New glory for Union Station: Alumnus Steve O’Loughlin helps transform the once-dead mall and sees it through the pandemic

Steve O'Loughlin

Steve O’Loughlin has helped reshape Union Station into a family entertainment destination with the St. Louis Aquarium as its centerpiece attraction. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Steve O’Loughlin takes regular strolls around Union Station, from the historic Grand Hall with its ornate archways, gold leaf detailing and art glass windows, across the wide walkways of the midway and even into the open air if he’s checking on what’s happening at the Soda Fountain or the Ferris wheel.

He’s always greeted by smiles and waves from employees, who often stop him to have a quick chat.

O’Loughlin’s face is well known around these parts, and it should be.

“I’m here every day,” says O’Loughlin, a 1989 graduate of the College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

He’s a big reason those staff members – and thousands more patrons – are there, too.

O’Loughlin serves as the president and chief operating officer of Lodging Hospitality Management, which owns Union Station. It was his vision and leadership, along with that of his father, LHM CEO Bob O’Loughlin, that helped reinvent and reinvigorate the structure – once the world’s busiest train station – after it had been all but abandoned over the previous two decades as a failing downtown shopping mall.

The centerpiece of the redevelopment is the St. Louis Aquarium, which opened with much fanfare last Christmas, drawing more than 9,000 visitors that first day and each of the nine after it.

Union Station viewing window

(Photo by Tom Paule Photo, Ed Aller and The St. Louis Aquarium)

It would’ve been expecting too much to maintain that pace indefinitely, but attendance had remained strong and steady throughout the first three-plus months.

The arrival of the coronavirus brought a sudden and unexpected test to the business’s viability.

“We had so much momentum going, and attendance had been just off the charts,” O’Loughlin said. “When we had to shut down because we were in the middle of this pandemic and the government and health officials started pulling levers, we weren’t surprised, but we were not expecting how long we were going to be out.”

What he imagined would be a week or two stretched to almost three months.

O’Loughlin and his team did what they could to keep the Aquarium top of mind for families across the region. They hosted an online Kenturtle Derby as well as a series of “Quaranstream” videos and some virtual chats that introduced kids stuck at home to some of the wildlife – including otters, sharks and an anteater – who make the aquarium home.

But there was no way of knowing if crowds would return in person in any significant numbers with stay-at-home orders lifted but the coronavirus still looming as a public health threat.

That unknown had been weighing on O’Loughlin as June 8 – the date of the aquarium’s reopening – approached. He was facing real financial pressures with the expenses of caring for the wildlife not going away and the company coping with declines in revenue, not only from the aquarium, but from the hotel properties that account for the majority of LHM’s business.

“Since we turned it back on, it’s been great,” O’Loughlin said. “In terms of how it relates to the overall company, the aquarium has been the best producer, along with the wheel. In terms of cash flow, it’s really carried everything during this downtime.”

It’s validated a lot of the decisions the O’Loughlins made after Bob purchased Union Station with its hotel property for $20 million in 2012.

Early plans had been to operate the hotel and convert the rest of the building to a mixed-use development with restaurants and a major office tenant, not unlike Westport Plaza, another LHM-owned property. But they soon started imagining other possibilities.

By 2014, Steve O’Loughlin had noticed the success of Ballpark Village as a spot for nightlife near the other end of Clark Street, not far from the LHM-owned Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark. He wondered if Union Station might be able to carve out a niche of its own.

“One thing that’s always sustainable is parents wanting to create memories for their families and for their kids and do something special,” he says. “So I started getting traction on this idea of family entertainment.”

At his father’s directive, O’Loughlin began traveling around the country to other facilities to see what attractions could be incorporated into such a project. He says Chicago’s Navy Pier – including its Ferris wheel – provided early inspiration.

Union Station fish tank

(Photo by Tom Paule Photo, Ed Aller and The St. Louis Aquarium)

But they needed the aquarium as the main draw. After initially exploring landlord-tenant relationships with a couple of the country’s most prominent aquarium operators, they made the decision to build their own.

It was a big departure from the hotel business in which O’Loughlin had worked most of his life, starting at Mehlville High School and continuing after graduating from UMSL. He spent eight years working in management positions at Hilton and Marriott properties before joining LHM in 1997.

“It’s just a hotel with fish,” O’Loughlin recalls he and his father joking with each other when they were getting started.

O’Loughlin spent months traveling to different aquariums, including in Atlanta; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Monterey, California, to gain insight into the elements they’d have to replicate to be successful.

LHM eventually worked with St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations to design its concept, McCarthy Building Companies to carry out construction and Dubai-based zoOceanarium Group, led by Nashville native Chris Davis, to manage operations.

From the virtual train ride narrated by John Goodman to the river otter, shark and stingray exhibits, people have been eager to return since June with about 80,000 visitors each month.

“I think people being quarantined and locked down for so long, they just wanted to be with their families and get out,” O’Loughlin said. “Whether it’s visiting the aquarium, getting a burger at the Soda Fountain, riding the wheel or watching the fire show, we’ve provided a lot of different elements to do that.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2020 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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