The father-and-son team of Bob and Steve O’Loughlin is going non-stop, working to create or redesign the next the next big St. Louis hotel ‘experience.’ In the past couple of years, the tandem has been even more successful than usual. The highlights include opening the hugely popular Three Sixty atop their Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark and re-energizing the storied Cheshire Inn. At the same time, they made major purchases: Among them, the Marriott St. Louis Airport, Westport Plaza and one of the crown jewels of St. Louis, Union Station—yes, Union Station!
The O’Loughlins are on a roll, to say the least. In December, they brought back to life even more of The Cheshire’s charm when they opened the basement eatery, Basso. I walked down the long, winding stairway that leads to the restaurant and bar, which is built under what was once a conference room adjacent to the main hotel. Bob and Steve stood near the large roaring fireplace, laughing with guests and relishing in the warm atmosphere of the space. This room hadn’t seen this kind of life in years! The place was buzzing: the kitchen staff worked in full view of the diners and an in-house wine expert made the rounds to every table. Already, Basso seems to be on its way to becoming another St. Louis institution.
The O’Loughlins don’t just buy and refurbish hotels, they buy iconic landmark properties whenever they can. Like many of their projects, The Cheshire had fallen on hard times; and the inn that once hosted thousands of prominent St. Louisans for generations was lifeless, as if its time had passed. But in Bob O’Loughlin’s opinion, it was the perfect time to buy. “We’re nice guys, and we’re opportunistic,” he explains. “When the economy goes down, that’s when we buy. It’s much like the Warren Buffet theory, and that’s how we’ve accumulated all of our hotels.” Bob says it seems they get a call every time a hotel goes up for sale in St. Louis. “We take a look, and we end up buying it. That’s kind of the way it works out.”
Bob is the chairman and CEO of Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM). His 45-year-old son, Steve, is the president and COO. The elder O’Loughlin handles the buying, financing and investors, while Steve is in charge of the day-to-day operations. Steve has worked in hotels since he started high school at Mehlville, and has done everything from maintenance to kitchen work to the front desk. He says he always intended on following in his father’s footsteps, and those have become some pretty big shoes to fill. “My dad’s gift is buying things right and buying iconic places, and we are either really lucky or really good because it seems like everything we buy has turned around and been very successful.”
Steve joined his father and the management team at LHM in 1997; and since then, Bob says it’s been a 24/7, 365-days-a-year American dream. “Steve and I have talked about it several times, and I’ve said to him, Do you really believe what we’re doing?” And that dream isn’t lost in Steve’s mind, either. “I step back and appreciate the fact that I’ve got a front row seat to everything that’s going on,” he says.
Next up is by far their most dramatic project yet: historic St. Louis Union Station. This is where the world—quite literally—passed through on its way to the World’s Fair in 1904, and where countless troops said their last goodbyes during two world wars. It was a mega transportation hub for the nation and a monumental symbol in design and function of St. Louis’s role as the Gateway to the West. The trains stopped using the terminal in 1978. In 1985, a $150-million-dollar renovation transformed Union Station into a retail center and hotel; but 10 years later, its run as a hot spot came to an end. Last year, LHM moved in and bought the entire package, everything from the clock tower to the train sheds.
Plans are now in the works for Union Station’s next rebirth. We’re told the 539-room hotel will get a makeover, including the addition of a large exhibition hall to increase convention business, as well as the expansion of office space and modifying the existing retail space. Bob even has plans to bring back the excursion trains. Steve, meanwhile, has his sights set on the majestic Grand Hall. “We want to do an iconic bar in there, something that would look reminiscent of St. Louis in the 1920s,” he says. “We want it to be a place where you’ve got to go to have this great experience.”
You can almost see the wheels turning. I have a feeling the ‘experience’ he and his dad come up with is going to be something big.