Back in Topeka: The Rent Every Room Story

The Rent Every Room Story, Innisfree Hotels

Here at Innisfree Hotels, it’s really a big deal to rent 100 percent of your rooms.

Most brands consider occupancy full at 95 percent. But the way we see it, there’s very little effort involved in renting one more room.

Back in 2002, we had a Best Western in Perdido Key with a lobby and two blocks of guest rooms, 50 rooms each.

One had a roof that leaked badly – right over the top of Room 225.

The cost to fix it was $50,000. The hotel room in question only made $12,000 a year.

Simple economics were not in favor of the roof repair.

Still, it rained inside the room every time it rained outside the room.

I wanted to hit 100 percent occupancy, so I cut a piece of painter’s plastic to lay over the top of the television and credenza when it rained.

And you know what? That room sold every single night for two years.

There was a group of locals who knew they could have the room for cheap. If it started raining, all they had to do was cover the TV and credenza. I essentially made a poncho for the furniture, and it worked.

From the day I made that decision until 2004, Room 225 was rented every night. For $25.

At Innisfree, full is full.

We always have the theory that every room is worth something.

One problem we encounter is when desk clerks or GMs say they don’t want to rent it.

But it’s not up to us to determine whether room is rentable. It’s up to the guest.

Most of the time, you’ll find you can get rooms rented.

Even if it’s raining inside.

Bottom line: Rent every room. I challenge people to give me a reason they can’t.

The only acceptable excuse? The guest doesn’t want it.

(Or we’ve run out of painter’s plastic.)

– By Jason Nicholson
Vice President, Innisfree Hotels


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

Back in Topeka: The Family Inns Story

The Family Inns Story, Innisfree Hotels

The entrepreneurial road is always filled with great stories. This is one of them.

The tale of the Family Inns begins with a young guy trying to figure out how to become independent and do something beyond collecting a paycheck.

This is Julian MacQueen, going on 30 years old.

In his own words:

At 27, I was working as a sales manager at the 400-room Hyatt Regency in Knoxville, Tennessee, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space – a premier hotel in the Southeast. I was there three years when I got the blessing of ‘Mother Hyatt,’ meaning they were ready to put me in a Director of Sales position anywhere in the country.

I’ve kind of ‘made it’ … I’m Hyatt material.

At the same time, I had started a hot air balloon company called Aerose. I got a commercial license, and my brother was the Chief Aeronaut. You see, the hot air balloon attracts all kinds of people. And so we meet this guy called Ricardo Lopez.

He’s impeccably dressed all the time, has this amazing Nikon camera equipment and a beautiful wife. She has a good last name in the Knoxville community. You know she’s someone. He tells me he is an international photographer with a Learjet, a house in Anchorage and one in Buenos Aires – and he travels all over the world producing the photography for annual reports for major international corporations.

I’m completely captivated by him, because during college I was the photographer for the Public Relations Department at the University of South Alabama. I loved the dark room. I processed all my own images. And this guy has a business where I can be a photographer. I can have my art and my business, and he asks if I’d like to come to work for him.

What do I do? I resign at the Hyatt. I tell them this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. They say, “Go for it, you can always come back.”

Ricardo Lopez would take phone calls from Nicaragua. I would only hear his side of the conversation: “Send them in. Make the strike. Extract these guys.” He was deeply involved in some kind of military exercise and had a leadership role.

(For some reason, his Learjet was always somewhere else.)  

So, I’m ready to work, eager for our first assignment. He says it’s not that time of year. But in the meantime, he says, I’ve got this side business called FCTS – Federal Communication Training School.

He had set one up in Texas and he wanted to set one up in Knoxville. It was simple – a series of weekly tests that allowed you to train for the civil service exam and apply for work in any department of government. The job entailed taking this course door-to-door in poor neighborhoods. He had a set speech.

Do you want to advance your life? I have an opportunity for you.

So I went from being an international photographer to being a door-to-door salesman of this completely illegitimate thing. You can go to any library and get the same study guide.

Next, he needs me to say I was somewhere at a certain time to the FBI.

He tells me I need an alias. How about Kalabash? It was a tiny shrimp sold by Fisherman’s Wharf, a restaurant chain by Shoney’s.

So I go to the FBI and I testify that I was with him at a certain place at a certain time. And he listens to my story. And it’s all for a good cause because I’m going to be an international photographer, and you have to make these small sacrifices to get where you want to go.

He had totally fabricated this image of himself. (In truth, I found out much later, he was wanted for running guns.) Several important people in Knoxville came together against him.

We go down to Fort Lauderdale to race hot air balloons to Bimini. He’s parading around. He is fascinating. He’s a magnet. People start gravitating toward him. We’re invited to this private resort on Cat Island and flown in a private airplane – little known fact, this is where Sidney Poitier is from, it turns out. We’re staying with the guy who owns half the island, where his family used to grow sugar cane before the Civil War in the States.

Things are starting to happen around me. People are doing drugs. There’s lots of partying, wild and crazy stuff. I’m not participating … I am just trying to figure it all out.

Now we’re at the Castaway Bar in Bimini. Hemingway’s place.

I’m sitting out on the dock when I realize I’m an idiot.

I’m a complete fool, and I’ve got to go home and tell Kim, “This is all over, I’m so sorry.”

I remember getting on a boat. I have no money. I make it to Knoxville. I hitchhike home. Kim embraces me with her usual grace.

After being married for a year, we lost our house and my job, and I started looking for other opportunities while Kim waited tables and taught at the Montessori School.

I’m looking for somewhere else to land. I’ve still got my hot air balloon business (another story for another time) to bridge the gap until I find a real job.

I meet Mike Strickland, a kitchen equipment salesman who has been making a $100,000 a year for several years. In the 1970s, and to a 30-year-old, that sounds like a lot of money.

It turns out he has a relationship with Ken Seton, the owner of Family Inns of America. They have 22 hotels.

He’s worked a deal with Seton to sell Family Inns franchises. He has no hotel experience, but I do. So we partner up to develop hotels and sell franchises. I don’t know how to own real estate. I don’t know how to put deals together. But he does.

We buy our first building. 4,000 square feet. Two stories. Owner financing. I bring in the tenants. Our offices are on the top floor, and the bottom is rented. I own a fourth of a building and the tenant is paying the mortage with his lease payment. What a concept!

So we start our business, Strickland Development. We tie up a piece of land at the airport. We find a lender, but we don’t have the equity. Mike asks me if I know anyone with money.

At the time, there was a huge flux of Iranians coming in, escaping persecution. Baha’i Iranians, political fugitives from the Ayatollah regime. A gentleman who owned Pepsi-Cola for the entire country was looking for a place to put his money. I had the reputation for being an honest businessman in the Baha’i community.

Hotels are good investments. So we meet, and he ends up giving us $250,000 as a deposit toward a future investment of a couple million.

We’ve made our first hotel deal. We’re building a hotel, and I own part of it!

The problem is my partner doesn’t come to work until noon. When he does come to work, he goes to lunch, then he drinks, and then he’s worthless, and then I don’t see him. Nothing is getting done except what I do. I’m doing 100 percent of the work, and he’s guiding me along, but he’s not doing a damn thing.

His best drinking buddy is Ken Seton.

So we go down to Mobile, and I get a location next to the Holiday Inn that I know is doing really well, because I was the night auditor there right after I graduated from USA. I reach out and contact the landowners and they are willing to do a long-term 30-year lease, 100 percent financed. I just need a financial statement to back the deal.

Meanwhile, we take my Iranian friend’s money, stick it in an escrow account, and start working through the development process.

I check the account one day and money has been taken out.

Mike goes on an around-the-world trip with Ken Seton, and now I’m just figuring it out on my own. Ken is his best friend. Mike steals from the escrow account, and I’m responsible.

I ask Mike, “What the hell?” ……… He’s taken the money out to buy cocaine.

I go to Ken and say something terrible has happened.

He says: “You make a very clean break from Michael Strickland, negotiate whatever it is you have to. Make a clean break, and I’ll make up the difference. Then I’ll give you a job. And you can be the Executive Vice President of Family Inns. I have 17 hotels. I want you to fill up all my hotels for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville.”

I tell him: “I don’t want a job. I want to own a hotel.”

He says he will teach me, but I have to fill his 17 hotels first.

I get Mike out and settle up my affairs. I have the development rights to Mobile.

Kim and I move to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and live in a horrible place, a cinder block efficiency. Ken is giving me housing. Kim is making her clothes out of the curtains. We pawn the silver wedding gifts people had given us to buy Christmas presents for the family.

We’re building the Family Inns of Mobile. It’s 100 percent financed by the guy who owns the entire Intersection at I-65 and Airport Boulevard, Mr. Delaney, who is notorious for being cheap and for being a hardcore businessman.

I remember him telling me, “Julian, I like you a lot. I’m going to teach you some lessons. They’re going to be hard lessons.”

He always came with his two sons. We called them the Trinity. His chief accountant had a calculator you punched in and pulled the handle to register the numbers on the tape. She told him there were these electric adding machines that would make her job go much faster. He said, “Honey, if you want to buy that machine and work faster, you go right ahead.” She had to buy it herself on her dime.

So, I’m putting this whole 84-room development together. It’s my first one.

I’ve got butcher paper going around the walls of my office to show a timeline for everything needed in the hotel and when it needed to be ordered and when it was going to arrive. It was about 10 feet long. I put my first Gantt Chart together on butcher paper. Day by day, all the way around so it all lined up. All by hand.

I found a development template somewhere. It outlined every ashtray, every bed sheet.

At the end, I would have a hotel.

We’re in this farmhouse in Pigeon Forge, and there are pigs running around under the floor boards and I’m making phone calls and the pigs would get in a fight and make a bunch of noise.

Still, I put all the numbers down. I gave Mr. Delaney the number.

The number was $1,817,316.00.

He said, “That number is not going to change. I want you to tell me when you’re going to be open.”

Then, he told me when my rent started.

I thought it would be fine because the contractor told me the work would be done. I never knew about the concept of a change order. It never occurred to me the contractor wouldn’t finish.

And Delaney’s watching me set myself up. He lets me do it. Never offered any advice.

I give him the number, and I’m driving home to Tennessee. I have so much anxiety.

I get about an hour out of Mobile and I realize I didn’t carry a one. But it was in the sixth column! I missed it by $100,000.  I immediate find a pay phone and call Delaney.

He says, “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Didn’t you tell me that was going to be the number?”

Now I have to find a hundred thousand dollars.

The finish date of June 1 is closing in and the lease begins on the land and hotel. I’m in Alabama. Kim’s pregnant in Tennessee. Our daughter, Skye, is born May 26. She’s done it all by herself.

Skye is born. I go home for 48 hours. (I remember going to sleep after her birth and waking up 24 hours later. The nurses at the hospital thought Kim was abandoned.) Kim’s parents fill in. I go back to Mobile.

I’ve got to open the hotel, or I am done. All of this would have been for nothing.

I didn’t have my C.O. – Certificate of Occupancy. Who knew there were things like rain days?

I was so naïve. I didn’t know anything.

It’s June 12, and I finally get a C.O. for the bottom floor on the North side.

I go down and flip the sign on after I get the hot water and air conditioners to work. I’m at the front desk. People start walking in because it is the week of the Junior Miss Pageant and downtown hotels are full, pushing folks out to our part of Mobile.

I didn’t have any money to pay desk clerks, so I work the front desk by myself.

The pitch was basically this:

“The beds are in, and we have hot water and AC. If you want a room, here’s your broom and your sheets.”

I fill up the hotel, and our guests do all the clean-up.

I make some money so I could pay my housekeepers, and I rent every room.

We make our first payroll.

We make enough money that I do not have to go to Ken Seton to tell him I can’t pay my half of the rent. This is June 1981, and I’m 30 years old.

I own 49 percent of a hotel!

Later, 1984, I bought Ken out. I kept the hotel for 30 years. It was as old as Skye.

The Family Inns was my first hotel that led to the founding of Innisfree Hotels.

I guess the moral of the story is:

You don’t know what you don’t know … but if you don’t open yourself up to the possibilities, you may not have the opportunity to succeed.

– As told to Ashley Kahn Salley
Lead Storyteller, Innisfree Hotels


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

Back in Topeka: Surf & Sand Cottages

By Mike Nixon (with commentary by Jason Nicholson)

In this chapter of Innisfree history, we add pest control to our lengthy resume.

Long before we were president and vice president of this company, you could find Jason and I dressed in yellow rubber gloves, masks and goggles, wielding barbecue tongs in the middle of the night – so guests couldn’t see us in this comical and frenzied state.

These were the rat raids.

In the 1950s, the Surf & Sand Cottages were an iconic piece of Pensacola Beach, the first rental units available to the public. There were 54 cinderblock cottages, each with one to three bedrooms. They were very cool in the 1950s. By the 1990s, however, they were in a state of varied disrepair. When Julian bought them, I personally thought he was crazy. They were still popular as monthly rentals for locals, but they were worn out, and some needed to be torn down.

But Julian had a vision.

Someday, he wanted to build a hotel on the south side of the road where the Surf & Sand Cottages stood. So we took them over, and I was in charge of fixing them up for as little money as possible, then renting them out for as much money as possible – until Innisfree was ready to build the Hilton.

When the cottages were razed, the rats moved next door to the old Beachside Resort & Conference Center, where the Holiday Inn Resort stands today.

By the time Jason visited the hotel to check in with me, then his Regional Director, our new ‘residents’ had become a problem. So we set upon evicting them, wielding our tongs and a healthy dose of humor.

Speaking from more experience than we’d like to admit, here is our list of how to properly handle rodent infestations:

  • Always bait for rodents BEFORE you tear down a building. (That way, they won’t move in next door.)
  • Stock up on yellow dishwashing gloves, masks, goggles and BBQ tongs – the standard uniform for pest removal.
  • Not air fresheners nor fresh flowers can cover the stench of long-deceased rodents. They simply make the place smell like dead rodents and fresh flowers.

So when you book your room at the beautiful Hilton or Holiday Inn Resort on Pensacola Beach, just remember … it took a lot of hard work (and air fresheners) to get where we are today.


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

‘The Redmont Story’

By Julian MacQueen, Founder and CEO, Innisfree Hotels

In 1992, I bought a hotel I knew I shouldn’t have. In fact, I tried really hard not to buy it. This is that story.

In the early 1990s, basketball stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ralph Sampson purchased and gutted the Redmont hotel, the oldest hotel in Alabama. They received grant money and spent around $20 million to restore it to all its original glory. (It took them six months to go bankrupt.)

So now it was a beautiful, 14-story Downtown Birmingham classic 1930s vintage hotel – marble lobby, grand two-story entrance, columns, big chandelier … the works. All this, just one block from the financial center of Alabama.

I am from Birmingham. I have a strong connection to the place. I also happen to love old hotels and the idea of owning one. But at the time, we were still building Innisfree from a really small company.

I knew there were a lot of emotional hooks, and so did the broker:

“Birmingham is being revitalized,” he said. “You can be part of it.”

“I’d love to come back and be part of this,” I said. “But I’m not in a position to do that.”

Innisfree had only five hotels at the time. We couldn’t take the risk. So I gave him terms I figured would run him off.

I said:

  1. I’ll pay $1 million for it.
  2. I want it 100 percent financed.
  3. I want the City to kick in.
  4. I want non-recourse.
  5. I want a 15-year tax abatement.

And he came back with every single term negotiated.

I walked in to close at a huge long table, the entire surface covered with closing documents. I remember walking into the room, signing all the documents … and walking out completely depressed.

I knew it was a mistake.

It was also during a time we were looking deeply into opening a hotel in a town called Meaux, right outside of Paris, where Euro Disney was built. (That’s another story for another time.)

Back to Birmingham.

The Redmont looked like a scene from the Twilight Zone. As if they put the hotel on ice. It had been closed for three years, yet there was still a cigarette in an ashtray. The kitchen had the highest level of equipment. All the beds were made. It was ready to open the next day.

We closed, I brought in two partners, and we opened the hotel.

We created this very cool bistro called Julian’s, that had the best hamburger in the world – the first sidewalk restaurant in Birmingham. It was also home to the first rooftop jazz venue, which we called ‘Rooftop at the Redmont’. We opened with Leon Redbone, an iconic blues guy. We had a piano that played itself. The place had a very cool vibe, I was super proud of it.

Redbone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. My mom was there. I told her I bought the Redmont, and she started crying. “But you were doing so well … ”

You see, Birmingham had gone down so far. It was the only place in America where McDonalds closed down on the weekends. That’s how empty the downtown was. And we had bought a hotel smack dab in the middle of it.

Several months in, the first day we made money was a football weekend. The Assistant General Manager was counting it. A bellman took the deposit envelope, slid the deposit into a newspaper and threw the newspaper away. He took the garbage out, and he stole it.

Operation New Birmingham was leading the revitalization of downtown.  So we were part of the revitalization, but it wasn’t there yet. The first year, we lost $3,500 a day. The next year, $1,700 a day. The next, we only lost $875. We kept improving by 50 percent.

Five years in, I’m eating at Julian’s bistro, having the best hamburger on the planet.

Trying to make light of it, I said to Harlan Butler: “At least we have a great burger.”

He said: “Just remember, that burger cost you $35,000 this month.”

End of story – we sold the hotel after seven years for three-and-a-half times what we bought it for, and we still lost money.

The moral? Check your emotions at the door. Never fall in love with real estate. That’s the big neon sign. My first instinct was right.


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

An Inspection Story

By Harlan Butler, Past President, Innisfree Hotels

Back in Topeka, before Innisfree was established, we had a hotel near Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. Running that hotel was one of the finest General Managers we could ever have hired. He was young and energetic and made all his percentages – cut costs, understood his margins, was excellent in every way … presented himself perfectly, nice suit, he did it all.

But when it came to franchise inspections, even though this was a beautiful hotel in great condition, he always made bad scores. I would go and look around and think, “This is a winning hotel, why is this happening?”

At that time, the inspectors used to just walk in without notice, and the next morning was your inspection. I vowed the next time I was going to be there. Sure enough the inspector came and I was called. I drove from wherever I was, waaaay into the night to get there.

I arrived before the inspection, and I accompanied the General Manager.

The inspector would go around the room and see things and mark them down.

He’d say:

“This tile was cracked, you need to fix this.”

And our fine GM would say:

“If you think that’s bad, let me show you THIS!” (And he’d lead him to something entirely worse.)

Then he would lose two points instead of one. He just couldn’t understand what he was doing. Somehow, he thought by showing the inspector something worse, it would overshadow the minor flaw.

From then on, we could never let him go on inspections.

We simply had to look at all his positive attributes, and this was one thing he just couldn’t learn.

MORAL OF THE STORY? Focus on the good.


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

The Wedding Cake Story

By Harlan Butler, Past President, Innisfree Hotels

Back in Topeka, at the hotel where I was working for Innisfree, we had the best venue for wedding receptions of anyone in town. It was beautiful. The owner of the TV station’s daughter was getting married, and, as you can imagine, all the press was going to be there. We had booked the ‘Wedding of the Decade’.

To give you an idea of just how fancy an affair this was, the couple was getting married in a Presbyterian cathedral that had original Tiffany windows. Everything had to come from Kansas City. That’s 75 miles away, but it was the only place they felt was good enough. They had hired an orchestra and rented seven Rolls-Royces (all white) to bring the wedding party from downtown to our hotel. They had also hired a woman from a special bakery in Kansas City to make the wedding cake. The flowers had to come from Kansas City, too.

So the wedding day is upon us, and I’m walking around the hotel inspecting the room. The first thing I look at is the flowers … I see the orchestra setting up … I check the gift table. The lady from Kansas City is finishing the cake display, and it’s one of those $2,000 cakes. You know the type. I look at the rest of the room. Everyone is finished and leaving. The orchestra is ready to begin.

I look at the bar. We have two bars, and one of the bartenders is sitting down. That’s against the rules!

I walk over to tell him to stand up, and I say, “What are you doing sitting down?”

And he looks up and says, “I’m eating.”

He’s holding a huge chunk of white cake. My head spins around, and I look at the wedding cake … and he has cut a big slice RIGHT. OUT. OF. THE. FRONT.

I put out a 911 and bring everyone, all of the department heads here now. Just as I do this, the phone rings on the wall behind the wedding cake. The banquet captain answers, says “OK,” and hangs up.


Now the chef comes, and maintenance and the head housekeeper. We’re all standing there looking at this wedding cake.

I say, “What are we going to do?”

And the chef says, “Well … I’ve got some lard.”

So I say get it. He runs to the kitchen and gets his Crisco, and stuffs the Crisco in that hole. We spin the cake around, and later we spin the bride and groom around.

I say “Fire that bartender. You personally escort him out.”

So now we’re down a bartender.

We improvised. I told the banquet captain, when they take that traditional picture of the couple with the cake, “Don’t cut the cake, butcher it.”

The bride and the groom and the mother, they never knew.

And that’s how you have to improvise in the hotel industry in a crisis.


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

‘Back in Topeka’, President Mike Nixon

Reflections from Innisfree Hotels‘ President Mike Nixon

It’s universal that young people barely hear advice on aging or dating or financial responsibility. ‘In one ear and out the other’ perfectly describes this phenomenon. It sounds a lot like “blah, blah, blah” to the ears of youth.

When you are a young man in the South, you understand there is wisdom that comes from those who are your elders. You know they have already done what you are trying to do, and you learn quickly they have simplified the process. So that wisdom is different from advice on living. Boys want to know how to bait a hook so the worm doesn’t fall off. They want to know the process of changing their own oil so they can do it themselves. Southern boys are happy to sit for hours to glean these ‘nuggets of truth’ from Dads or Grandpas or any other someone-over-the-age-of-35 who seems to have the answers to most of life’s mysteries.

Lessons from Southern men often begin with declarations of origin.

“Back in the War, we would …”

“When I was your age … ”

Growing up, we understood these declarations were a predecessor for knowledge and they made our ears perk up and our mouths salivate.

Fast forward to 1994. I started working for Innisfree Hotels and was excited about working for a company that appreciated me and would allow me to become a master of my trade.

Harlan Butler was (and is) a fountain of knowledge. His education in the hotel business was hard won. He oversaw the operation of several full-service hotels in the Midwest, America’s Heartland. Harlan’s stories often followed a failure on my part in some aspect of what I was doing. Or sometimes his stories were preemptive in nature and designed to allow me to avoid a failure.

He would tell me about collecting accounts receivables, how to balance the audit, how to set up banquet rooms for dignitaries, how to prepare for a VIP stay at the hotel, how to keep vendors honest and my bottom line profitable. Almost anything I was facing, Harlan had already done it and could often predict the outcome based on his experience.

Harlan was always available for consultation or consolation and, often, the stories he used to impart wisdom were hilarious. Gut-wrenching, jaw-dropping, rolling-on-the-floor hilarious. And not always – but often enough – his stories about hotel operations started with what I have coined, and much of Innisfree has adopted, as our own personal declaration of origin:

“Back in Topeka … ”

So when you hear this declaration, you’ll want to listen.


In order to have a great future, we must celebrate and learn from our incredible past. The Innisfree Hotels story began in Topeka, Kansas. So when the folks who were around back then start a story with ‘Back in Topeka,’ we know it’s time to listen. These are tales of the challenges, of the laughter and tears that come with building a company like ours. That’s the sentiment behind this blog series, a chronicle of days gone by at Innisfree Hotels – and a map to get us where we’re going.

Meet Our Celebrity Chef Dan Dunn

Pensacola Celebrity Chef Dan Dunn is a casual, easy-going guy and a long time, well-loved Pensacola Beach local. When he’s not working, he’s most likely to be found bumming around the beach or enjoying a casual outdoor feast with his family and the large tribe of lifelong surf buddies.

He launched his culinary career working as a ‘chicken-cutter’ in a local grocery store and decided to become a chef because the evening shifts didn’t interfere with his surfing schedule. Today, he’s the Executive Chef of the biggest and busiest kitchen on Pensacola Beach, which services H20 Cajun Asian Grill, as well as catering hundreds of yearly banquets and weddings.

He’s cooked at one of the most prestigious culinary “performance spaces” in the world – the James Beard House in New York City – with four other local chefs. Being invited to cook at the James Beard House is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered only to the best chefs in the country.

This eclectic collective of Gulf Coast cooks struts their stuff in the Big Apple every year. Invited for the first time in the spring of 2011, they served a Southern Gulf Coast inspired menu that included fried seafood, fresh tuna, hand ground grits, collard greens and blackeye pea caviar. It was obviously a huge hit with the New Yorkers.

Dan says, “Our goal the first year was to represent our region after the oil spill. The oil spill was sad. We thought our beaches and lifestyle might be forever ruined. We sent a letter to the James Beard Foundation because we wanted to get the word out that things were okay here and that people should come visit. The fact that we got invited a second and third time is insane. The first year I was really nervous.”

Dan’s culinary style and southern beach lifestyle are inextricably intertwined. Southern hospitality and outdoor cookouts are the focal points of both his work and the time he spends with family and friends. He reigns like a benevolent dictator over countless communal meals at work, at home and on the beach. Most days, he cooks breakfast for his kitchen crew at the Hilton – usually tacos or chicken fried biscuits dipped in honey butter. It’s not unusual to see him grilling up a feast on the beach with dozens of friends after an evening paddle. He is as likely to invite twenty people to his house for dinner as he is two.

He glides through a kitchen like he’s executing a well-choreographed dance, giving the impression that throwing on a gourmet scratch-made meal for thirty is a quotidian endeavor.

It’s not surprising that friends and neighbors are attracted to him like bees to honey and drop by for meals by the dozen. Dan and his wife Dione are true Southern hosts and create an addictive home-like ambiance resplendent with kids, dogs, and satiated friends.

Dan says, “I think it is always good to start and end the day with everyone eating together. I grew up in a home where we sat down for dinner together every night. It is a tradition I’ve carried on with my family. People open up and relax when they gather around a table filled with good food. Hospitality and entertaining are important to me.”

Dan’s menus are inspired by regional dishes and locally sourced ingredients. He says, “We use a ton of local food at the Hilton including fresh tomatoes and spring peas. Almost all the fish we serve is from the Gulf of Mexico. I also love cooking collard greens and fresh ground grits. I think there is an art to cooking collard greens. You need a big old’ ham hock, and it takes lots of time.”

At H2O, he artfully meshes Southern tradition, fresh local ingredients, and international flavor. One of his signature dishes is jumbo Gulf Coast shrimp wrapped in bacon, stuffed with Gouda cheese and topped with an Asian inspired mango BBQ sauce.

He is a passionate and busy guy.  He runs a kitchen that on some days caters as many as five weddings and multiple large corporate meetings while always pumping out three meals worth of excellent food in a busy restaurant. He still finds time to cook for his friends and family, go surfing and produce a prolific number of paintings. Dan has an art studio in his garage and recently sold his first piece at a local Gallery Night.

He attributes his success to a sincere passion for what he does. He says, “I love my job. I love where I work and the people that I work for and with.”

This drives him to be one of the hardest working chefs in town. Dan says, “I have a good work ethic, and I think that is the basis for being a good chef. My first advice for young cooks is don’t be afraid to work eighteen hours a day and never complain.”

From Mullet Bellies to Multi-Million Dollar Properties

Jason Nicholson’s hospitality career began at the age of 15, when he sat in the heat scrubbing the bellies of a few hundred pounds of mullet with a toothbrush for six hours a day at Rusty’s in Perdido Key, Fla. Today, he is Innisfree’s Vice President of Operations.

Nicholson jockeyed to be promoted to dishwasher, thus beginning a series of promotions that got him where he is today. In May 2015, he became Vice President of Hotel Operations for Innisfree Hotels.

Nicholson’s real passion is food – preparing it, serving it, eating it – that’s his thing. While working toward his associate’s degree at Pensacola State College by day and working full-time in various area restaurants by night, he learned how to run a kitchen line, serve entrees, cut costs, cut beef and shuck oysters really fast. Of course, he burnt himself out.

“To give myself a break, I went into the Marine Corps,” he said. (No wonder this guy is a VP.)

Stationed in Hawaii, Nicholson finished his undergraduate degree at Hawaii Pacific University. When he left the Marines in 1994, he came to Innisfree as a Desk Clerk at the Days Inn in Orange Beach, Ala. He was there only a few weeks when an opening for Assistant General Manager came available at Pensacola’s Beachside Resort and Conference Center. The property opened Memorial Day weekend in 1996.

“I remember laying carpet in the hall on that Friday. This was my indoctrination to management,” he said. “We had 100 rooms. I know I was yelled at 100 times.”

Nicholson worked directly with Mike Nixon (now President of Hotel Operations for Innisfree) for a year before an opening at the Best Western in Perdido Key, Fla. promoted him to General Manager. After two months in the role, there was an opportunity to run a third-party management property in Camp Verde, Arizona. He later returned to the Gulf Coast, shuffling between the Days Inn in Orange Beach and back to the Best Western in Perdido until he was offered the managerial role of the Holiday Inn Express in Orange Beach. After six years at the helm of that hotel, he became a Regional Manager for Ocala’s Hampton Inn & Suites, while concurrently running the Hilton Garden Inn in Orange Beach. In 2012, Jason was promoted to Regional Director for Innisfree. In 2015, he became our new Vice President.

One of his funniest memories comes from the Best Western in Perdido Key, where he hosted newly commissioned military students, water survival and SEAL teams. The phone call began with, “Jason, we have a problem.” Apparently, fifty guests from Sweden who were visiting to attend the Brownsville Revival had decided to get in the pool. The problem, you say? They were swimming “Swedish style.”

After all his years in the industry, and most of them with Innisfree, Nicholson has seen it all and loved every minute of it.

“It’s different every day, and our job is to create a fun and inviting atmosphere where people can feel most comfortable,” he says. “I love how dynamic it is, stretching from financing and development to culture-building and everything in between … the individual growth of our teammates to the technical side of rebuilding a commercial washer. It really covers everything. I like how stimulating and diverse and complex it is.”

Plus, he doesn’t have to sit at a desk.

“I’m really proud of the organization we have built in my 19 years with Innisfree, where it’s fun to come to work. We are undoubtedly the best at what we do given the scale of what we are in the industry,” Nicholson said. “We’ve built a company that’s the best in the business, and we’ve made sure we’re still going to have fun doing it. We work among friends … not just coworkers who are friendly, but we are genuinely friends.”

Nicholson credits his personal success and that of Innisfree Hotels to its founder and CEO Julian MacQueen and his wife, Kim, who, instead of monetizing the company have decided to reinvest in it and are always willing to do just as much or more than anybody else.

“That sort of leadership resonates with me. We are here today because of Julian’s steadfast focus in developing in the right markets at the right time and not cutting any slack for poor performance in our hotels,” he says. “That is what has gotten us to where we are today, working with a great group of people who follow his great leadership and are very passionate and focused on being the best we can be.”

Innisfree President Retires

Innisfree Corporate Structure Shifts as Harlan Butler Moves into Board Position

In a year of tremendous growth and optimism for both Northwest Florida regional tourism and Innisfree Hotels, the hotel management company will mark a new chapter when longstanding president Harlan Butler retires and VP of operations Mike Nixon assumes the role.

Butler has enjoyed a 25-year tenure at Innisfree Hotels, taking the company from a local operation to the national stage. When he began in 1989, Innisfree had just 100 employees and a handful of hotels, mostly suburban limited-service properties. Today, the company owns or manages an estate of beachfront, full-service hotels and has a team of more than 1,200 employees  – with $100 million in annual revenue and $500 million in assets.

Butler has always been the public face of Innisfree. In fact, people often confuse him with founder and CEO Julian MacQueen.

“It has been a profound honor to work for Julian MacQueen and his wife, Kim,” Butler says. “In the future, I will always strive to improve and protect Innisfree Hotels to the best of my ability.”

Butler retired from his day-to-day responsibilities on December 31, 2014, but will continue to play an active role in the company, building upon his personal and professional legacy of community service. An adventurer and avid equestrian, he also plans to travel extensively.

“The world is a big place, and I am itching to get out there and see it all,” Butler says.

The MacQueens have made the decision to turn Innisfree into a legacy company and will establish a Board of Directors to manage it, maintaining its special culture and philanthropic values. Butler will serve as the Board’s inaugural member.

VP of operations Mike Nixon will step into the role of president upon Harlan’s move to the Board position. His career with Innisfree began on April Fool’s Day in 1994, perhaps fitting with the jovial spirit he brings to the company.

“People enjoy working with me because I love having fun, but I also know when it’s time to be serious and get to work,” Nixon says. Nixon plans to focus on managing Innisfree’s growth without losing the culture for which it is known. As one of his biggest mentors at the company, Butler will no doubt play a role in its new direction.