A quiet change occurred in the downtown area of Springfield, Mo., in the summer of 2015. In a vote of confidence for the neighborhood, local residents Billy, John and Karen McQueary turned a former Masonic temple into an upscale boutique hotel called Hotel Vandivort, looking to revitalize the neighborhood.
The McQuearys also took a chance on a new GM for their hotel. James “JP” Roberts moved back to Missouri from Florida’s Gulf Coast to take over the reins at the hotel, and while this is his first position as a GM, he is no newcomer to the industry.
Hospitality in the Blood
“I grew up in hospitality,” Roberts said. His mother owned a cleaning business and he helped her from an early age. At age 10, he was working in a local restaurant, helping out in the prep kitchen. By the time he was in high school, he was promising himself that he would never get into hospitality. “The thing about our industry is that if you want to grow, it’s a lot of hours. It’s a demanding schedule. Seeing my mom work as hard as she did—my thought was that there must be an easier path.”
But once hospitality is in your blood, Roberts said, it doesn’t go away. He began looking into other fields within the industry, including sales and marketing, financing and accounting. He attended college in St. Louis, working as a valet at a hotel before transferring to the University of West Florida to study accounting and hospitality. This education, he said, has helped him become a better manager. “A lot of it is analytics and data driven,” he said. “A numbers background helps.”
After graduating from the university in 2008 with a degree in hospitality management, Roberts served in various leadership and executive roles at several properties, including the Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village in Destin, Fla.; Hotel Duval in Tallahassee, Fla.; and Wyndham Vacation Resorts in Destin and Panama City Beach, Fla. And just as he was planning to leave Florida and move to Savannah, Ga., a headhunter called with an offer to manage a hotel in the Midwest.
Having left Missouri at 21, Roberts had never expected to return. But once he met with the McQuearys, he was sold on the project. “I saw how passionate they were about the downtown area and about doing something for the community,” he said. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever been in.” Thus convinced, he passed up the Southern warmth for Midwest winters—but gained a unique experience.
Until recently, downtown Springfield was a place that most people avoided, Roberts said, and it had few hotels. “Investing downtown was a huge risk.” But the McQueary family was willing to spend “substantial money” in a market that didn’t have a boutique hotel, acquiring the former Masonic temple and launching a gut renovation that lasted for more than two years.
Roberts recalled talking with the owner of the contracting company that put the hotel together. “He said it was the most challenging thing they’d done—and they were building a hospital at the same time.” Rather than renovate, the McQuearys could have gone ground-up to create their hotel, Roberts said. “It would have been easier and cheaper, but wouldn’t have the character and the history.”
Having worked in large-scale hotels, Roberts is happy to be in a smaller property. “One of the things I like about boutiques is that you get to create the image and the culture you want,” he said. “You create the voice and the brand. Thinking outside the box helped lead to that autonomy.” And being the first in the market let the team set a standard. “After that, people start to imitate,” he said.