The Bricton Group, a Chicago area-based hotel development and management company, embarked on its first project in Texas in 2019 when it bought a nearly 30-year-old Holiday Inn near the airport and closed it with plans to transform it into a new hotel.

In April, the 11-story building reopened as the Marriott San Antonio Airport — after the company spent $25 million on renovations and after the COVID-19 pandemic put construction on pause for 10 months.

It now features a spacious lobby with swanky furniture and generous amounts of sunlight and colorful artwork, as well as a cocktail bar with a wall of windows that can be retracted at the touch of a button to let in the breeze from an outdoor swimming pool.

The hotel also boasts a new fitness center and coffee shop, refurbished guest rooms and a VIP lounge reserved for frequent guests of Marriott hotels. The guest rooms on the building’s second floor were replaced with meeting space. The hotel now offers 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms.

“This was all gutted, completely gutted, down to studs. Walls were taken out. The ceiling was taken out,” said Mark Vilagi, the hotel’s general manager. “To me, this lobby experience rivals any of the hotels in the downtown market that I can remember.”

Vilagi got his start in the hospitality industry as a 20-year-old parking cars at a River Walk hotel. After working his way up through management positions at various local hotels, he joined Bricton in January 2020 to lead the Marriott San Antonio Airport. He is chair-elect of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association, a local group that advocates for the industry.

The hotel recently launched a collaboration with SAY Sí, a local arts nonprofit focused on children and young teens, in which it will display high school students’ artwork, including a mural in its outdoor terrace.

Vilagi recently sat to discuss the hotel’s history, the industry’s ongoing staffing problems, and the hotel’s performance since it reopened. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Did you set out to have a career in the hospitality industry?

A: No. I got the first job. I ended up having a passion to serve, and went on from there. At the Hotel and Lodging Association, we really are trying to help bring that educational aspect to the schools that have hospitality programs — to understand that you don’t actually have to have a degree to get in this business to be successful. You just have to want to be able to do what you gotta do to be successful. It is a sacrifice. It’s long hours. It’s hard work. But for some of us, it’s been very rewarding.

(The association) has what’s called “adopt a school.” Now that we’re open, … my next target is to find a school to adopt, and then find those graduating seniors that want to consider a job in the hospitality field.

Q: What pitch would you make to students?

A: Every day is an exciting day. Every day it’s something different. You name it, I’ve seen it, whether it be good or bad, right? But at the end of the day, it’s always been fun for me. I’ve been able to grow a career and work through all different aspects of a hotel. I don’t think people really realize that, especially in a full-service (hotel), you’ve got all these different departments you work in. You have a front office, you have accounting. You have housekeeping. You have culinary. You have an event team. You have a banquet team. You have an engineering team. All these teams together make the hotel work.

Q: How old is this hotel?

A: The hotel was built in ’81. In ’84, they added on what was called the North Tower. It was basically 90 rooms they added on. That put them over 400 rooms, and 400 rooms in this market is kind of a tough amount of rooms to have, because you need a lot of demand.

Q: Was that part of the reason Bricton replaced the second-floor guest rooms with meeting space?

A: Yeah, I think so. I mean, being a hotelier and being from San Antonio, you don’t have a huge number of hotel rooms in this market. It gets hard to fill up that many rooms consistently. It’s great to have it when that peak time hits, but you want to consistently fill up that hotel, maximize your revenue.

Q: Did you bring in your staff members from other hotels, or are they new to the industry?

A: My executive committee all had hotel experience. We together have over 450 years of hotel experience, which is great. To me, that was key, because from my experience, new hotels typically have a lot of turnover, especially in the first six months. I wanted to try to reduce that as much as possible and create better retention. By hiring leaders that have strong experience in the market, I feel they also have strong experience with their associates and can create a better work environment, better retention.

Q: Is it still hard to find staff?

A: I think it’s very tough for all of us. I think it’s gotten better in a sense that post-COVID, right up the chute, they were still getting benefits from the government, so nobody wanted to work. Once that went away, slowly but surely, it’s been coming back. And that’s been great. I say we’ve been fortunate. I have almost 100 employees. Originally, if I was a full hotel, I’d have maybe 120. So that 100 right now is great. Now, it’s a matter of just keep training them, keep retaining them and keep our guests happy.

Q: What do you do to attract employees?

A: We’ve used all avenues. We can post jobs on Marriott.com, and that’ll translate to Indeed. There’s Craigslist, there’s flyer program, whatever we can do to get out there and get visible — word of mouth, chamber meetings, association meetings. You know, we’re all vying for the same thing. How many hotels do you have just on this side (of Loop 410)? You got from Pear Tree to Drury to Drury Plaza, Holiday Inn Express. The list just keeps on going. On the other side, you have another six hotels. So we’re all trying to do the same thing. Then it becomes more of ensuring that your pay is competitive for the market. And what kind of benefits do you offer as a company? Do you have any sign-up bonuses, referral bonuses, things like that.

Q: How do you feel about the state of the hospitality industry?

A: From a labor standard, it’s been tough, but I think it’s getting better out there. It’s great for the associates because you see an increase in wages throughout everything, not just hospitality. From a travel aspect, I’m just excited because in San Antonio, and Texas, you wouldn’t think we’re going through COVID at times. People were still traveling, still getting out. Compared with other states and other markets, we’re doing really well. Our hotel’s just opened up, so we’re starting to see our occupancies grow with word of mouth. So we’re excited. We know we’re going to have some strong results here.

Q: You’re happy with the demand so far?

A: I think everybody wants a little bit more, but I will say that on Memorial Day weekend, we hit about 85 percent occupancy, which is great. So we know it’s there. We know it’s coming.

Q: Do you know what portion of your guests are business travelers versus tourists?

A: We are mainly a business traveling hotel during the week. We kind of have two stages. The Monday-through-Thursday is more of the business traveler stage, and then Friday and Saturday comes the family-leisure travel stage, checking out on Sunday. Now, do you get some leisures during the week? Of course you do. Do you get some business on the weekends? Sure you do. But predominantly, during the week, it is our business traveler, which is great to see that piece coming back — especially the corporate aspect, because in the hospitality field, the one area that has been the hardest to come back has been your corporate field because they’ve learned to work from home. They’ve learned how to use Zoom. They’ve learned to use (information technology) versus travel.

Q: What about hotels in the airport region versus in other regions, such as downtown? How do their performances compare?

A: I don’t have the detailed metrics on that. Downtown will always fare a little bit better because it’s downtown. But what we saw post-COVID was, until the group dynamics started coming back, they only fared better in the weekends and they were dying during the week to get business in. Whereas with us, we were kind of faring better throughout, because people can stay here and not pay the $50 a night for parking. And the accessibility you have from this location to downtown, to La Cantera, to the Rim, to (Six Flags) Fiesta Texas, it’s a pretty easy location. And to think you can get back and within five minutes, you’re back at the airport.

Q: Tell me about your partnership with Say Sí.

A: In the hotel business, community outreach is important. We always want to help the community. In different hotels I’ve had, we’ve done it different ways. Marriott is a big supporter of the Children’s Miracle Network.

For us, we wanted to go to another level, and Say Sí was something we thought was really cool because it can help promote the artwork of the children. We have some areas that we’re gonna designate where we’re going to put their artwork up in the building.

Q: Why is community outreach important for a hotel?

A: You know, we’re not just here to serve guests; we want to be able to be a staple for our community and let them know that we care. We’re going to create the jobs. We’re going to support community outreach efforts and then take care of our guests who come in. We want to be good ambassadors to everyone. We want them to feel like they’re important to us.


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