Motel owner announced vaccine mandate. Then most of his staff quit

Theoden James
The Charlotte Observer

 “Now this is great. Just discovered this,” says Joseph Franklyn McElroy, chuckling, as he tries to get the hardwood floors inside this cozy little motel room to sparkle. “This is a Swiffer that steams at the same time it cleans. It’s my favorite thing.”

The steam mop with the purple handle is actually a Shark-branded product, not a Swiffer.

It’s tough, though, to fault McElroy for misidentifying this tool of the housekeeping trade. While he has become as proficient at turning over rooms at the Meadowlark Motel over the past couple months as any current cleaning staffer, changing linens and sanitizing toilets was never meant to be the New York City chief executive’s bailiwick.

Until he decided, in August, that he wanted to bring his young twins to the place that served as his childhood home, and the place he now owns — a place where he’s trying to create memorable tourism experiences for people passing through this tiny mountain town 35 miles west of Asheville.

Joseph Franklyn McElroy stands in front of the Meadowlark Motel on Oct. 8, 2021 in Maggie Valley, N.C.

The only obstacle? Almost none of the people working for him at the 34-room motel had been vaccinated.

“I wanted to bring my 3-year-old children down to experience some of the things that I had experienced at the motel,” the Maggie Valley native says. “We have a huge back (area) for recreation, a pavilion, fire pits and a fishing stream ... and you get lots of animals there, so they could see things they don’t see in New York.

“But bringing them down to an environment where a lot of unvaccinated people would be around regularly just seemed problematic.”

After giving it some thought and seeking advice from others, in August, McElroy announced the types of rule that a growing number of U.S. employers both large and small are instituting amid the Covid-19 pandemic: He announced a vaccine mandate for managers, and a mask mandate for all other employees.

It didn’t go over well.

He says that four room attendants, three front desk employees, an assistant manager and an assistant maintenance worker all quit in response, leaving just a manager, a laundry room employee and a maintenance worker.

“I mean, they left that day,” McElroy says, “and we had a full weekend coming up, among many full weekends coming. So I just —” He interrupts himself by laughing and shaking his head. “I just thought, hey, I’d cleaned rooms for seven years as a kid, I can clean rooms now.”

Joseph Franklyn McElroy sprays a bathtub with cleaning solution inside a room at the Meadowlark Motel on Oct. 8, 2021 in Maggie Valley, N.C.

10 cents each for every room

“So this has all been renovated,” McElroy says, as he takes a left at the Meadowlark’s front desk and walks through an open doorway. “This used to be my family living room in here, where we grew up.”

Today, it’s part breakfast area and lounge for the motel, with tables and chairs with seatbacks done up in Native American patterns; and part museum, with caramel-colored-wood-paneled walls adorned with placards celebrating western North Carolina historical figures — like members of the Plott family, which has been breeding hunting dogs in Haywood County for more than two centuries and for which the N.C. state dog (the Plott hound) is named.

“My parents’ bedroom was in there,” McElroy says, gesturing to a closed door, then moving deeper into the building, “and this was the kitchen. This wall wasn’t there. We’re gonna be putting in a live wood edge bar here, and we’re gonna create a little commercial kitchen.”

He was 14 years old in 1975 when his parents, Roger and Donna McElroy, bought the Meadowlark, which is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains. Back then, Maggie Valley was proud home to the wildly popular mountaintop amusement park called Ghost Town in the Sky; and back then, throughout high school and during summer breaks from college, Joseph didn’t just live there.

He worked there, too. Practically full-time. With his younger sister Cindy and their middle brother Herb. Earning 10 cents each for every room they cleaned, to start.

Early reviews for the boys were lukewarm.

“My brothers ... weren’t quite as focused as me,” recalls Cindy, who now lives in Bradenton, Fla. “I’m a little OCD and a little anal, so they would kind of take advantage of that just a little bit.”

But it wasn’t just that she was more dedicated. She was also, quite simply, better at it than her brothers.

Which is probably why, on the day this past summer when all four of Joseph’s room attendants abruptly quit their jobs, Cindy was the first person he called for help.

'Somethings that's a little bit different'

“We have fire pits that people just adore,” McElroy boasts, as he leads a visitor out behind the motel to “the BackPorch Pavilion,” a gathering place he helped create on the banks of the ever-babbling Jonathan Creek.

“We’re gonna be putting in a camp kitchen, for doing heritage-type cooking. Bob’s doing that,” he says, referring to Bob Plott, who McElroy hired to be general manager of the Meadowlark Smoky Mountain Heritage Center. “So we’ll have like one of those giant rotisserie, cast-iron things.”

He walks under the roofed part of the area and continues with his tour.

“We serve beer and wine out here. We have music twice a week, and on Friday nights, we have karaoke. I do acoustic music on Saturday nights with a free barbecue. Then Mike” — McElroy waves at Mike Olgetree, who’s tinkering with instruments on a bandstand — “is a musician. He’s an artist-in-residence here designing the whole thing. He was actually with the band Simple Minds.”

It’s true. Ogletree was indeed the drummer for the Scottish rock band best-known for ’80s hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Plott, meanwhile, is indeed a member of that Plott family, as well as the author of five books covering topics ranging from hunting to history.

Both men were hired to help McElroy get the Meadowlark to its goal of creating those memorable tourism experiences he wants people to have.

As Ogletree explains: “Other motels are pretty much cookie-cutter — you know, check in, go to your room, go out and hike, or go out and do the thing that you came here to do, come back to the motel, go to sleep. The motel is just a crash pad. So we’re providing something that’s a little bit different.”

But a motel that offers better-than-average cultural and historical learning opportunities and better-than-average live music is, at its core, still a motel.

And if there aren’t people around to do things like manage the day-to-day operations, check people in and out at the front desk, and make sure rooms are adequately cleaned and serviced ... well, then, it’s not going to be a very successful motel.

The day most of them quit

“For a long time, I was a terrible troll online,” McElroy says, as he sits on the back deck of the Meadowlark’s main building. “A liberal troll. To some extent, I occasionally still can spout off in a negative way. But I’m trying to be a better man that doesn’t do that. ’Cause at the end of the day, that only makes people more entrenched in their confirmation bias.”

The name Trump eventually comes up, and it’s clear he doesn’t like the former president.

Which is a rather uncommon point of view here in Haywood County, where two-thirds of the voters who went to the polls last year cast their vote for Donald Trump.

McElroy didn’t see the vaccine issue or the mask issue as political, though. He saw it, at least in some small way, as a means to a personal end.

Starting in May, as the pandemic seemed to be receding, he returned to making regular trips down from New York — where he works as chief executive of Manhattan marketing firm Galileo Tech Media — to oversee repairs and renovations at the motel.

Eventually, he was coming down enough that he wanted to bring his family, too, so he could get done what he wanted to get done in Maggie Valley while also spending time with them. But he worried about doing so because his son and daughter were too young to get the shots.

He would feel better about them staying in the two-bedroom apartment he keeps in the center of the motel, he thought, if at the very least his employees wore masks at all times, and even better, if they were fully vaccinated.

So on Aug. 13, he instituted the mandates. And his entire front-desk staff and all his cleaning crew members left.

With no tricks up his sleeve that would magically solve his sudden problem, he called his younger sister, who was in town visiting with their widowed 80-year-old father.

“Joe said, ‘Can you come down and watch the front office for a little bit?’” Cindy Mong recalls. “I came down and I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Well, I got rooms to clean. I’m by myself.’ I said, ‘Um, OK. What am I doing sitting at the front desk?’ He said, ‘You know how to clean rooms?’ I’m like, ‘Joe, duh. I cleaned rooms from the time I was in sixth grade through high school, and then I’m a mom, and so yes, I know how to clean rooms.’

“I said, ‘Why don’t we just close the front office, put a note saying call us, and let’s get these rooms clean?’”

I wasn't going to be defeated by this

“It was really do or die,” McElroy says. “Close the place, which was heading into the peak of the season, and lose all that revenue, and not do it. Or just decide to do it. And in some ways, I’m a real stubborn bastard.

“I felt it as a personal attack in a way, and I wasn’t gonna succumb to it. ... I wasn’t gonna be defeated by this.”

So for several weeks — even after his sister headed back home to Florida — he raced around the property with a cart full of linens and supplies from room to room, sometimes cleaning more than a dozen a day. When someone called the front desk, it would get forwarded to his cellphone and he’d take a reservation while taking out a bag of bathroom trash. If he saw a vehicle pull into a space outside the lobby, he’d race up to check them in.

Oh, and he was still trying to run his New York-based company and its staff of 15 employees, remotely. As well as interviewing new job candidates — vaccinated job candidates (or at least people willing to wear masks for their whole shift) — who could spell him.

One of those was Boyd Burton, a semi-retired ex-management consultant who moved to Maggie Valley from Virginia this summer and stopped in to meet McElroy after seeing a job listing for a manager position.

Burton says there were three things that sold him on McElroy and the Meadowlark.

One, “he obviously has a very personal history with the place and a passion for turning it into something special. It made it easy for me to develop a passion for the place, seeing his passion for the place.”

Two, “the fact that he had taken a stand on mandatory vaccination for his employees, in order to protect the employees themselves as well as the clientele, I was really impressed by that.”

And three was the owner’s willingness to get his hands dirty.

“There’s lots of other things he could have done with his time and money,” says Burton, who — like McElroy — is a giant older bald guy with a goatee. “He could stay in Manhattan and spend his money on expanding his company there.” But here McElroy was cleaning rooms, Burton says, and he “did it with a smile on his face.”

“It won me over the day I came and met with him. After we talked, he said, ‘I’m going to clean some rooms,’ and as I was pulling off, I saw him pushing the cart down the hill.”

A new appreciation for a dirty job

“I’m analyzing it almost like an app,” McElroy says, referring to how his mind was working while he cleaned. “I’m sitting there analyzing the functions and processes of cleaning — which I’ve been doing so long in my business career. ... I long ago got rid of the revulsion factor that a lot of people can’t get over. I’m divorced from that. It just becomes a mental analytical problem.

“Because the first few days I was dead, man. I was killing myself, and my legs and everything else (were sore).”

In short order, however, he figured out how to minimize his physical exertion while maximizing cleanliness. And with a newfound appreciation for manual labor along with a nudge from Plott, he was able to make the job more enticing to would-be applicants.

“He goes, ‘You know, this is kind of revelatory for me,’” Plott says, recalling a conversation he had with McElroy late in the summer. “He said, ‘It’s like, wow, there’s an art to this, and I think maybe we’ve been taking people for granted. Maybe this minimum wage that everybody talks about needs to be raised.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think the only way you’re gonna be able to combat this is just say, Look, we’re gonna pay the highest wages anywhere, but you’re gonna have to go along with some of the things we need to do, too.’

“He said, ‘I like that idea.’”

McElroy kept the vaccine and mask mandates in place. But he raised the hourly wage for room attendants to $14 an hour. That’s double what it had been.

Soon afterward, he hired a woman to clean after she went to get vaccinated — specifically so she could work at the Meadowlark.

As seen on television

“Yeah, I’ve seen several episodes,” McElroy says, laughing, when asked if he’s familiar with the TV comedy series “Schitt’s Creek.” “My wife has watched it more. She loves that.”

He’s standing on the stoop of a room during a break from cleaning, and as cars and motorcycles whoosh past along Soco Road, it’s hard not to recognize at least some similarities between him and Eugene Levy’s Johnny Rose.

Rose, of course, was a rich video-store magnate who lost everything except ownership of a small town he’d bought as a joke, and his family wound up living in its rundown roadside motel. Over time, he fell in love with the place, spruced it up, got more involved in taking care of it, and — ultimately — hatched a plan to start a motel chain.

Now listen to McElroy:

“I’m in technology marketing, and ... it’s not as fun as it used to be. But I’m enjoying the hospitality business. I’m really enjoying it. I’m good at it. So I’m looking to develop this“ — and here he quickly sweeps his hand across the motel grounds — “more and more. Yeah. In fact, the dream’s a small authentic chain of mountain country inns and motels.”

He grins, then adds, “We’ll see.”

In the meantime, he’s just trying to make it through the busiest part of the fall season, to finish overhauling the look and feel of the motel, to support Plott in creating heritage opportunities and Ogletree in bringing a variety of live musicians to the pavilion.

McElroy’s just trying, as always, to create memorable tourism experiences for guests of the Meadowlark.

Today, finally, he has the help he needs on the operational side of things to do that: Two and a half months removed from that time when nine of his 12 employees quit, McElroy has just one job opening left to fill.

It’s for a fourth cleaning staffer — though the three he does have are managing well enough on their own.

'One of the ethical things you have to do'

“I’m gonna be mostly backup from now on,” he says, “and then, as we develop out the staff a little more, I won’t have to worry about it. But I’m still gonna try and do one room a month anyway. Just to keep in touch with that.”

He’s silent for a few moments, as he gets down on the floor to peek under the king-size bed to make sure nothing was left under there by the last guest. Then he turns reflective as he climbs back to his feet.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re honoring or insulting people,” McElroy says, brushing off his palms.

“It’s not like I’m doing it to prove that I’m a man of the people. ... But to me it’s important to be connected to the ethics and the necessities of hospitality. One of the ethical things you have to do as a hotelier is you’ve got to provide safety, cleanliness and comfort. And that starts with the rooms, right?"

“So as a hotelier, if you don’t know the rooms are clean, and how they’re being cleaned, you’re not really being ethical as far as I’m concerned. Now, I think, of course, that you can do that with people you highly trust, if I know that they do a really good job and then just do spot-checking.”

Then, as he grabs his beloved Swiffer — er, Shark steam mop — and goes back to trying to shine up those hardwoods, he chuckles and says:

“But I think they’re also something to be said for just doing it yourself every once in a while.”