ANAHEIM, Calif. – The irony was lost on no one.
A hotel with deep roots in Spokane was now hosting Florida State during the Seminoles’ Sweet 16 trip here.
You know who the Seminoles’ first opponent was: Gonzaga.
The Red Lion Hotel Anaheim Resort is within walking distance from Disneyland’s front gate. In fact, it’s closer than one of Disney’s own hotels. It’s been a Holiday Inn, a Radisson and even been shuttered. Yep. Closed.
So, in 2008, Red Lion decided to step in. It was a statement property for a regional hotel company wanting to show what it could do.
The renovation took the hotel almost entirely down to the building studs. It wasn’t just getting a brand-new name, it was basically going to be a brand-new hotel.
Even as Red Lion’s corporate strategies changed — including moving its corporate headquarters to Denver and opting for fewer corporately owned hotels, focusing more on franchisees — the Anaheim Red Lion kept its focus.
It even kept renovating.
That’s why when it was announced that Anaheim was named a 2019 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 host, the process began for the Red Lion to become an official team hotel. But no one expected the team that would eventually move in for several days would have to play the Zags.
The front desk had the Seminoles’ logo across it. The floors had cool NCAA March Madness stickers. A huge tournament bracket was hung in the entryway.
Even the lobby’s Mickey Mouse statue was wearing a Seminoles shirt.
The hotel’s general manager, Rod Hurt, had bought enough Florida State shirts to open a massive souvenir stand … only everything was for his employees. Everywhere you looked, someone was wearing an FSU shirt or hat or jacket.
No one’s emotions were more mixed than Harry Sladich, Red Lion’s executive vice president for franchise operations and sales. He’s the first to point out that though the company’s CEO is in Denver, he and a whole bunch of the company’s core leadership, including its Chief Financial Officer and general counsel, are still based in Spokane.
He also knows that many of those who work for the Red Lion in Anaheim more than understand the hotel’s rebirth was tied to Spokane, meaning many followed the Zags.
“The people who work in that hotel are such pros and have earned the trust of the NCAA, and everyone knew they were going to do it right and take great care of Florida State. But I also know that underneath all of that Florida State gear, some of them secretly are wearing Gonzaga shirts or underwear under their uniforms,” he said with a big laugh.
Hurt saw the transformation firsthand.
He used to run the Clarion hotel right across the street. When they analyzed their direct competitors, they knew their older property was at a disadvantage against the Marriott next door or the Hilton across the street.
But the Radisson was tired. Until Red Lion bought the property.
Then all of a sudden, things changed. Dramatically.
The hotel’s location was always strong. It’s very close to Disneyland. There’s easy access from nearby highways. Half of the rooms in its main tower face the theme parks. The pool area is nice. At night, you can even see Disneyland’s fireworks exploding in the sky while you lounge in the water.
The rooms on the other side of the tower face the Crystal Cathedral, as it was once known when it was the home for the Rev. Robert Schuller and his “Hour of Power” Sunday television program. Now it’s called the Diocese of Orange Christ Cathedral, but either way, it’s still a vision.
When the lobby and rooms were modernized and given some style and sophistication, the place took off.
After a few years, Hurt realized it would be more fun to just work there instead of having to compete with the place.
Its average room rates are lower than nearby competitors, and they have kept their focus on its primary audience: young families.
That’s why a recent enhancement to the Red Lion’s standard rooms included the biggest TVs of all hotels in the area: 55 inches. When you’ve got a core customer who wants to watch the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon in the morning, or maybe mom or dad wants to catch a game at night after a long day hanging out with Mickey and friends, you’d be surprised how much of a difference that big a screen makes.
If you don’t believe that, the next time you’re in Target, ask any 6-year-old which TV they like the best. They’re picking the big one.
These sorts of things caught the NCAA’s attention.
Once it was official, Hurt and his group made sure everyone at the property was involved, and not just by wearing Florida State shirts. When the Seminoles arrived, the entire management team was there to welcome them.
But a lot of the work had already been done. At just over 300 rooms, it’s smaller than where most teams stay during the Sweet 16, and that was an advantage.
All of the hotel’s convention space was prepared for the team. One of the hotel’s biggest meeting rooms became the team’s dining room, while the other was set up classroom-style for game prep. Even though the room was carpeted, tape marked out the exact dimensions of a basketball court.
Most important, the Red Lion folks wanted to keep it low-key for the team. Unless you physically walked into the hotel, you would have never known it was hosting a Sweet 16 basketball team. No signage on the outside. No glaring projector lights.
When the players weren’t focusing on the game or doing homework, they hung out at the pool. Or watched shows on those huge TVs in their rooms.
They didn’t even go to Disneyland.
That made these guests very different than most who stay there.
Outside of the hotel’s close proximity to the Happiest Place on Earth, there’s another reason many choose to stay there.
The Red Lion is a “Disneyland Good Neighbor Hotel,” which means there is a certified Disneyland ticket desk in the hotel’s lobby that is staffed by Disneyland employees. That means Red Lion guests are eligible for many of the same park perks as those who stay at the much more expensive Disneyland Resort hotels, including Extra Magic Hours.
Extra Magic Hours are special times when Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure are open only to those staying at those hotels.
With Disneyland’s biggest expansion ever about to open in May — the “Star Wars”-based “Galaxy’s Edge” — the Red Lion team knows things are about to get even busier.
Not too bad for a hotel that just hosted the Zags’ first opponent in Anaheim.
“I’ve taken some grief this week, but it was totally worth it,” Hurt said. “The opportunity to work with the NCAA like this was so unique and it made us even better.”
Which makes Sladich smile.
“Before Red Lion bought that property, the staff there felt neglected and abandoned,” he explained. “Then they were excited, because their property was getting so much attention and care. We were embraced by the employees because they knew the hotel’s ownership really cared about it.
“They were the belle of the ball.”
Even more so now that they’ve hosted the NCAA’s Big Dance.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.