Article by Dee King
Editor’s note: In early 2014, Dee King of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Springfield, Missouri, got a phone call during one of the coldest winters on record. It was police officer Dawn Haas in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Dawn said she was a volunteer, and she asked if we would provide a complimentary room for marine veteran Rob Jones who was bicycling across the country for military charities. At first, Dee, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, was skeptical, but her boss had heard about Rob on the radio—he was the real deal. They agreed to provide Rob, then 28, and his brother, Steve, 18, a room for the following night. Then Dee read about Rob. She learned he was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2010 by a roadside bomb. Both of his legs had to be amputated above the knee.
Her eyes opened wide. “Bicycling?!” Dee thought, incredulously. His caregivers had thought the same thing: it was an impossible dream. It was difficult enough for him to learn to walk again. But then he met Zach Harvey, who designed special prosthetic legs for him. Rob spent the next nine months learning to ride. After that, he decided to pay it forward. He wanted to raise $1 million for the charities that helped him through his recovery by cycling 5,200 miles coast to coast.
Rob bought an old U-Haul box truck for his kid brother to drive behind him and equipped it with sleeping bags on cots in back. His dad regularly updated a website about the journey. Rob started his six-month trek in Bar Harbor, Maine, and rode all the way to San Diego, California. He received a hero’s welcome at Camp Pendleton. Semper Fi!
Rob’s epic journey raised $126,000, all told, for the charities that helped him become whole again, but Rob remains motivated to reach his original $1 million goal. That’s why, this fall Rob plans to run 31 marathons in 31 cities in 31 days! This new chapter in our hero’s quest begins Oct. 12, across the pond in London. It will conclude when Rob runs his last marathon in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11—Veterans Day. Dee, Dawn and two other committed women will be behind the scenes making sure the media in each market get a heads-up. Rob invites anyone who’d care to, in every city, to run along with him.
DoubleTree by Hilton recognizes the PR value of this phase of Rob’s mission, just as they did with Rob’s bicycle trek three years ago. But, what do hotels typically do to garner publicity? Pretty much the same thing: local properties offer blocks of discounted rooms for conventions, or added value for repeat customers; corporate messages are issued for investors; advertorials are issued. Then there are new wrinkles, like Trivago, the algorithm that combs dozens of web pages to find the best price the day of your stay at a particular hotel. Advertising agencies and PR firms call it “Clutter.” Dee’s enthusiasm and that of the volunteer team, now ten strong, coupled with Rob’s singular focus, makes for a well-oiled machine that should garner more press, goodwill, and public awareness for DoubleTree by Hilton.
Relevant to MM&E readers, Rob’s ambitious schedule puts him in St. Louis on Oct. 22 and Kansas City on the 23rd. He doesn’t need lodging for this marathon of marathons: he and his support team will travel between cities in an RV. Exciting news, indeed. But, to understand how Rob and his volunteers got to where they are now, it’s essential to understand how it began: with one dream and a few big hearts—not deep pockets. What’s more, Dee King is a can-do woman with understated charisma. She tells this remarkable story in the first person.
Marine Combat Veteran Rob Jones’ Motto: “Survive, Recover, Live”
As disabled vet Rob Jones trains rigorously over the summer to prepare himself for his next Everest, I remain in awe of this man’s intensity, dedication and focus. However, as I had noticed when I met him earlier, in June, he’s not that good at climbing stairs (more on that below), despite how well his prosthetic legs may have been engineered.
As you might imagine, anyone Rob meets on any of his 31 planned 26.2-mile slogs “from Athens to Sparta” is inspired to help. Some of them actually walk the talk. In 2014, when he was cycling from sea to shining sea, one “angel” joined right away on the East Coast: Tina Felix, a New Jersey attorney, mapped the route and sent news releases to TV stations and called schools and American Legion posts in advance. She requested media coverage, police escorts, and encouraged people to come out and cheer Rob on.
In aptly named New Hope, Pennsylvania, it was police officer Dawn Haas who received Tina’s release form and provided an escort. It was snowing. She asked where Rob and Steve were staying that night. When Rob said they slept in the back of the U-Haul, she was flabbergasted. She called around until she found a B&B willing to comp a room. From then on, Dawn and Tina worked together each night to try to secure a warm bed for the men as temps dipped as low as 14 below. Dawn also coordinated police escorts where possible.
After learning all this, I wanted to not only provide a room, but a welcome party. With only a day to prepare, I made a banner, got balloons, alerted TV stations and blitzed the Springfield area through social media, asking folks to come to the hotel and welcome Rob. My general manager and our sous chef rode with Rob for the last 30 miles to the hotel. I told the hotel team to prepare for possibly hundreds of people in the lobby. Sadly, at the appointed time, no one showed. I was disappointed despite knowing the invitation had been out less than 24 hours. In any event, Rob arrived and got settled into his room. Meanwhile, my general manager and I hurriedly gathered every hotel employee we could in our atrium. By the time Rob came down, we had a group of about 30 … including a TV cameraman. Whew.
Rob and Steve were humble, maybe even a little embarrassed. When we asked what else we could do, or buy, Rob said all he wanted was for people to donate. Wow.
Joining the Team
Honored to join his small volunteer team, I reached out to Lee Hambrick, a DoubleTree corporate director, who also jumped on board. Tina, Dawn, Lee and I, four ladies from four different states, committed to get Rob a comfortable bed every night and to share his story. Over the next four months we flooded the media with updates and mapped Rob’s route for lodging opportunities. He rode 30-40 miles per day, depending on weather and terrain.
With a few exceptions, for each of those 120 days we secured a place for Rob and his little brother to lay their heads. Many hotels, motels and B&Bs were generous, including Marriott, Holiday Inn and some independents; however, plenty of others hung up after chastising me for trying to scam them! Many of the small towns the men traversed in Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada were challenging. Several times, everyone turned us down—typically on the coldest nights. Anonymous angels (well, including Tina) paid when a comp wasn’t available. It was much easier in California with Hilton properties at nearly every stop. Every Hilton we asked opened their doors and hearts to Rob. I asked them to roll out the red carpet, and many had welcome receptions, helped out with a bike tune-up and a hot meal.
Rob stayed at more than a dozen DoubleTrees, many of which had more success than I throwing welcome parties (and more time to plan and promote them). The DoubleTree San Francisco Airport North found a mechanic who replaced the brakes on Rob’s truck. The hotel also hosted a reception with the mayor of San Francisco. At its own reception, the Hotel Maya in Long Beach presented Rob with an $800 check their hotel team had raised.
DoubleTree became Rob’s official corporate sponsor. DoubleTrees around the world held fundraisers … everything from bake sales to car washes and casual “jeans” days.
Although we usually didn’t hear back from media, celebrities or businesses, there were lots of successes. Schoolchildren lined the streets to cheer. Dozens of cyclists rode along. O’Reilly Auto Parts kicked in a $500 gift card for U-Haul maintenance. And—Eureka!—we even scored national television coverage. NBC’s Today show featured Rob.
Crossing the Finish Line to a USMC Welcome
In April, I flew to San Diego to cheer Rob across the finish line at Camp Pendleton. I met Rob’s parents and the ladies I’d been talking to every day. Rob threw out the first pitch at a Padres game, and DoubleTree San Diego-Del Mar threw a spectacular end-of-the-ride party. Lee presented Rob with the honor of Hilton Diamond status. But the highlight? Rob was presented with a $20,000 donation!
A couple of years later, Rob’s dad, Lenny, called to tell me they were coming to Missouri to visit family. I said I’d try to get a hotel discount. Lenny laughed. “No, no, no, Dee. We’re coming for Thanksgiving, and I want to invite you.” Now I know where this former Marine gets his big heart.
Rob Jones’ Month of Marathons
On his way to $1 million, Rob continues to raise the bar for himself as well as raise awareness for veterans. In June, I joined him, Tina and Dawn in New York to climb the 102 floors of One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) for the Tunnel
to Towers fundraiser. While in NYC we began planning Rob’s Month of Marathons.
I’m excited and honored to support Rob on his new journey. Please follow him too, and help him reach his next goal. You can follow Rob on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or at robjonesjourney.com … you probably won’t believe what he’s doing or where he’s headed next!
For this man, giving his legs for our freedom was not enough. He continues to give to others even when he has already paid a price most of us can’t even imagine.
I promise he will inspire you, just as he inspired me. Whatever challenge you are facing, remember Rob’s motto: Survive, Recover, Live.
Postscript: Rob, 31, resides in Vienna, Virginia, with his wife, Pam. They were married in Las Vegas on July 4, 2017.
Dee King, Director of Sales & Marketing
DoubleTree by Hilton Springfield
Facebook: Rob Jones Journey