Article By Julia M. Johnson
The best thing about St. Louis Union Station is that it’s always been a conduit for the new and different. As hordes of diverse travelers once streamed through the rail station’s halls and platforms, so now is a modern influx of exciting changes moving swiftly down its trackwork and through its hallowed passages.
That’s happening under the careful supervision of Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM), the St. Louis-based hotel and real estate developer that acquired the Union Station property in 2012 and has been transforming it ever since. It’s all about returning the late 19th-century landmark to its former glory, honoring and preserving its vivid history – and making it a place where even more groups and visitors can “get their St. Louis on.”
A talked-about travel mecca in its heyday, Union Station once claimed the title of busiest passenger rail terminal on the planet. Built in 1894, it quickly became an icon of modern American transportation; but once the headiest days of rail transit began to wane, it sat vacant and then was repurposed as hotel, shopping and dining space.
Now, LHM is honoring the station’s storied past through major historical renovation efforts, and the exciting introduction of train-car meeting spaces and rail excursions. The property’s nearly 600-room St. Louis Union Station Hotel is looking fresh and lovely; the Grand Hall and Midway are uniquely exquisite gathering spaces; the adjoining former shopping mall space is being reinvented… and the trains are back! Climb on board at today’s Union Station, and you won’t be able to help making lasting memories.
There’s a great deal coming down the line at Union Station these days, but one of the most talked-about developments is LHM’s acquisition of nine mid-century passenger railcars that have been outfitted to accommodate parties, meetings and groups.
The company already had introduced successful holiday-themed “Polar Express” rail excursions during the winter months – and those will continue this year under a different theme, says Stephen Baalmann, LHM’s vice president of group sales. But the company now is adding a couple twists and turns to its railbound offerings: Stationary meetings in historic train cars under the Union Station shed; and rail trips to wow your guests in a way that’s literally and figuratively moving. Both are ideal ways to attach lasting memories to your business and professional gatherings.
LHM’s diverse fleet of nine passenger cars includes luxury coaches; observation cars; dining and kitchen units; cars with bars, tables and TVs; and even a unit with sleeping quarters. Most of the cars have designated space for meeting, eating, and comfortable seating. “There are great spots where you can have committee gatherings, relax with other guests, or enjoy dinner,” Baalmann says.
Boardroom space, eye-catching fixtures, rich paneling, soothing color schemes and attractive décor almost make you forget you’re aboard a railway car. Guests experience comfortable furniture, dome-car views, and a sense of communion with an era when rail travel was the way to go. Day excursions will include destinations such as Hermann, Chicago, and Kansas City.
Baalmann says LHM’s railcars date from the 1930s through the 1950s. They previously were owned by the proprietor of Wisconsin-based Quad Graphics, who sold them to LHM in 2015.
“The cars are an exciting option for stationary meetings because now, you don’t even have to leave the station to get the full railway experience,” says Cameron Schoeffel, sales manager for LHM.
Schoeffel adds that the train cars are equipped with acoustic features to keep noise levels manageable during excursions, so groups can conduct business – and fun – without interruption. The cars sport nostalgic names such as the Silver Shore, Silver Chalet, and Southern Hospitality.
So far, prominent companies and organizations such as Edward Jones, Maritz Inc., Buckingham Asset Management, Wells Fargo, GNC, and the Missouri Department of Transportation have expressed keen interest in LHM railcar events, Baalmann says. “We can accommodate groups of 10 to about 400 guests,” he notes.
Space that used to serve as a restaurant inside Union Station is being renovated into a lobby and entranceway for LHM’s new “train park,” where guests will be ushered on board. When finished, the entire Union Station project will be similar to Philadelphia’s Harbor Park, which has been drawing several thousand visitors a year.
But wait, there’s more
As exciting as the railway cars are, they make up just part of LHM’s overall vision for the Union Station complex. The company is investing about $100 million total in the property’s renaissance, which is slated to include new hotel and meeting space, and a 200-foot ferris wheel and family entertainment park on the train shed grounds. There will be a “food-train” park, green space, light shows and fountains, and a “fire show” over the property’s famous lagoon.
The station’s former indoor shopping center is being reimagined into 48 train-themed hotel rooms and 30,000 square feet of new private event space with a large family attraction, according to LHM. When the entire Union Station project is complete, there will be 587 total guest rooms on the property, and 137,000 total square feet of event space. The rail-themed guest rooms will feature high-end touches such as hardwood floors, walk-in showers, and 50” TVs with sound bars for an “in-room theater” experience.
Baalmann says the existing Hard Rock Café and Landry’s restaurants are expected to remain, and the company is looking at adding another dining establishment down the line.
To make guests’ Union Station experiences complete, LHM continues to showcase its stunning 3D light shows on the ceiling of the hotel’s expansive Grand Hall. Produced by Orlando-based Technomedia, these breathtaking light and sound presentations transform the hall into a multi-sensory experience. Groups even can have customized shows produced for their events, Baalmann says.
“Union Station’s hotel, meeting space and train cars are great niche options for everyone, especially associations, nonprofits and other groups whose gatherings may be too small for the local convention center,” he notes.
People are talking
LHM’s investment in Union Station has received a good deal of recognition in recent months, and interest abounds for groups to hold customized events there.
“I have high expectations of [our company’s] hotel partners, since so many of our guests are used to staying in the best hotels and resorts around the world,” says Al Sears, chief operating officer at St. Louis-based BAM Advisor Services, a financial management firm. His company recently held a key event for guests at the property.
“We receive a large number of effusive comments about how much they have appreciated the attentive service and enjoyed the newly renovated accommodations [at Union Station],” Sears says. “Many of us also experienced the trains, which are truly a nice and unique venue for offsite events.”
“Lodging Hospitality Management and [its development partner, Philadelphia-based] Groundswell Design Group, are bringing a new vision for Union Station to life,” says Bob O’Loughlin, LHM’s chief executive officer, about the property’s reinvention. “This redesign will invite people to experience Union Station in a totally new way.
“It will celebrate modern technology with key features that include the Gateway Light Tunnel, the fire show on the lake, and 3D animation above the lake and on the hotel façade,” he says. “As always, we will pay homage to the rich history of St. Louis and Union Station by creating a great entertainment destination to be enjoyed by guests of all ages.”
We know St. Louis Union Station forever will evoke images of the city’s transportation past. But with LHM’s continued commitment to its future, planners and guests from all corners are expected to gravitate toward it with renewed vigor. Join them, and be among the first to see what’s around the bend!
Lodging Hospitality Management
St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a DoubleTree by Hilton
Stephen Baalmann, vice president of group sales
1820 Market Street
St. Louis MO 63103