Exclusive, Army-style

The Baltimore Sun

No pool. No spa. No concierge. No room service. Not even a restaurant, unless you count the Burger King a few blocks away.

But the Swan Creek Inn and River Lodge at Aberdeen Proving Ground is the haute place to stay, anywhere on the planet, at least according to the Army.

Last summer, the hotel won the Army's highest hotel honor, Lodging Operation of the Year, beating military inns and lodges from Japan to Texas. Swan Creek has won in its category - large hotels - three times in the past decade, an impressive feat, given that military lodges are ineligible for the contest for two years after winning.

The hotel won for overall excellence, "from checking in to checking out," says Sheryl Cleland, director of Hospitality Programs for Army Lodging, which has its headquarters in Alexandria, Va. She oversees the Army's 78 hotels.

Swan Creek won its most recent honor in August, after a three-day visit from a team of two Army judges who conducted their assessment while staying at the hotel.

"It was very stressful," says Richard McClain, Swan Creek's manager. "They could roam at large."

The judging included a 400-question checklist that covers everything from the number of hangers in each closet to the wattage of bulbs in night lights.

But McClain and his staff had all their swans - and all 294 rooms - in a row. Each of the hotels' 82 employees got a $138 bonus, and the hotel received $7,500 for whatever improvement it chose. McClain decided to put together a guest lounge, complete with a 52-inch high-definition flat-panel TV.

A squat, two-story brick building set not far from a water tower and around the corner from a truck repair yard, Swan Creek is named after a nearby Susquehanna River inlet. It includes a second, smaller location in Edgewood.

Like the Taj or the Bellagio, Swan Creek is very exclusive. That's not because it's pricey - a single room runs a reasonable $54 a night - but because it is not open to the public. Like all Army hotels, it serves only soldiers who have come for training at the base, civilians doing business there and military retirees visiting the area or traveling through. If you want a room there, you'll have to get a base-related job, enlist or marry someone who has.

In many ways, Swan Creek resembles a typical midrange chain hotel, well-run but unremarkable. It offers clean rooms, friendly service, meticulously made beds and lots of off-white walls (more on that later). There are some differences: The complimentary continental breakfast begins at 0630 and ends at 0830, hours that fit the needs of early rising soldier-guests.

And not many civilian hotels feature, just across from the check-in desk, a framed black-and-white photo of a steely-eyed GI standing waist-deep in a Vietnamese swamp, pointing a .45-caliber pistol at the chest of a Viet Cong prisoner.

The photo is one of McClain's touches. "Mac," as he's known to everyone (including his wife), is a tall, friendly man who looks 10 years younger than his 60 years. He has a clean-shaven head, a stud earring in his left ear and a faded bird tattoo on his right forearm - the legacy of an evening long ago that he doesn't remember too well.

He's been in and around the Army since his 18th birthday. On that day in 1967, he walked into a recruiting office and enlisted in the Army Airborne. He'd grown up poor in Clarksburg, W.Va., and he saw a bigger future for himself.

"I decided I wanted off the farm," he says. "I've never looked back."

He served a combat infantry tour in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. The Swan Creek lobby also has a photo of McClain from that time; he has a full head of short hair and two bandoleers draped across his chest.

Afterward, he stayed in the military, serving stints in South Korea and Germany. He ended up a sergeant major, teaching at the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1989, he retired and settled in the Aberdeen area, which he had grown to like while stationed at the proving ground.

He had no plans to become the Ian Schrager of the Army. (Schrager, you no doubt recall, is the visionary hotelier who has created scads of top spots all over the world, places with names such as The Royalton, The Mondrian and The Delano.)

"It was never a goal or an ambition," McClain says of running a lodge. "It's one of those fate kind of things."

Fate arrived in 1991, when he realized that his pension was not providing enough income. He got a job as a quarters inspector for Army Lodging, checking the quality of housekeeping and security at various proving ground buildings. He was eventually hired as Swan Creek's facilities manager, and three years ago became manager.

McClain says Swan Creek's success is the result of hard work and superior service; he gives the credit to his employees. "We are almost like a family," he says.

He had something to do with the victory, too. He gets to the office at 6 a.m., 90 minutes before he's due in, to map out the day's objectives. Even out of uniform, he retains a military outlook.

Prominently displayed on his office wall is a sign with the words "No Whining." He runs a tight ship: New housekeepers must shadow veterans, sometimes for weeks, until they have shown that they can properly plump a pillow and smooth a blanket.

But McClain doesn't manage like a drill sergeant. He does his best to keep employees happy and motivated. There are picnics, water balloon fights, days off for good work and staff Thanksgiving dinners.

And he listens. "He is very into his employees," says Cleland. "He takes their input, and he cares about what they say."

With his encouragement and money from the Army, three of the hotel's assistant managers have completed Pennsylvania State University's hospitality management program. Schoolwork has meant that each has missed significant work time. McClain doesn't mind; he says that in the long run, they'll end up doing their jobs more effectively.

But motivation and leadership only go so far: This is the Army after all, and Swan Creek won, in part, because it followed regulations.

The judges' assessment "showed that Swan Creek complied with army lodging standards very closely," Cleland says.

According to regulations put forth by the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command (FMWRC), all military hotels must abide by strict protocols.

Sitting in his pin-neat office, McClain points to a thick binder on a shelf across the room. It is the military hotel manual, filled with SOPs (that's Standard Operating Procedures to you civilians) from the FMWRC Design Directorate, on everything from wall color (all Army hotel rooms without wallpaper are off-white) to the type of coffee maker (four-cup automatic drip). Furniture and linens and drapes must meet the precise standards of the Army's interior designers. In every room, Swan Creek uses approved leaf-patterned earth-tone bedspreads, which correspond to the leaf-patterned earth-tone chairs.

McClain likes these limits.

"We are trying to standardize the Army Lodging brand," he says. "If you stay at Swan Creek and then at another Army hotel in Fort Knox, you're not going to be surprised."

There's another reason he prefers that someone else make the drapery decisions.

"I don't," he says with a smile, "have very good taste."

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