It's been through several makeovers, but the Mark Twain Hotel has finally found its calling as a downtown landmark. "The building was originally constructed as a Howard Johnson's in the late 1960s. It was later converted to a Quality Inn and eventually closed down," said Mark Twain Hotel owner Bud Grieves. "The building had been sitting empty for some time-and was even being considered as a site for a new jail-until I purchased the building in 1990. It underwent a complete renovation, opening as the Best Western Mark Twain Hotel in November 1990."

When it first opened, Grieves said the business mainly catered to the predominately leisure market from the nearby riverboat casino, which was then located on the riverfront in Peoria. "When the riverboat relocated to East Peoria, the hotel changed its focus to the business traveler-primarily Caterpillar corporate customers and employees. This forced us to reconsider our whole business strategy to focusing on service and quality. The proliferation of limited service hotels was growing, and we saw an opportunity to distinguish ourselves as a full-service hotel with a boutique feel."

He said the hotel's most recent remodeling is really an extension of its ongoing investment in the property. "In 1996, we set out to be the premiere hotel in Peoria for business or leisure. We started adding amenities that set us apart from the competition-like complimentary high-speed Internet access in our hotel rooms. More recently, we've further expanded on this concept, with new home theatre systems installed in every room, leather reading chairs, wireless Internet access, cordless phones, feather beds, down comforters, complimentary use of the Riverplex, and the addition of an on-site Hertz rental counter. We've also put together a comprehensive plan to upgrade the look of the entire hotel, the hallways, and the exterior. When entering the lobby, you immediately notice our café with Seattle's Best coffee and four flat screen monitors equipped with complimentary Internet access."

Grieves said the Mark Twain's treatment of guests also is unique-similar to a bed and breakfast, but with all of the amenities today's traveler demands. "Our goal is to offer typical travelers an experience that makes them feel welcome, yet still pampered with all of the best amenities. Our goal isn't to mimic the feel of a Ritz Carlton; we just want to deliver what our guests need, and our experience tells us they need an incredible night's sleep, the necessary tools to work efficiently while on the road, and a staff that makes them feel at home."

The restaurant located in the hotel has changed several times, but Grieves said they've found a winner with Pizzeria UNO. "For more than 10 years we struggled with trying to offer a restaurant that upheld our standards, but we consistently found ourselves putting too much effort into producing a product that added no value to the guest experience. We also struggled because we were never providing an experience that could satisfy the majority of the hotel guests; either we were too formal or too casual. When we chose Pizzeria UNO as our franchise partner, we joined forces with perhaps the best casual dining franchise in the nation. In fact, just last year they were named No. 1 for the franchise. The atmosphere in the restaurant is perfect for a boutique hotel, and we're finally able to draw a local clientele. The restaurant operates at three times the volume of any previous restaurant, which leads to much better exposure for the hotel as well."

He said changes in the industry have brought modifications to the hotel, but it was the local market that forced changes now being seen on the national market. "Four years ago, we wired all of our rooms with high-speed Internet access; at the time, we were one of about a dozen hotels in the country. Today, it's being called the single most sought-after amenity in the hotel industry. There are very aggressive changes being made in the lodging industry today. In fact, there's a rule in the hotel business that says a hotel guest's standards are for an experience that's equivalent to or better than their own living accommodations. If the average customer has a 27-inch television with a home theatre and a feather bed at home, then why would they want anything else when they're on the road? Our industry is changing at a rapid pace to make up for years of status quo. Our goal is to continue to try and exceed that expectation for our guests."

The biggest misperception he sees in the community regarding the Mark Twin has to do with the building's history, Grieves said. "For so many years, this property was mismanaged and abused. Not a day goes by where I don't overhear someone walking by my office with the comment 'Wow, I never knew this place was so nice.' This perception is something that takes years to overcome, but we're doing it."

Being among the first hotels in the nation to use the power of Internet in its rooms, the Mark Twain continues to raise the bar for its customers. "We're very unique in that we can't house convention groups because of our size. Our primary business comes from corporate customers and from overflow during Civic Center events. We're always looking for ways to expand our business. Many rooms now come equipped with a refrigerator and microwave, making them ideal for the extended stay market," Grieves said.

He said the most challenging aspect of this industry is in trying to please so many different types of customers. "We can't possibly cater to every type, but we have to cater to every guest. The most rewarding part of the business, though, is when our first-time guests become regular guests. It makes the effort worthwhile."

And while out-of-town guests are the Mark Twain's bread and butter, Grieves said the local community needs to be aware of its hometown focus. "We're the only locally owned hotel in downtown Peoria. We've re-invested everything for the past 10 years into making the Mark Twain Hotel the finest hotel in Peoria. The dollars that go into this business stay in Peoria. As a former mayor of Peoria, I'm optimistic about the future of Peoria." IBI