Alex Moczwan’s Suite Life: The Tale of TC’s Hotel Titan

Despite its glass walls, tile floor and the buzz of summer traffic along US-31 just beyond the parking lot outside, the lobby of TC's Best Western hotel is quiet. Water trickles softly over the rock in a small fountain sculpture. The noise of passing cars is muffled to a quiet hum. It's soothing in here. Sunlit. A place you'd maybe like to stay awhile.

Just behind the lobby desk, through an unmarked door, is a narrow hallway. It veers into a cramped, dark, significantly less inviting room where a printer whirrs away excitedly. It is the hotel's administrative office. The war room, you might say. Or, the aftermath.

Brass lamps that have lost their shades lay sideways on shelves. The shelves are stacked with spare sheets, piles of pillows, blankets, cleaning supplies, and boxes and bags holding mysterious contents. Crates of Doritos and potato chip snack packs squeeze in amongst spare light bulbs and spools of plastic bags. Binders and papers-stacks and stacks and stacks of paper-teeter in piles on spare nightstands and desks. Standing in the far corner of the office, hunched over the murmuring printer with his hands outstretched, is Alex Mowczan.

Well over 6 feet tall and wearing a dark suit whose visible weight and sheen suggest both wealth and a personal tailor at work, Mowczan cuts an intimidating figure. That is, until the printer spits out Smith Travel Research's daily indexes for the month. The report pits the four hotels Mowczan owns against comparable hotels in Traverse City. And when Mowczan thumbs through the pages, he giggles like a delighted grandmother.

"Look," he exclaims, his voice rising in pitch as he points to a line of numbers. "We're kicking ass."

Alex Mowczan (pronounced Mow-chan) isn't a guy generally given to profanities. Courtesy and charm are more his bag. Whether by nature or necessity, it's hard to say. Mowczan is an hotelier. He owns four in Traverse City: the Best Western Four Seasons, the Comfort Inn, Shadowlands Motel, and his latest addition, Cambria Suites, an all-suite hotel that's easily the crown jewel of his kingdom. One of the few hotels in TC to cater to business travelers, Cambria hit No. 1 out of Traverse City's 40+ hotels on the consumer-ranked within months of its 2009 opening.

The hotel is hip – top shelf liquor and local beer at the bar, Wolfgang Puck signature fare on the menu, club-lounge vibe in the lobby – and it's doing something usually reserved for ultra-pricey hotels in high-end urban cities: drawing travelers to stay, and locals to hang.

But Cambria isn't ultra-pricey. In fact, its room rates typically charge no more than $20 higher than its competitors. Often the difference is only $6. Yet Smith Travel Research reports confirm Cambria – a LEED-certified construct outfitted with scads of enviro-friendly bells and whistles – consistently pulls in an average of 40 percent more revenue per month than it competitors. How? Quite simply, Mowczan is a man with a plan.

He's been that man since he was six years old.

"I always wanted my own hotel," Mowczan says. Always? "As far back as I can remember," he answers. He sits on the opposite side of a long, polished conference table in Cambria's meeting room, fidgeting with one of the pens and pads laid at the same precise angle in front of each high-backed chair.

Back in the 70s, he says, when Shelde's was still a Mr. Steak and most of the lodging options lining US-31 along the bay were squat Mom 'n' Pop motels, little Alex vacationed with his parents in Traverse City. A Livonia kid, he loved the beach, the bay, the big starry night skies. But most of all, he says, he loved the motels.

"The people that owned them were so friendly and outgoing," he says. "They weren't in it for the money; they loved showing off Traverse City, the bay, their motel. It was their lifestyle, they raised their family there."

His fondest Up North vacation memory: when the owners of one of the motels let him tag along while they cleaned rooms between guests.

Shortly thereafter, Mowczan began his own business back home. He armed himself with a bottle of purple Sparkle Glass Cleaner and went door to door offering to wash neighbors' windows. By age 11, he had expanded his enterprise into winter, trading the Sparkle for a shovel to clear driveways, porches and stoops.

But here's where Mowczan and most kids part ways: Mowczan didn't spend his earnings; he invested them. He saved his shoveling earnings to buy a snow blower. He saved his snow-clearing earnings to buy a lawn mower. At age 13, he realized every hour he spent on a porch selling his services to customers was an hour lost to lawns and driveways – his means to making money – so he hired a crew of neighborhood kids to shovel and mow, and devoted himself to the skills he would spend his life honing: winning customers, expanding his empire, and boosting his bottom line.

To say Mowczan has been on a rocket-solid trajectory of success since childhood isn't wrong. But it doesn't mean his was an entirely charmed life. True, he bought his first house – not one he would live in, but one he would rent out for additional income – with $12,000 of his own money down and without need for a co-signer, at age 18. He would buy two more within the next three years. An only child, he was exceptionally close with his parents (credit one part of his slowly accumulating fortune to his and his father's weekend ritual of scouring garage sales for valuable baseball cards). And he excelled in school. (One of his self-designed high school projects: "How I am going to buy my first hotel.")

Through high school and then college at Eastern Michigan University, where he studied business administration, Mowczan charged skyward up the hospitality industry ladder, tackling every position he could – from dining room supervisor to front desk to a.m. supervisor to assistant manager – at a variety of hotels around Detroit, until he finally landed the position he sought: general manager.

The job, at a struggling Motel 6, where Mowczan was the fifth manager in just a few months, would be a turning point in his career. The motel had been besieged with sexual discrimination and race issues, the staff was frustrated and unreliable, and Mowczan was advised to clean house.

Instead, he implemented a rate structure that added $.25 hourly bonuses when an employee arrived and/or cleaned rooms on time all week, and deducted $.25 an hour if an employee didn't show, or arrived late without calling. "I never had to fire anybody," he says.

Mowczan also experimented with the motel's cheap room rates, raising them – and the quality of service – to a level more on par with his competitors. He empowered his front desk clerks to make decisions themselves. He also gave the 114-room motel a goal: 120 bookings a night. (Guests who turn in their key after only a few hours in the room make the math possible.)

In the first quarter of his tenure, Mowczan increased the motel's profits so significantly that the corporate office soon promoted him to district manager, overseeing all of its accommodations around Metro Detroit. Mowczan was just 23 years old.

He beams as he recounts this tale. Then he pauses. His smile stays put, but his eyes take on a worried look.

"OK, now here's the bad part," he says.

He says this like he's genuinely sorry to have to say this, as if he's more concerned for the listener than the guy who has to tell the story: In a January snowstorm in 1995, Mowczans parents, whom he still lived with at the time, were killed in a car accident.

"That was my whole world," he says. "I had to re-evaluate everything."

Everything – including the one thing he had been dreaming of since he was a six-year-old boy at a beachside motel in Traverse City: owning a hotel of his own. BN

Want to know the rest of the story? Stay tuned to the April issue of the Traverse City Business News and find out how Mowczan gets his mojo back; what he did when his first hotel was revealed to be a bigger problem than he borrowed for; and exactly how he and his staff boosted three of his properties to rank No. 1, 2 and 3 among all Traverse City hotels.