|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 16, 2010 --An Orlando hotel that fared poorly during a recent network-television reality show was in foreclosure even before the TV episode was shot and is now set to be sold at a court-ordered auction next month.
The Econo Lodge Inn & Suites on International Drive was already in trouble with its lenders when the production crew from the CBS television show "Undercover Boss" showed up in May. The episode's premise was that Steve Joyce, president and chief executive officer of Choice Hotels International, was going "undercover" as one of two people competing for a job within the company, which is a giant hotel franchiser with more than 6,000 locations worldwide.
The 672-room hotel at 8738 International Drive -- the biggest Econo Lodge in the world -- sits just off Interstate 4, its blue-and-white eaves visible to passing traffic. By the time the show aired on Sept. 26, the 25-year-old hotel was being run by a court-appointed receiver who had taken over the property in February.
Just last week, an Orlando judge issued a final judgment for more than $26 million and ordered the hotel to be auctioned Nov. 1.
The hotel's financial problems were not mentioned during the September TV broadcast, but some of its more visible problems were aired: As Joyce scrubbed the pool and plunged toilets alongside a longtime maintenance worker, for example, he discovered that the roof leaked "only when it rains" and that guests were regularly locked out of their rooms because of faulty door handles.
The televisions in the guest rooms, he was told, had not been replaced since at least 1994.
"There's a lot of issues with this hotel; there's a lot of work that needs to be done," Joyce told the camera crew. "When guests can see that the hotel's not being maintained, that's going to drive down the business. We've got to make sure we're doing everything we can to get these hotels in shape."
When his true identity was disclosed to employees, Joyce demanded a turnaround in the hotel's performance from the property's general manager, who noted that his company had just taken over management of the property. In a way, Joyce has gotten what he wanted.
Since the show aired, the hotel has replaced the door locks, fixed a hole in the wall and started replacing the roof, said Heather Soule, a spokeswoman for Silver Spring, Md.-based Choice Hotels. The hotel's management declined to comment on the improvements, but Choice Hotels said the franchise property does well on customer-feedback surveys.
"The guest scores are always above brand average," Soule said. "They have not failed anything, or they would not be operating as a Choice Hotel."
The hotel's previous owner, Southeastern Income Properties, has had a rough history. In July 2008, the hotel was sued by Best Western International, which claimed it was owed more than $270,000 in franchise fees. Southeastern submitted a counterclaim against Best Western. In 2009, Southeastern filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, and the Best Western case was dismissed two months ago after nearly two years of litigation.
The same episode of "Undercover Boss" featured a second local hotel: the Comfort Suites Downtown near Florida Hospital, notable for its hospital-clean interior and its guest relations. Joyce, while working there, discovered that an enthusiastic housekeeping manager considered advancement within the company beyond her reach because she couldn't afford management training. Joyce later had the company pay for her executive training.
Despite the image it projected during the TV show, the I-Drive Econo Lodge draws above-average scores when guests are asked how likely they are to recommend the hotel or asked about its overall condition -- both key indicators of customer satisfaction, Soule said.
The hotel is currently looking for new ownership, she added.
According to a recent report from the court-appointed receiver, the hotel filled 69 percent of its rooms on an average night in July, while competing hotels reported 76 percent occupancy. Even though it's a Universal Orlando partner hotel, and in July was in the midst of the frenzy surrounding the opening of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the hotel was charging an average daily rate of $36.41 -- below the average for other budget properties.
While the hotel's physical attributes didn't shine during its nationwide exposure on network television, its employees did.
Ricardo, the maintenance worker who trained Joyce, disclosed he was working two jobs, seven days a week, to pay school tuition. "The little one is becoming a doctor," he said. "I usually say, 'I ain't got no money,' but I've got my kids going through school. And I feel good."
At the end of the show, Joyce provided the employee with a scholarship for his son. He also bought him a golf cart to ease the strain of maintaining such a large hotel.
"When you hear Ricardo's story, and you see the efforts he's putting through, and you think about the sacrifices that he makes -- and he's still in a good mood, walking around with a smile for everybody, you just kind of shake your head," Joyce said. "I'm not sure I could do the same thing and be as happy every day."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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