By MIKE HANKS
If there’s an opportune time to buy a celebrated landmark in Bloomington’s hospitality industry, the middle of a pandemic probably isn’t it.
Nonetheless Bloomington’s DoubleTree, the longstanding hotel tower at the junction of Interstate 494 and Highway 100, was purchased during the summer by Vinayaka Hospitality, a Chicago-area real estate company that owns several hotels and commercial office buildings. Those holdings are in the Chicagoland area. The DoubleTree is the company’s first foray into Minnesota’s real estate market.
The acquisition was completed weeks ahead of the hotel’s 50th anniversary, a major event that Michele Robidoux remembers well.
Robidoux, of Hopkins, has worked at the hotel through all its incarnations. It opened in September 1970 as a Radisson, and Robidoux had been working at Interlachen Country Club in Edina. Her dream was to see the world while working on a cruise ship, and she was prepared to chase that dream. But she postponed her plan when she accepted an invitation to join the new Bloomington hotel’s banquet staff, she recalled.
Robidoux was there on opening night, Sept. 26, 1970, as the hotel hosted a banquet for more than 1,000 guests, featuring entertainment by Broadway star Carol Channing. The gala was a fundraiser for the Boys Clubs of America, known today as Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Robidoux had one of her many celebrity encounters that night, she said.
In an era when bottled water was uncommon, Channing asked Robidoux to bring her a glass of water. She obliged, much to Channing’s appreciation. Channing responded with, “Thank you, darling,” Robidoux noted. “I remember it so well.”
Mingling with celebrities while working banquets at the hotel became a regular occurrence, according to Robidoux. One of her favorite encounters was with actor Bill Murray approximately 25 years ago.
Murray was attending an event honoring former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Ahmad Rashad. Wine and beer were being served during a reception, but Murray wanted a martini, and called Robidoux over to his table. He asked for the biggest martini she could find, Robidoux said.
Worried that she would be unable to fulfill his request, Robidoux spoke to her manager, who arranged for a martini to be sent up from the main bar. Murray would repeat the request, and after his third martini, he was chatting away with Robidoux, and posed for a picture with her, she explained.
Two decades later, Robidoux was fortunate to get a ticket to the 2016 Ryder Cup’s celebrity match at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska. Murray was playing, and Robidoux brought large prints of her pictures from their earlier meeting, which Murray signed. Murray – not one to miss a comedic opportunity – quipped, “it was over last night,” after signing one of her photos, Robidoux recalled.
The DoubleTree became a Sheraton after more than three decades as the “Radisson South,” before being acquired by the Hilton brand. Robidoux has been there through it all. She remembers the lounge and dance floor on the hotel’s 22nd floor, a once popular nightlife destination. “Ride up and have the time of your life,” she said.
She took time off during the ‘70s for the birth of her two daughters, and switched to part-time after her second daughter was born in 1976. But she kept with the job throughout the decades, and was named to the Hospitality Hall of Fame during the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau’s 2017 Diamond Service Awards.
She marked 50 years at the hotel this fall, and did so from the sidelines, where the coronavirus pandemic has kept her since March. At 75, she still gushes with enthusiasm for her job, and would like to return for at least a few shifts to personally satisfy her goal of 50 years on the job, a job that turned out to be a perfect fit for her personality. So much so that she “Forgot all about that ‘Love Boat.’ I enjoyed myself so much.”
The 568-room DoubleTree, the largest hotel in Vinayaka Hospitality’s portfolio, had been for sale months prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has dramatically reduced hotel occupancy at hotels across Bloomington, and has temporarily halted the convention and trade show industry, which has historically provided significant traffic at the DoubleTree. Vinayaka Hospitality bought the hotel for $26 million, according to Komal Patel, a member of the Vinayaka Hospitality ownership group.
The purchase had been negotiated prior to the pandemic. The sudden, sharp drop in demand for hotel and convention space at DoubleTree put the sale on hold, but the deal was eventually sealed. Patel acknowledges Vinayaka Hospitality acquired the property at a good price, and with the intention of investing significantly after the fact. “Our goal with it is to bring it back to its original glory,” she said.
Linda Dragt, DoubleTree’s general manager, said the investment budget of $35 million represents “The commitment to get it to where it needs to be, and beyond, when we look at hotels in the area.”
Dragt has worked at the hotel for four years, and is well aware of its significance to Bloomington, and far beyond. Between the sale of the property and its milestone anniversary, she has been on the receiving end of numerous stories about the hotel’s storied history.
When speaking with a local company representative regarding winterization services for the hotel, the woman recalled her tenure as a housekeeper, which included cleaning the room of two-time Minnesota Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who lived in the hotel for several months, Dragt said.
Alongside routine, seasonal maintenance, improvements both inside and outside the building are planned, according to Dragt.
Landscaping and parking lot improvements are happening this fall, as well as exterior painting and other outdoor projects. The projects will not be complete by the start of winter, so they will carry over to spring, Dragt noted.
Indoor improvements should commence by December. From the lounge and restaurant to the lobby, garden court and meeting space, the building’s public spaces are first on the to-do list, according to Patel.
Dragt expects that convention business will recover as the pandemic reaches its conclusion, and Bloomington will be back on the convention map when it does. The hotel rooms will be renovated following the public spaces, she noted. “There won’t be an area that goes untouched.”
One of the strategies to drawing convention business back to DoubleTree is improvements in the audio-visual amenities, and the hotel will be working with a respected production company to raise the technological capabilities within its meeting and convention space to industry standards, Dragt explained. Having fallen behind in its technology, the hotel has lost convention business in recent years, she acknowledged.
The garden court, which includes the indoor pool and cabanas, will remain a feature of the hotel. Its redesign will be mindful of the groups that have relied upon the space for annual functions, Patel said. The result will be more friendly to large groups and create the feeling of being in a separate building, Dragt explained.
Vinayaka Hospitality’s acquisition of the hotel may not be the company’s only investment in the Twin Cities market. “We expect to be long-term owners of this property,” Patel said.
Dragt expects that DoubleTree will host an outdoor community event this winter to introduce its new ownership and plans for the hotel, an invitation she thinks will be welcome in a year lacking many community events.
Curiosity about the evolution of Bloomington’s storied hotel may be enough to entice the community. “We have a lot of plans for the property to pique their interest,” Dragt said.
Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.