Georg Hochfilzer, the general manager of the Westgate Hotel in Downtown San Diego, makes a habit of asking guests how they heard about the hotel.
“What I’ve learned within the last couple years is that most decisions about hotel stays are based on information people get off the Internet,” he said.
As a family-owned, luxury hotel , an endangered species in the United States , the Westgate does not have a corporate chain identity, nor does it have the vast marketing machine such brands enjoy, he said.
While the hotel has traditionally relied on repeat business, Hochfilzer said he realized that to boost occupancy it needed to grab the attention of people who are Internet savvy. And to do that, the hotel’s Web page advertising needed to be topmost on search engines.
Such placement comes at a hefty price. Hochfilzer said he paid a local firm $25,000 for the service. But he’s seeing a healthy return on the investment.
“I’d say we’ve increased our regular business by 30 percent since January 1,” he said. “We’ve also been able to raise our average rate by $30 a night.”
Hochfilzer thrives on challenges, said Lisa Lem, the hotel’s director of marketing.
“In doing so, he’s always looking at the big picture,” Lem added.
Seeking A Challenge
Hochfilzer admits that his appetite for challenge is what prompted him to take a job as the Westgate’s assistant general manager back in 1974.
Built in 1970 by one-time financier and “Mr. San Diego” , C. Arnholt Smith , the 250-room hotel at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue went on the block three years later when Smith’s businesses crumbled before federal charges were filed that he’d looted the bank he owned.
Earl and Carol Holding of Salt Lake City, the owners of Little America Hotels and Resorts Inc. and Sinclair Oil Corp., acquired the Westgate in 1973.
Hochfilzer recalls that when he went to his job interview, he found the Westgate in the midst of “a near slum.” Sleazy bars and tattoo parlors dominated the western stretch of Broadway, and its once prestigious neighbor, the U.S. Grant Hotel, had become a haven for weekly and monthly occupants.
“There were milk bottles on the windowsills of the Grant,” Hochfilzer said, adding that those who couldn’t afford the hotel’s rates were taking up residence, in abundance, on Broadway’s sidewalks.
Nevertheless, the Westgate reminded him of the grand hotels of Europe his birthplace and training ground. And he wanted to restore it to prominence.
“When I toured the property, I was in awe of the splendid antiques, the detail and the craftsmanship that went into building it,” he said.
He was particularly taken with the hotel’s lobby. Designed as a recreation of an anteroom in the Palace of Versailles, it sports Baccarat crystal chandeliers, French tapestries and Persian carpets.
“There was even crown molding in the broom closets, and I said to myself, ‘I have to bring this back.’ ”
Born in St. Johann, Austria, in 1937 to a third-generation innkeeper, Hochfilzer grew up with the knowledge that the small ski lodge would eventually be his to run. Hospitality was in his DNA.
“As a 5-year-old, I’d help carry in people’s bags. They’d ask me to sit at their tables in the dining room,” he said. “And I liked the attention.”
At 15, Hochfilzer’s father sent him to study as a hospitality apprentice at the Hotel Tenne in the neighboring town of Kitzbuehel.
He’d joined the Austrian equivalent of the ski patrol and his father was afraid he was on his way to becoming a ski bum, Hochfilzer reminisced.
The Hotel Tenne was a mountain resort open to guests during the winter and the summer. During the off-season, the interns completed their high school education.
From there he went to England, where he landed jobs as a food and beverage trainee at the Amberfeldy Hotel in St. Helier, Jersey, and later at the Newbath Hotel in Matlock Bath.
Wanting to “polish up” his French, he said he continued his training in food and beverage services at Le Grand Hotel in Paris.
He came to the United States via Montreal, where he had management training for the Hilton Hotels Corp.
The posh Beverly Hills-based hotel chain was expanding at a rapid rate and had extended its recruiting net to Europe. Hochfilzer was an anxious candidate.
“Like many, I very much wanted to come to the U.S.,” he said. “I’d read books about it. I knew that the country’s hotel business was booming, and the U.S. was the place to be.”
When Hilton offered him a position as a catering and convention sales manager and service manager at the Beverly Hilton, Hochfilzer fell in love with California. He was so enamored with the beach and the climate, he said, that he declined the offer to transfer to the company’s Palmer House Hotel in Chicago.
“When I declined the transfer, they put my folder in another drawer,” he said.
But he moved up the hospitality ladder by taking a job as assistant general manager and director of marketing sales and catering at the Newporter Inn. Eight years later, he became the Westgate’s assistant general manager, director of marketing, sales and catering and public relations.
“The Holdings were looking for a unique individual who was European and American trained, and someone who had both management and food and beverage skills,” he said. “Most people that fit the description, I came to find out, shied away from the job.
“They thought the hotel was a white elephant. When I first came here, it was empty. You could have shot a cannon through the lobby and not hit anyone.”
Meanwhile, Hochfilzer broke the news to his father that he didn’t plan to assume the helm of the family business.
“I’d outgrown the inn and the small town of St. Johann,” he said.
Hochfilzer, 67, has left the Westgate twice to take jobs at other hotels. His most recent stint as the Westgate’s general manager has lasted seven years and he has no plans to leave again. Nor does he have plans to retire.
Although the demands of her husband’s job often require late night hours when the hotel is hosting events, Hochfilzer’s wife, Petra, said she doesn’t mind.
“We think of the Westgate as our own,” she said. “We met there.”
As the owner of Ranch & Coast Travel Inc., she said she understands that being a hotel’s general manager is much like being a doctor.
“You’re on call 24 hours a day,” Petra Hochfilzer said.
Between jobs at the Westgate, Hochfilzer’s resume shows that he worked as a general manager at Schwarzer Bock, in Wiesbaden, Germany, the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe, the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, L’Auberge Del Mar Resort and Spa and the Hotel Bristol in Vienna.
Some say that the Westgate’s occupancy rates went down after Hochfilzer left and rebounded when he returned. He won’t confirm that. But he did say that occupancy stood at a money-losing 30 percent when he first came on board, and rose to an average of more than 70 percent a year and a half later.
He also said that he brought the hotel’s rating up to earn AAA’s Five Diamond award.
“We’re now a four diamond property,” he said, explaining that the rating system has changed in recent years to accord the highest status only to hotels whose guestrooms have shower stalls separate from their bathtubs. That is the case in some of the Westgate’s rooms, but not all.
While riding up in the elevator to show off one of the hotel’s newly decorated suites, Hochfilzer asked one man where he was from and what brought him to the Westgate.
“I’m a federal judge,” the man replied. “I come here whenever I’m in town.”
“Wonderful, and I trust you are enjoying your stay this time,” Hochfilzer said, extending his arm to shake the man’s hand.
“Absolutely,” he said.