Arts Scene Central to Heathman Hotel’s GM’s Game Plan

Laura Maldonado says making the historic Portland hotel a “portal to the arts” means engaging with local artists and vendors, and turning the Heathman into a hip hangout.

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Since 1927 Portland’s Heathman Hotel has been a staple of Portland’s cultural landscape. Located next to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Heathman saw significant revenue loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, was put up for sale in February and was purchased by Rockbridge Capital in April.

The same month, the group hired Laura Maldonado as the Heathman’s new general manager. On June 15, the Heathman reopened its restaurant, which had been shut down since 2020.

Maldonado graduated with a degree in hospitality management from the University of Puerto Rico in 2006 and has worked for hotels all across the country, from New York’s Times Square to Miami Beach, and most recently the Kimpton RiverPlace Hotel in Portland.

Now that arts venues have reopened and tourism in some parts of the state has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, Maldonado says engaging with local art and performance is central to her vison of the historic hotel’s post-pandemic future.

This Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What originally drew you to a career in hospitality?

My dad loves hotels, even though we were never travelers. We wouldn’t go to New York, but he found ways for us to go on short weekends to little hotels here and there. The one I most remember was the Holiday Inn, which had a bar in the pool, which I thought was such a treat. I also loved getting to go to these glamourous front desks. I had this love affair with the hotel experience, and what it is to be part of this industry.

What is your plan for the Heathman as the hospitality sector finds its new normal after the pandemic?

The community and the arts are what we are really focusing on right now. In the hospitality sector, we think of being very service-oriented, and I think we need to be very experience-oriented. We are creating a space that allows for people to be touched. When you’re in the [hotel’s] library, books are signed by the author. Right now we have the songwriter circle, which brings in new music and storytelling.

We’re also doing farmers market tours with the chef. The restaurant has opened back up this year, after it was shut down in 2020, and now every Saturday we go out and shop the local farmers market for our menu items. And starting this weekend, guests will have the option to go with the chef on this morning walk, and they’ll get to meet some of our vendors. That’s one of the really cool initiatives that we started. We have other concert-related events in the works.

The Flaming Lips are going to be here on August 22. That band has four albums that are intended to be played at the same time, which is hard for the average person to do, obviously. So we are having an event in our library and we’re going to play all four here so people can listen, then see the show in Pioneer Square.

Portland has been getting hit with a lot of news stories about crime and the city’s deterioration for the past few years. How has that impacted how you do business?

I think reputation is really at the forefront of people’s minds, but I think we can be part of the solution. We have to create a space as part of our investment in the community that people feel confident coming into.

It’s going to be big for us to bring in locals, and that means creating a space for them to feel like they can come and interact with the chefs, they can come to the library and have a meeting or a conference call there. They don’t need to have a room. We’re doing a lot more on our social media to make sure that there is awareness that everyone is invited to this party, especially now that we’re bringing back the restaurant, something that was closed for a few years.

How are you incorporating that local angle into the Heathman’s strategy?

We are also using the opportunity to source Pacific Northwest products. Right now we’re testing out the Pacific Northwest cuisine in the restaurant for new takes on how we prepare the dishes to really make local ingredients define what we’re doing. But we’re also not rushing to make decisions until we can really explore what options we have. That goes from big decisions like our menu to little ones, like do we use product XYZ in our minibar in the room? We can make sure it’s all focused on local products or fill it with our generic things. A little M&Ms are delicious, but we also bring in the mushroom jerky that’s locally made. We’ve also done quite a bit of research for our new wine list.

We’re not afraid to go back and find our own way forward. It’s a little bit scary, like anything, anytime you change, but I am super encouraged so far.

The hospitality industry is currently experiencing staffing shortages. What’s your strategy to be able to attract people to work?

I think culture is big. I think we underestimate how much turnover happens if you don’t create a space where people can actually do well and thrive. Focusing on culture means making sure we provide lunch for associates Monday through Friday, for example, as a way to say we’re going to take care of you. It means providing good benefits, and making sure the leadership team understands how turnover stops momentum, and how training new staff is also impacted by it.

How is staffing going right now at the Heathman?

We haven’t been experiencing staffing shortages ourselves. We are growing right now. We just hired a new director of sales to join our team. We are in the final stages of recruiting a beverage director, so we are in the process of growing. In May we opened the library as our first food-and-beverage venue, and in June we opened the restaurant, so throughout that process, we’ve been in recruitment mode.

Since then it has been continuous growth, which is exciting.

If you had to give your vision of the hotel in the next five years, what would it look like?

I see this hotel becoming a portal for the arts. I want to be a space that is not just for important visual art and music but also literary work. Maybe if young poets want to have a space — I think we have such a great opportunity to make that happen.

If I have a vision for this property, it is to continue to grab the downtown market in a way that is heavily focused on the arts, which pulls in literature, hospitality and the arts for the experience of our guests. I think that will take a lot of resilience, which I think is one of the great descriptors of our team. That’s what I see for us.

Correction: A pervious version of this article named the Aparium Hotel Group as the Heathman’s new owners. Aparium is the Heathman’s operator, while Rockbridge is the owner. Oregon Business regrets this error.

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