HOUSTON — An on-premise laundry can sometimes be put in as an afterthought during a hotel’s construction, but when a planned hotel is to be connected to one of the biggest convention centers in the country, the OPL takes on added importance — and is given the opportunity to spread out a little.
The Hilton Americas-Houston laundry covers 17,000 square feet in the hotel’s basement, making it the largest in-house laundry in the Hilton family of hotels, according to Clifton Smith, the Houston hotel’s director of laundry.
Two tunnel washers and other laundry equipment were put into place prior to the construction of the upper 24 floors, enabling the hotel to have an OPL that rivals most commercial plants in size and technology.
Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which caused billions of dollars in damage to the upper Gulf Coast of Texas, the Hilton is lending its support to those working in recovery efforts.
Having remained fully operational throughout the storm that made landfall Sept. 13 near Galveston, Texas, the hotel opened its doors in the days following the disaster to provide housing for Houston’s emergency first responders, meals for the Houston Police Department and shower facilities for National Guard troops.
The Hilton laundry has rarely been busier, now processing goods from some Galveston and Houston hotels in addition to its own hotel’s linen and that of its seven regular commercial accounts.
As the Hilton Americas-Houston prepares to celebrate five years in business next month, its laundry keeps the hotel’s 1,203 guestrooms, two ballrooms, three restaurants and other amenities stocked with fresh linen, plus provides contract linen service to six other hotels in and around downtown Houston. It also services ARAMARK, which provides food-and-beverage service for the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Washing and finishing 625,000 pounds of goods on average each month, the Hilton Americas-Houston laundry compares in size only to a select few large hospital facilities in the city. Central to its operation are the two Lavatec nine-module tunnels feeding four 250-pound dryers.
When working at maximum capacity and efficiency, the system can wash up to 4,000 pounds of linens per hour. Three Washex washer-extractors (one at 125 pounds and two at 275 pounds) add another 675 pounds per hour when at capacity.
“This hotel is a major convention hotel,” explains General Manager Joe Palmieri, who, along with Smith, spoke with American Laundry News by phone only a few days before Ike hit the region. “It just makes good, logical sense to put in a large laundry facility to be able to handle 100% occupancy at peak times for six or seven days in a row.”
Hilton chose to invest in what is commonly a hotel expense to create a revenue-generating department, says Palmieri, who just joined the Houston hotel in January but has 20 years with Hilton.
“This is by far the most well-equipped laundry and most aggressive revenue department in laundry that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s just a wonderful environment.”
The Hilton Americas-Houston is home to the city’s largest ballroom at 40,000 square feet, plus it has a 26,000-square-foot junior ballroom, which translates into plenty of F&B goods flowing through its laundry. For example, the hotel recently fed 2,800 people at one sitting during a major function, Palmieri says.
Much of the hotel’s business can be attributed to its link to the convention center, known informally as the GRB, which has 1.2 million square feet of flexible exhibit, meeting and registration space.
“They need us, we need them,” Palmieri says. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship, connected by two walkways ... Without the GRB, we couldn’t operate successfully.”
STACK THE DECK
With a high-output laundry operation designed for commercial business, it made sense to recruit management with a similar makeup.
Coming from a commercial laundry background with companies such as National Linen Service and Tartan Textile Services, Smith was hired to direct the Hilton laundry just before the hotel opened in November 2003. “I inherited a beautiful operation,” he says. “I was given a stacked deck.”
He also had the benefit of 16 employees joining him from a local commercial plant that had downsized. “I had experienced people, with 10-plus years of experience, from day one. We came in producing.”
The laundry now has 33 FTEs, including production and management, but excluding distribution.
Smith outsources linen distribution to/from Hilton’s outside accounts, but says he’s looking at acquiring a delivery truck in the next couple of months. How close are those accounts? Smith estimates the round trip every day is only about 50 miles.
A 9-hour workday starts at 7 a.m. with sorting of contract linens. The Hilton’s room and F&B linens are typically in the laundry by 8:45. Soiled goods are sorted in the laundry into bags for delivery to the tunnels via an E-Tech overhead rail system.
“It captures all the weight for month-end billing, as well as any kind of poundage info that I send to my customers,” Smith says. “It completely sorts out each class. We change over from one customer to the next, and it captures all that weight. It’s just a real beautiful system.”
The tunnel washers each have a press, lift shuttle and conveyor to transfer wet goods to the system’s dryers. The laundry also has six 100-pound Cissell dryers – three designated for uniforms and three for bedspreads and mattress pads.
Personnel use carts to collect and transport dried goods to other stations. Small-piece terry items are moved to two hopper stations. Two small-piece folders are used for terry bath towels, hand towels, mats and other items.
Workers use two Lavatec ironers that are each equipped with a feeder, folder and stacker. One machine is for large pieces such as sheets, Smith says, and the other is equipped with a table for small pieces.
Smith is proud to say his laundry’s pounds-per-operator-hour figure is “upwards of 130.”
“I really push the sort, and as my ratio of pounds to hours starts decreasing, heading toward that 130, that’s when I’m deciding when I’m going to stop my day,” he says.
Four “linen runners” transport linen to 17 guest floors of the hotel each day.
“We do have the speed, and we typically don’t have to keep a lot of pars, because we’re able to come in and run enough to satisfy the rooms and the food-and-beverage world in one particular day. Depending on their demand, we can really push that linen through.”
And the demand was never higher than just after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and created the laundry’s first big test.
The Hilton Americas-Houston was responsible for washing all of the clothing and linens for displaced New Orleans residents who were housed at the GRB, plus processing and cleaning all laundry trucked to Houston from New Orleans-area Hilton properties, while still maintaining its normal workload.
“We felt good supporting New Orleans during that real trying time,” Smith says. “For a month to six weeks, we were running a truck over to the convention center every 2-3 hours picking up clothes.”
Each person’s clothes were separated into mesh bags for washing. The twist tie holding each bag closed was numbered so the laundry could ensure the clean goods were returned to their rightful owners.
Another truck transported linens to and from the Hilton Riverside, the airport Hilton and the Doubletree in New Orleans, Smith says.
“It let you know that we did have more capacity,” he says. “At a time when we thought we were stretched to our limit, we handled it. Now that we’ve been through that, we really can handle anything.”
But while the Hilton Americas-Houston team witnessed the wrath of Katrina from a distance, Ike was much more personal.
As of mid-September, parts of downtown Houston were littered with glass from broken windows of high-rise buildings, according to Tere Perry, the hotel’s public relations manager, and some 1.6 million CenterPoint Energy customers remained without power, including some only a few blocks from the hotel.
“We are on the opposite side of downtown and as a relatively newly built building among other newer buildings, we weathered the storm remarkably well,” Perry writes in a Sept. 18 e-mail.
“We are one big family here, and everyone is pulling together to support one another,” Smith writes in another e-mail the same day. “Most of us have been without power for days, some without water, and, yes, some have suffered damage to their homes, but we have managed to find the strength to come in and support this area. We have a great team with huge hearts.”
It’s just the latest instance of the Hilton Americas-Houston laundry coming up big.