said Dennis Vollink, president of Drury Southwest. "I think that it's ended up with these ladies sharing a lot of ownership in the property because they helped build it.

"We wanted to keep them employed, rather than lay them off during the project and potentially lose some of them. I think it's worked out really well."

So do the women.

"I prefer the construction," said Maria Garcia, one of the housekeepers. "Because it was a new experience and something I never thought I'd be able to do.

"For example, tearing down walls and breaking tile with a hammer. Having to use caulking. It was something new I got to learn."

Vollink is right, Garcia said.

"We will always remember and will always know that we will have our grain of sand into the project," she said.

"And when we drive down the street, we will tell our sons we had a part of that."

Changing roles

Broadview general manager Scott Ragatz was intent on keeping the veteran housekeeping staff on the payroll during the year-plus of construction, which necessitated the shutdown of hotel operations.

"The Broadview, and these team members, had been through some very serious struggles," Ragatz said. "These people were very loyal to us. They stuck with us through and through.

"I've been told by Drury that one of the driving reasons they decided to go ahead with this project was the team assembled here and the fact we'd all been through some difficult times but still stood by the hotel. They felt it was very important to keep the family intact."

But to do that, the women's roles would have to change dramatically under the direction of Drury construction supervisor Lew Lewis.

"Just about anything my men could do, these ladies were doing. Oftentimes better," Lewis said.

"Jackhammers, you name it. All the demolition, from wire lath, plaster, metal studs. Anything we were tearing out. These ladies were swinging hammers, busting up plaster. They started on the top floor and worked their way down."

That's not to say their housekeeping duties didn't come into play during the renovations.

"They took everything out of the building. Everything," Lewis said. "Our trash. Trash from the other trades, the drywallers, the framers, the electricians, everybody. Wheelbarrows full of the stuff. Trash carts. You name it."

In a profession riddled with attrition, Lewis said the women and their work ethic were a welcome contrast.

"I can tell you that on this project, and historically in my construction work, these women right here are the best workers I have on my entire team," he said.

"Their loyalty, their willingness to work and the way they show up for work. These ladies have children. They have families to take care of.

"I tell my people that a phone call goes a long way, but these women understood right away it was important to let me know if they needed family time and we accommodated that."

That's a significant change from the "who's here today" world of construction, Lewis said.

"Just the communication alone means the world to me because if someone doesn't show up in the morning — and that happens a lot — I have to make huge adjustments," he said.

"Not only were they willing to work and loyal, but they were informative and willing to do whatever I asked."

That doesn't mean the shifting roles weren't startling — to everyone.

"I really didn't know how it would be," said housekeeper Dora Muro. "But I got used to it."

"I remember walking in one day and seeing someone working the jackhammer," Ragatz said. "I couldn't believe it was Dora."

The value of loyalty

Why trade sheets and sweepers for a hard-hat, sweat, dirt and back-breaking labor?

"Because our supervisors are as loyal as we are," Garcia said.

"It's very hard to find a job," said Elizabeth Leal, a housekeeper. "It was very nice that they gave us the opportunity to keep working."

But Drury officials viewed the transition as a chance to keep a skilled group of housekeepers together.

"It wasn't who were we going to keep," said Bart Pilcher, an assistant general manager of the hotel. "It was asking them if they would stay with us. It was totally their choice."

And an easy one, said housekeeper Maria Martin del Campo, given the need for a job and the new role the Broadview will play in downtown Wichita's rebirth.

"This is going to be one of the best hotels in downtown Wichita," she said, smiling broadly.

Ragatz pronounced the cross-training experiment a success.

"There are a lot of companies in the world that give a lot of focus to team members as the backbone, but Drury is one of the few I've ever been involved in that walks that walk," he said.

"A lot of hotels are seasonal and no thought is given to these situations. Just lay them off and then rehire them when the season perks up. That thought doesn't exist in this company, and look at the results."

No argument from Lewis.

"Let me tell you, if one of these ladies decides they can't work for Scott, they can call me anytime," he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle