Managing Director, The Townsend Hotel, Birmingham
Interviewed by Keri Guten Cohen
Photography by Scott Stewart
Steven Kalczynski never flew on an airplane until he was 17. He’d never stayed in a hotel at that age, much less ever thought of managing one. He had plans to work in criminal justice, but a part-time job as a security guard at a Sheraton Hotel in Boston sparked a more than 30-year globetrotting hotel career that led him to the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, where he has been managing director since 2012.
He had just gotten his master’s degree in international business and marketing from Rutger’s University in New Jersey when he realized that’s not what he really wanted to do. He was working at the Sheraton and told the hotel’s general manager he was interested in more. He was guided to the hospitality side of the business — and he fell in love.
“This was the beginning of my expansions to the world,” he says. He was selected for a prestigious Sheraton management training program in Toronto and made his first foray into a foreign country.
He was hooked — both on the hotel business and exploring other cultures. Soon the young man who had never ventured abroad or stayed in a hotel as a kid had leadership roles at hotels and resorts in Xian, Bejing, Mumbai, Grenada, West Indies, Toronto and Doha, Qatar. These were followed by an equally impressive list of hotels in cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C.
During his years abroad, he and his wife, Deborah, and two children always lived in the hotels. His children, now 26 and 21, grew up in China, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Kalczynski’s career travels taught him a valuable career lesson he carries with him at the Townsend, whether hosting a local couple enjoying a luxury staycation or a high-powered CEO on business. “After years of working in many different cultures around the world, I understand that everyone is different and needs to be treated uniquely.”
What drew you to the Townsend?
I got a call in June 2012 from an exec search firm asking if I’d like to go to Detroit. I thought, “Why? bankruptcy, depression.” But I arrived at the hotel and Birmingham and fell in love. We ended up purchasing a home within five to 10 minutes walking distance.
Also, the Townsend is an independent property with local owners. There’s a big advantage for me dealing directly with the owners on a regular basis; it gives me the flexibility to make key revenue decisions. At a chain, there are a lot of levels to go through to change a bar of soap.
The Townsend is smaller and intimate. How is that an advantage?
Here I can really get to know the guests who stay on a regular basis. I’m a very up-front type of person, walking the hotel and meeting guests and going into the restaurant. I’ve developed good relations in the last three years. There are a lot of repeat customers for the hotel or restaurant.
And, out of 220 employees, 125 have been here for 10-15 years or longer — a couple since the opening. They know the guests by name. In little Birmingham, Mich., we have taken this simple concept of using a guest’s name and people return year after year. It’s so simple. People like to hear their names used; they feel special. This is recognition and service in its simplest form.
How do you maintain quality service?
I’m always saying to staff, “What’s next? How can we differentiate ourselves in the market.”
There’s an old British saying about walking amongst kings and Welsh miners. I treat everyone the same. In a normal day, I can greet an important person and have lunch with a housekeeper. As managing director, I am serving those who service others. I support employees so they can deliver what needs to be delivered to guests.
Many celebrities stay at the Townsend. What can you tell us?
I worked at the St. Regis Hotel in Los Angeles, and I’ve probably met more well-known people in Birmingham than there. I can’t tell you who. I’ve signed an agreement of confidentiality. I can’t confirm or deny — or I’d have to kill you. It’s a unique business in that regard.
Proudest career accomplishment:
Having the ability to work in all these different cultures and be culturally sensitive in all of them. Also, to have ex-employees reach out to me who are now successful is a pat on the back.
What do you have a passion for?
I’d say food and beverage and delivering extraordinary experiences. I spend a lot of time at work — 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, plus a few hours on the weekend — to make sure we are delivering what we promise.
Are you involved in Birmingham?
The Townsend is one of the largest employers in Birmingham, and we’re an integral part of the city. I serve on the city’s Parking Advisory Committee. We make recommendations to commissioners for parking expansion. The city is growing so rapidly there is a parking shortage. I also serve on the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce. The Townsend is often the first exposure a newcomer gets to Birmingham, so I’m very pleased to be part of that.
What’s your favorite place to hang out?
Home, during the NFL season on a Sunday, following my New England Patriots.
What most people don’t know about you?
I exercise six days a week for 1.5 hours. Health is important. I’m pretty much an open book. And I’m a chocoholic. NS
Townsend Hotel (248) 642-7900, townsendhotel.com