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Welcome to the Hilton Chicago

As hotel’s general manager, John G. Wells meets dignitaries, celebrities and ‘runs a small city’

November 16, 2008
By JANICE R. KIASKI, Staff writer

Election Day is something former Steubenville resident John G. Wells won't soon forget.

The general manager of the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago that has housed every president of the United States since its opening in 1927 said the hotel sold out once presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his election night speech would unfold right across the street from the hotel in Grant Park.

"We picked up two large Democratic parties of over 3,000 people in our ballroom, and we sold out all our suites to top CEOs and presidents of major labor unions," Wells said.

"Once they announced then Sen. Barack Obama as president-elect, the city erupted with cheers. Guests of the hotel flooded onto Michigan Avenue with such exuberance, it shut down traffic," Wells said. "The celebrating continued throughout the evening, and I made it back to my hotel room at 3 a.m."

Wells described this year's election night as "probably the healing night 40 years later" as the hotel had had a not-so-proud moment in history. The Chicago riots erupted outside its doors when the Democratic National Convention was held there in 1968 as protesters of the Vietnam War clashed with police and reinforcements.

But this occasion was celebratory, and yet another occasion for Wells, a 1982 graduate of Wintersville High School, to connect with political figures who have been at the hotel within the past year and a half.

Most recently it was President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, there Nov. 7 when Obama held his first press conference as president-elect.

But the hotel has accommodated others as well, among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and "pretty much all the 2009 Democratic and Republican candidates," including Republican presidential contender John McCain and Fred Thompson, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

Being the general manager of one of the flagship hotels in the Hilton portfolio with 1,000 team members to direct, Wells is accustomed to crossing paths with dignitaries and celebrities.

"Being a general manager, you have to have a passion for this business. It's almost like running a small city. Every day is different, with big corporate groups, presidential visits, foreign dignitaries and major social events," explained Wells, who recently met 2008 Olympian gold swimming sensation Michael Phelps.

"I've also pretty much met the majority of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears since we host their annual fan conventions at the hotel," he added.

"We even have a few movie crews using the hotel in and out. It's quite the multi-tasking job," said Wells, citing movie scenes filmed there including Harrison Ford's "The Fugitive," "Home Alone II," Tom Hanks in "Road to Perdition" and the recently released "The Express," starring Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown as college football hero Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.

But Wells never set out to be in the hotel industry and never had a "dream job per se" either. He was, however, a hard worker as a teen holding down different summer and part-time jobs. He worked as an independent landscaper of six lawns at age 12, worked with his father and brothers in Wells Construction and West End Excavating and was a part-time usher at the cinemas at the Fort Steuben Mall.

After graduating from Wintersville High School, he chose pre-dentistry as his major at Ohio State University, but abandoned that his junior year after a "D" in organic chemistry.

"At that point I knew dentistry was not for me. I remember the day I walked over to the business school at OSU and found out that all of my advanced pre-dentistry classes placed me out of all the prerequisites for business classes so I didn't miss a beat. I chose a major in productions operation management because at the time computers were starting to hit the scene, and my major required me to learn all the different computer languages, which are all extinct now," Wells said.

"The spring of my junior year a friend of mine was working at a local hotel in Columbus. He said there were some hotel valet parking jobs available. I thought that would be better than my previous college summer job as a fork lift driver. I walked into the human resources department and found out that all the valet parking positions were filled. As I was walking out the door, I heard a voice from the back office call out, 'Have you ever carried a tray before?' I said, 'No, but I'm willing to learn.' and that's where my career started."

Ultimately, Wells, who graduated from OSU in 1986, worked in 11 hotels over the past 23 years, living in Ohio, Indiana, Hawaii, California, New York, Massachusetts and now Illinois. Prior to being named general manager of the Hilton Chicago, Wells served as general manager of the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport, the Hilton Boston Back Bay in Boston and the Hilton Tarrytown in Tarrytown, N.Y.

His hotel-staying experience had been limited before then, though.

"Ironically, the only hotel stay I ever had growing up was when I was 5 years old staying in a motel in Wildwood, N.J., during a family vacation. The next time was in high school while on a few school field trips to Washington, D.C., and New York as well as a few motels in Columbus during our state golf finals with the Wintersville High School golf team," Wells reminisced.

He credits a lot of his work ethic and leadership skills to the steel town he grew up in as well as to his parents, Glenn and Marcella Wells of Steubenville. They "worked tirelessly hard raising six children, were dedicated to their faith and showed true love and support to me," Wells said.

In honor of their 60th wedding anniversary, a surprise celebration unfolded Thanksgiving 2007 during a family get-together at the Hilton Chicago's Conrad Suite, at 5,000-square feet the largest two-story suite in Chicago and the Midwest. The suite has three bedrooms and "breathtaking views" of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago.

Guests of the Conrad Suite have included political dignitaries and presidents, top chief executive officers and royalty.

It's also the suite where movie scenes from "Home Alone II," "Road to Perdition" and "The Fugitive" have been filmed.

Wells likes what he does, the fact that it changes day to day, week to week. "The biggest challenges are when we commit to something, and we don't deliver, which doesn't happen very often, but it drives me crazy. I have a very professional team that has the same passion," said Wells, who is a spring 2010 candidate for graduation from Roosevelt University's master's program.

Wells resides with his wife, Gillian, who grew up in the Chicago area. She holds a Phd in education and serves as president of her own company, The Right Direction, a professional education consulting business. She also teaches part time at Judson University.

The Wells have three daughters: Layne, 11; Morgan, 9; and Katie, 7. Rounding out the family is Bernadette the bunny.

In reminiscing about amusing stories related to his work, Wells said the first time he met Hillary Clinton, she was running for the U.S. Senate.

"I brought my wife Gillian as they both are Main South High School graduates. The two of them struck up a conversation, and she requested a family photo. As I stepped in beside her I comfortably put my arm around her waist. I suddenly realized what I did after a few seconds, and I tilted in and said 'sorry about that' - knowing it's a big no-no with the Secret Service - and she tilted back toward my ear and whispered 'that's OK,'" Wells recalled.

Although the hotel business lags behind about six months to an economic slowdown, there remains much about Chicago to draw visitors to the Windy City, and thus to the hotel for a stay.

"Chicago is the capital for cultural events with outdoor concerts, parades and other festivities. I am fortunate that most happen right across the street in Grant Park such as the big July 3 celebration. Chicago has the big St. Patrick's Day parade (dying the Chicago River green), and our Kitty O'Sheas Irish Restaurant and Pub has a horse-drawn carriage for the parade, where I get to surprise my girls by having them ride next year. Even the Pulaski Day Polish Parade and festival is a big day in Chicago," Wells said.

And he'll be there as general manager, ready to roll out the red carpet of hotel hospitality to its visitors, ready to be "the first choice of the world's travelers."

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

 
 

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