Maria Karsky’s run as general manager of the new Courtyard by Marriott in Killeen ended Friday, but there is no doubt her work will live on. Karsky has helped to open five hotels in Killeen since she arrived in the city 15 years ago. She sat down with the Herald to talk about the unique challenges of opening a hotel in Killeen.
So what local hotels did you help open?
I did the Hawthorne Suites. I helped open the Best Western. Then, I helped with the Fairfield Inn. I moved out of the area, and I came back. We did a Hilton Garden Inn and then the Courtyard by Marriott, so those five.
What is the biggest challenge of opening a hotel in Killeen?
The biggest shock to me when I came to this area is how everything is based around Fort Hood. That was a big challenge. I had always been in military markets, but never in a city like Killeen. Killeen is very unique. I came here in 1997, and I have lived here on and off since. I’ve seen the city really grow and expand. Right now, it’s like the perfect place to be because you have so many new things going on, like Texas A&M (University-Central Texas) that will allow hotels to pursue other venues of income besides the military.
It would seem Fort Hood would offer a lot of business. Why is depending on the military so hard?
The per diem is very low. What you had in 1997 is totally different from the level of hotels we have now. We have some very nice, expensive brands, but for some reason, the per diem doesn’t really go up. And that’s a challenge. You have to sustain your hotel and give your guests the amenities because they expect a lot more these days. So the per diem is the biggest challenge. But it is still a nice place to be. There is a lot of business in Killeen. When I got to Killeen, the hotel business was 100 percent dependent on Fort Hood. Now I would say we are about 60/40.
What was it like opening the new Courtyard by Marriott?
This property was a little bit of a challenge. It was a new experience for me. I felt like it was my first property only because it wasn’t really a new hotel. It was a redo. When you build a hotel from the ground up, you know everything that’s there. Everything is brand new. Here, the structure is great. The property is beautiful. But it wasn’t really cared for before. So they would try to build a part of it and find something wrong. The more they tore walls down, the more they kept finding. I had never been in a situation where we are trying to get a property open and more unexpected things keep coming up.
You mentioned the property’s previous owners, who ran The Plaza. Has it been tough to deal with the stigma that hotel left in its wake?
Actually, it hasn’t. I think the hotel was closed down long enough to where, well, how can I say it ... sometimes you forget the bad stuff. It seems to me a lot of people in the community remember the good stuff. Enough time passed to where people remembered the good stuff that happened there, like a wedding or another event. I think enough time passed, and then once they walked in and they are blown away. I’ve had people walk in here and say, “Where am I?” It might be a challenge if the previous hotel had been here a year or six months ago. But there has been enough time in between.