Which, as you might surmise, is because I’m staying at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. It’s been a while since I’ve spent this much time hanging at Crown Center, and that’s probably true for many of you. Unless like the great suburban masses you’ve barely been here ever if at all.
The experience has sparked some observations and even caused me to wonder about the very future of Hallmark Cards, that giant among giants of heritage Kansas City companies.
But first let’s get a few of the day-to-day things out of the way.
The hotel looks very similar to the way it first did when Crown Center opened in 1971.
Take you back?
Unfortunately, even with all the changes and improvements, the hotel is looking a little long in the tooth – the yellowed comforter on my bed, dated hotel room furniture, carpeting and wallpaper (you heard it right, wallpaper). And tap water that’s cloudy beyond belief.
Overall most everything is still nice, but the signs are there; it’s no longer a signature hotel for Kansas City the way it once was.
A couple of the hotel lobby elevator signs still advise guests to go to Benton’s Prime Steakhouse, which of course is long closed. For the uninitiated the restaurant was named after Kansas City artist Thomas Hart Benton.
Which kinda makes Benton’s memory ring a little hollow.
Like who was this Benton dude and what was that place like? And the signs are still up because why again?
The indoor/outdoor cliff edge overlooking the lobby bar is still intact and ready to host upscale cocktail receptions and the like. And the Brasserie restaurant and bar off the main lobby is bigger than ever. However, the fabled, Polynesian-style restaurant Trade Vic’s is long gone (the ones in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, London and Tokyo are still open), but if you need to use the restroom, you’ve got a long walk ahead of you from the lobby to the restrooms where Trader Vic’s once stood.
Speaking of legendary eating establishments…
I never ate at the Streetcar Named Desire when it was near 50th and Main just off the Plaza. I was a stock and commodities broker back then and there were way too many daytime drinking floor traders from the Kansas City Board of Trade there to suite my taste. However I’ve tried it a couple times in its transplanted form at Crown Center on the lower level near the shops.
It’s even got the cool, actual streetcar frontage.
Unfortunately it’s usually pretty dead whenever I go – like it was Wednesday night – and its fabled burger leaves much to be, uh, desired. Mostly because it’s small and uneventful with a grocery store quality bun.
Was it always that way?
I’ll try The Big George next time if it’s still open.
Many, if not most, of the Crown Center shops I recall from the past 10 years are still there (it seems) and for the most part they’re unique and upscale. However, the mall’s foot traffic appears light and unlike many suburban stores they close really early.
It’s long been said that Hallmark has had to subsidize many of the retailers to keep them afloat and the place hopping. I vaguely remember when Crown Center opened that it was packed with shops and boutiques that were not long for this world.
Which brings me to my main point.
While there’s a chance that the growth of downtown – people moving to apartments and condos there – could save it, it’s clear that Hallmark Cards is fast becoming an endangered species.
Over the years I’ve talked to owners and employees of many of the company’s once ubiquitous Hallmark Cards and Gold Crown shops. And many of those shops, as you know, have closed in recent years.
Even in Dear Old Brookside.
To my thinking paper greeting cards are fast becoming a thing of the past. Older people still buy them but for how long? It’s always been more of a chick and kiddie thing, but people don’t go out and buy and send cards like they used to.
As evidenced by the fact that the United States Post Office is losing its ass because far fewer people are mailing things. And look at the layoffs at Hallmark in recent years, including one this past April that while “voluntary” was expected to yield 300 to 400 job losses.
Like many old school businesses – I’m thinking of print publications like The Star, Newsweek – paper products with information and messages are going away at a fast clip. On top of that, it’s not easy replacing them online profit-wise.
Newspapers and magazines can make it – although online revenues are a fraction of what they’ve enjoyed for decades with their core product – because they have resources that mostly still give them a news monopoly in most markets.
You want a halfway comprehensive look at what’s going on in Kansas City? You won’t get it on TV news or from bloggers like The Pitch, rewriting and rehashing the reporting of others while throwing in the odd restaurant review and a feature story. They need the Star to tee off from.
Hallmark.com advertises “Free Cards” online, but that’s gonna keep the wolf away from the door for how long?
And good luck claiming those “free e cards” at Hallmark’s Web site. The game plan there is to sell you a card, plus I can’t tell you the last time somebody sent me an e card. Maybe last year. And I didn’t open it until I was advised to because I’m wary of clicking on suspicious email links.
A recent news story in Santa Barbara about the closing of a Hallmark store there says it all.
“Business Opportunity and Future Not in the Cards for PJ’s Hallmark Store,” the headline reads from a story on Noozhawk this past January. “Changes in culture, technology help seal fate for greeting-card shop, but owners say they don’t need a sympathy card.”
“I don’t think anything replaces the touch and feel you get when selecting a card for someone,” store owner Pam Dunford is quoted. “You can’t replace that on the Internet.”
Yet while the story goes on to say, the Greeting Card Association claims that 9 out of 10 households in this country buy greeting cards each year, $5.50 greeting card costs are a turnoff and younger people prefer texting and email.
The greeting card store “business model” no longer works is the bottom line and even prepaid postage cards were a bust according to a Gold Crown staffer I spoke with at Oak Park Mall last Christmas.
Hallmark shops are even dying in small towns like Hastings, Nebraska, population just under 25,000.
“Hometown Variety/Sherry’s Cards and Gifts at 620 W. Second Street will become the latest iconic institution in the city to go under,” the Hastings Tribune reported earlier this month. “It will join OK Cafe on the list of longtime Hastings businesses to close this year.”
The store had been open since 1979. So much for small town values.
The point being, the days of Hallmark throwing money at the red ink machines like Crown Center may be nearing an end. And what then will become of this iconic downtown landmark?
Who will the new standard bearing Kansas City companies be for Generation Next?
Remember that story I wrote about recently, Nine Great American Companies The Will Never Recover?
Remember Marion Labs whose founder Ewing Kauffman rescued Major League Baseball (for what that’s now worth) in Kansas City? You don’t hear much about American Century these days. Nor Kansas City Southern or Applebee’s. Sprint is on the Nine That Will Never Recover list. And if anybody ever gets around to simplifying the tax code like they threaten to, what will become of H&R Block?
Anyway, check out the massive scale model of Hallmark’s proudest achievement – the Crown Center Complex – next time you’re down here.
It’s just past the Streetcar to the right as you walk towards the Crown Center hotel lobby.