Jason Ilstrup’s ebullient personality is evident when he walks into a room, so it's no surprise that he has a strong background in hospitality.
The current Monroe Street HotelRED general manager will take over for longtime Downtown Madison Inc. President Susan Schmitz, who is stepping down after 19 years as president, effective Jan. 2, 2018.
“To follow in those footsteps, it’s difficult because she’s set the bar very high,” Ilstrup said. “DMI is in a really good place, and we have to figure out how to grow it for the next generation, for the new generation that’s sort of coming up.”
DMI is a nonprofit advocacy organization that represents the interests of businesses, residents, employees and visitors with a stake in Madison’s downtown. The member-driven organization was formed over 35 years ago to address a stagnant downtown.
After graduating from law school, Ilstrup worked in politics as an aide and legal counsel to a few elected officials including former state Rep. Tom Nelson and Congressman Martin Olav Sabo. But he said his “people person” personality pointed him away from politics.
“I like the idea of hospitality and working with and for people, and I think I wanted to do that on a more retail level,” Ilstrup said. “So I went from being a lawyer to a bellman just so I could learn everything about the job.”
Before joining HotelRED, he gained experience at the Madison Concourse Hotel and at Milwaukee’s Iron Horse Hotel and learned how critical partnerships are to the hotels' success.
“You need to be a member of the community,” Ilstrup said.
Ilstrup is also a member of several local boards including the Madison Sports Commission, Monroe Street Business Association and Neighborhood House community center.
How does your experience in the hotel industry translate to your new role with DMI?
First and foremost, I think just understanding hospitality, I think we all need that. I understand when people are happy and when they’re not. I can read people because of my hospitality. I hope that I’ve gained some emotional intelligence from the job. But really, first and foremost, your job in hospitality is to make them happy and have them enjoy that experience.
In politics, it’s the same thing. Not everyone is going to be happy, but we have to bring everyone together in a collegial way, and I think hospitality does that.
Second, I understand what the visitor wants downtown, which I think is very important. We shouldn’t build a downtown just for the visitor, but if it works for a visitor, it’s going to work a lot of times for the resident.
What do visitors want?
They want experiences … we want authentic local experiences. Madison can do that. Whether or not that’s eating something that Tory Miller creates at L'Etoile, to Stella’s cheese bread and the farmers’ market to Union Utopia (ice cream) at Babcock Hall, we can create unique experiences.
How do you create a “translocal” experience?
It has be inclusive of everybody, and when you mean inclusive, oftentimes that could mean genders, races, ethnicities, religions. That’s absolutely part of that. Downtown has to do that, but it also includes all of the visitors who are all of those things, so that we have as many experiences where (locals) are seeing different people who may not come downtown as often.
One of the big things DMI has to do is make this downtown friendly for everybody. I feel like right now it’s friendly to certain groups of people. We want to make sure it’s friendly for everybody who comes downtown: there’s activities for everyone, for young and old, for different religions, different races, no matter who it is.
What are your plans once you start the position?
The first few months I am just going to listen to what the community has to say, what the members of DMI have to say, what's out there. Learn as much as I can. It will be a steep learning curve. And then working on what we hear from those and what the priorities are for DMI: economic development in Madison, transportation, inclusiveness and the quality of life.
What is DMI’s role in relation to other parts of the city?
You can’t cannibalize one part of the city to make downtown strong. That’s just not going to work. You need the the whole city to be stronger. We need to coordinate so that it all works for everybody. There will be no such thing as a strong downtown if the rest of the city is not doing well.
What challenges is the downtown facing?
Quality of life. I think you need to continue to work with public and private on that, and I think that’s getting better. I think economic development in particular, transportation is a huge issue. The isthmus is just geographically tricky, and we have to be able to get people, visitors, workers in and out of downtown. Making sure downtown is great for everyone at all times of day.