Burnsville hotel wins top honor

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Nathan Kremer, general manager of the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn, started working at the hotel in 2002 when it was the Holiday Inn Burnsville. (Photo by John Gessner)

Best Western has made complete turnaround

Built in 1985, the old Holiday Inn Burnsville was a shiny new object in a fast-growing suburb, part of the County Road 42 commercial boom that followed Burnsville Center’s opening years earlier.

“To get the banquet space and a restaurant and bar and all the amenities that make a hotel a full-service hotel was something the community very much wanted,” recalled former City Council Member and Mayor Dan McElroy.

But the hotel, in a five-story, two-tone brick building overlooking the junction of interstates 35E and 35W, drifted into disrepair in the 2000s. Further buffeted by recession and low occupancy, Holiday Inn Burnsville was one of a number of Minnesota lodging properties that eventually went back to the bank.

In 2010 it became a reclamation project for new owner Blithe Hospitality Group, which had bought the old Super 8 Hotel in Lakeville and transformed it into Holiday Inn Lakeville and Rudy’s Redeye Grill.

Six years and several million dollars later, Burnsville’s flagship hotel has completed its turnaround with high honors. Now the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn, it’s been named 2016 Large Property of the Year by the Minnesota Lodging Association.

“Customer care — that’s always been our differentiator, and that comes back to the people,” said Nathan Kremer, who came to Holiday Inn Burnsville as a bartender in 2002 and has been general manager of the Best Western since 2013. “A hotel’s a lot of moving parts.”

The award, for hotels of at least 100 rooms, honors outstanding service that exceeds customer expectations, industry leadership and community involvement, said McElroy, now the president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, which includes the state’s lodging, restaurant and resort and campground associations.

The Burnsville hotel is one of two Best Westerns in Minnesota with the “Premier” branding, which denotes the finest amenities and service among the chain’s three tiers of properties.

“It’s a pretty tall order in terms of things like bathroom amenities, granite countertops, the standards for shower and tub enclosures, the standards for televisions and carpeting and finishings and furniture,” McElroy said.

“I can’t think of another hotel in the south metro that’s at that level or that standard,” he said.

The principals of Blithe Hospitality Group are Ron and Jamie Dahlen. Jamie was catering manager at the Holiday Inn Burnsville when she hired Kremer in 2002. He later married the Dahlens’ youngest daughter, Jessica.

“I lead with a sales foot and a customer service foot,” Kremer said. “I’ve done everything within the building. I started off as a bartender. I’ve been a bar manager. I’ve been a server. We really strive to take care of people. And I think one of the keys to anything like that is (organizational) culture.”

After Blithe bought the property, it was renamed the Nicollet Inn for about six months before a deal with Best Western was sealed, Kremer said.

“Those were the wild days,” he said. “But it was also that stuff that brought us closer together in the culture. That’s the stuff you can’t describe to people. I’ve got people here who will do anything for a customer or anything for me, because we’ve seen the bottom. We’ve seen when we only had 15 people in the hotel. We saw what people said about the place.”

Still “at the top of its game” in 2002 and 2003, the property spent subsequent years in decline, leaving many corporate clients “with a bad taste in their mouth over the Holiday Inn name here in town,” Kremer said.

“That’s why we had a lot of work to do,” he said.

The Premier upgrades included cutting the number of rooms from 144 to 131, increasing the number of suites from four to 15 and making the top level an “executive floor” for higher-end clients.

Holiday Inn’s old restaurant, the Dakota County Steakhouse, was refashioned as Morgan’s on Nicollet, and later — with a consultant’s advice — as Morgan’s Farm to Table, which buys from a group of Minnesota farmers. Morgan’s Farm to Table won the Bite of Burnsville’s People’s Choice Award in 2015 and 2016 and the Bite’s 2015 Chef’s Choice Award. It won Favorite Food Item at the Taste of Lakeville in 2015 and 2016.

While many in the community know the restaurant, Kremer said the hotel’s overnight clientele is largely corporate, culled in part from big firms with operations in Burnsville, including UTC Aerospace Systems, Bosch Communication Systems and Frontier Communications.

“The numbers show that about 80 percent of our business is a Sunday-to-Thursday stay,” he said. “And that 80 percent tells you it’s a corporate clientele.”

As a board member of Experience Burnsville (formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau), Kremer is well-versed in the city’s entire lodging market across nine properties, from his to the economy-priced hotels on Burnsville Parkway west of I-35W.

Overall, the city has modestly priced lodging, Kremer said.

“Burnsville, as a whole, has one of the lowest ADRs — average daily rates — of the whole Twin Cities,” he said. “But the reason we have that is because of the mix of hotels that we have. That’s what our differentiator is, too — we’re the only full-service hotel.”

He’s proud of his hotel’s ratings with sometimes unforgiving online reviewers. Users of Trip Advisor have made the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn the fifth-rated hotel among 240 in the metro area and the 11th-rated in Minnesota, according to Kremer.

“Trip Advisor is the biggest review site out there right now,” he said. “That we’ve stayed in the top five over the six years we’ve been open is a testament to what we’re doing.”