Home People Q&A with Lou Zagarino – Meet the BWI Business District Icon

Q&A with Lou Zagarino – Meet the BWI Business District Icon

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The name of Lou Zagarino is synonymous with the BWI Business District. Few people have invested as much time, money and energy into building businesses in that submarket – or have as many stories about what the landscape looked like as it was growing as well as the hopes for its continued success.

What was your introduction to the BWI Business District?

I followed a college friend here from Michigan State University, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, to work in a restaurant group.

I got into the hotel business in 1971 at what is now the DoubleTree by Hilton Baltimore-BWI Airport on Elkridge Landing Road. It was one of the two hotels in what we now call the BWI Business District. The other was the Friendship Hotel which I moved over to in 1972 and stayed with until its ownership was sold in 1980.

My next move was to a restaurant in North Linthicum, Lancer’s, which I eventually bought and renamed The Rose; then I established the Comfort Inn, which is still there, and eventually the adjacent Sleep Inn (now a Best Western). Our company sold all three businesses in 2008.

What is a solid occupancy rate?

There are variances for different hotels but generally, 69 percent is what you need to be profitable.

What was different about being the only solo owner/operator in the BWI submarket when you owned the Comfort Inn (1984-2012) and the Sleep Inn (2002-2012), especially when all of the big chains moved in?

The difference is that the success of the property was on me – not the company, the stockholders or corporate. There were some very difficult times in the early years of our ownership. However, that also allowed me to make decisions out-of-the-box and to adjust to the market and to become more involved in the community and have opportunities to participate in, and contribute to, various causes.

Did you ever dream this submarket would grow so large?

Absolutely not. I knew it would grow but in 1980, BWI Airport served two million passengers per year; now it serves 27 million per year. Today, airport officials think that number will increase to more than 30 million in the not-too-distant future and are predicting 40 million eventually. So, the sky’s the limit. I knew that the District had a phenomenal future, but not to this degree.

Do you ever wonder what the BWI Business District would be if Southwest Airlines hadn’t put down stakes here in 1993?

I have but similar experiments were previously undertaken that were not successful. We had Laker, Texas International and Icelandair, among several other low-cost airlines, come in and out of BWI Marshall. Even if they had had success, we still wouldn’t have had 27 million passengers come through here last year.

Also, before state and local governmental agencies were increasingly present, a small group of stakeholders often went on promotional marketing trips to sell the airport.

What is the strength of the hotels at BWI?

It’s a tremendous market due to all of our businesses, industries and government entities in the area as well as being inside the “Golden Triangle” of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, through Howard County to Baltimore, south to Annapolis, then back to D.C.

When you owned hotel properties and The Rose, how many nights did you sleep with one eye open?

Every night. There are very few good calls you can get after 2 a.m. Thankfully, that situation improved as the business matured.

What are your thoughts on building a new hotel at BWI Marshall?

For more than two decades I’ve been on record that the Maryland Aviation Administration should build a hotel at the airport. The bottom line is that it’s a huge, expensive and complicated project.

What do you tell young people who want to get into the hotel industry?

It can be a great business but expect long hours of hard and often tedious work. And know that, while dealing with the public is often not easy, the business can be extremely rewarding.

What are your favorite career memories?

One is certainly that both of my hotels won Hotel of the Year in the early ’00s for the whole Choice Hotels chain. Others include meeting officials from Southwest Airlines, including CEO Herb Kelleher, with elected officials, state aviation representatives and business leaders. That deal took several years before it finally happened.

What organizations do you recall working with the most fondly?

Serving on the boards of different organizations including Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, Hospice of the Chesapeake, the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency, UM Baltimore Washington Medical Center, the University of Maryland Medical System, Skål Club International and the BWI Business Partnership.

Also, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) for the golf tournament I held in Queenstown Harbor (Upper Eastern Shore) for more than 20 years, the inspiration for which was my struggle with myasthenia gravis – which is a neuromuscular disease. I’ve been lucky in dealing with it, as some people with the disorder are bound to wheelchairs. All told, we raised more than $1 million for the MDA.

What’s coming up for you?

I’m planning on staying involved. The word “retirement” doesn’t mean much to me at the moment but I do want to reduce my commitments.

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