‘You have to take care of every customer’

Michael Fletcher of the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel is someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the downtown Atlanta landmark.

He should know the Westin. He has worked in the building on three separate occasions.

After 12 years away — most spent at the nearby Marriott Marquis — Fletcher was named director of marketing and sales at the Westin this past summer. He returned to a place he described as his dream job early in his career.

“I don’t know if anyone remembers, but I was here when this building had a half acre of lakes in the lobby,” Fletcher said, flashing back to the Westin Peachtree in the early 1980s. “I still have pictures of that in my office. But that design wasn’t very user-friendly. It was aesthetically cool, but you just couldn’t flow back and forth easily in the hotel.”

Fletcher, a native of Abingdon, Va., worked his way up the hospitality ladder at several hotels in metro Atlanta, including another short stint at the Westin Peachtree in the late 1990s.

While his industry colleagues have moved to other cities to gain varied experience, Fletcher, 51, has spent his entire career in one place.

Atlanta has given him the Summer Olympics and a city that has grown from a regional center to an international player, a growth he has seen from a front-row seat, Fletcher said.

“I could never find a place I liked better than Atlanta,” he said.

Q: How did you get into the hotel business?

A: I was a student at the University of Virginia at their Wise [Va.] campus, and I began working at the Wise Inn, a little hotel in Wise.

I had a great time. I learned a whole lot. I did the graveyard shift. I slept on a sofa in the office and would get up to let people in. It was great. I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else.

Q: How has Atlanta’s hotel market changed over your years in the business?

A: When I started, there wasn’t a convention center in Orlando and New Orleans has a very small convention center. So when everyone rotated south, they came to Atlanta. That’s why Atlanta built so many hotel rooms in the 1970s and the 1980s. Now we have to compete with a lot larger field.

Q: What impact has the rise of cities such as Orlando and New Orleans had on Atlanta’s convention and tourism business?

A: The competition is a lot greater. You have to work harder. I tell my staff, “We have to be all over the client.” There is still a perception that there is nothing to do in downtown Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola have changed that. But retail has been lost, too, in that time. There used to be Macy’s, Lane Bryant, the Limited, H. Stockton, Casual Corner, Florsheim Shoes; all those were right outside the door. It would be great to see that come back.

Q: Does the lack of downtown retail hurt the chances of attracting convention customers?

A: No, but it is something I hope we can change some day. For instance, if someone wants to have a prescription filled, we just got a new pharmacy for the first time downtown in four years. It was embarrassing to say to a guest you have to get in a cab and go to Midtown to have a prescription filled. But retail feeds off retail. You have to have a beginning somewhere.

Q: When you’re selling Atlanta to customers, what do you sell?

A: Atlanta to me is a first-tier business destination. It’s always been about business. If you look in terms of what [Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport] can do in getting people in and out easily and economically. We have first-class accommodations at a reasonable price, even when the hotel industry was booming across the nation and hotel room rates were skyrocketing.

Q: Will the new international terminal at Hartsfield play a large role in helping lure more travel business to Atlanta?

A: The international terminal will alleviate going through customs twice, which is not good for a perception that some have that there are a lot of headaches getting through the airport if you travel internationally.

Q: Are there drawbacks in luring business to Atlanta? I know panhandling has been a big issue for some.

A: I think it’s about attendance. If someone goes to a convention in San Francisco or New Orleans and they have good attendance, it doesn’t matter if they get panhandled. Conventions survive on good attendance. But if the attendance isn’t good here, the panhandling takes on greater role. Also, because we don’t have as large a population of downtown residents, it seems like the homeless are more numerous because they stand out.

Q: With so many hotel rooms to fill and more cities competing with Atlanta for business, how do you stay competitive?

A: You have to take care of every customer. Everyone is up for grabs. Even the annual meetings that you’ve had for 20 years are being solicited. And you’ve got to make sure to thank them for their business. You can never say thank you to your customers enough.