Brenda Block has spent thousands of nights in a hotel, but she hasn’t even left town. Brenda has been the manager and an owner of the Super 8 in Milbank since 1985. Recently, she decided it was check-out time and placed the hotel on the market. In February, she passed the keys to the new owner, Sapan Desai.
The Super 8 brand was only about 10 years old when Brenda assisted Earl Bohlen, a realtor and real estate developer, in establishing Milbank’s Super 8. The first Super 8 was built in 1974 in Aberdeen, South Dakota. It took its name from its room rate of $8.88.
Today, Super 8 features 2,141 locations around the world and is a subsidiary of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a hospitality company with 22 brands in 95 countries and nearly 9000 hotels.
Brenda (Adelman), who grew up in Rosen and graduated from Bellingham High School, moved to Milbank shortly after she and her husband, Brian, were married. Brenda began working for Earl to manage the Landmark Motel. The Landmark, which was reincarnated as apartments on East Milbank Avenue, lived its former life as a motel on Milbank’s Main Street just north of the Grant County Courthouse and across from the City Aud.
Brenda remembers, “Earl had a college kid helping him out that summer, but he was looking for someone to manage the Landmark full time, and the job included a live-in apartment. He needed somebody to do it all, and I do mean all. I cleaned, took reservations, answered the phone, and checked people in. It was a 24 hours a day, seven days a week job because I couldn’t hire any staff.”
“When I had to leave, I put up a note saying, ‘back in an hour.’ At that time, it wasn’t a big deal. Earl warned me the position wasn’t going to last forever because it wasn’t a very busy motel, and he was going to convert it to apartments. When he switched it over, I worked with him through the conversion process. I painted and did other /work to fix it up.”
One day in early 1985, he asked me, ‘Do you want to manage another motel?’ I remember my exact words,” she says with a laugh. “I said, ’It has to be busier than this one!’” Earl said, “I’m looking into bringing a new motel to town. Probably a Super 8, and I need a manager.” They opened in November 1985.
A lot of things had to happen before they opened the doors, though. “We joined forces through the summer,” Brenda says, “I wouldn’t say I made major decisions, but I got the furnishings going and the business paperwork set up. A lot of that prep work I did at Earl’s office. I was pretty young and pretty green and Earl was an excellent role model for me. He gave me a lot of inspiration for operating a good and successful business”.
Brenda is a high-energy multi-tasker, so it’s not surprising when she casually mentions, “I also went to Super 8 training school in September in Aberdeen. Oh, and during all that time, I was pregnant with my first baby. I was due on November 20, but that seemed like good timing as we were going to open before November.”
“That was our plan, anyway,” she says, “but that summer was very rainy.” Construction was delayed. “Finally, we were ready on November 4 and Earl asked me, ‘When should we plan our Grand Opening?’ ‘Let’s set it for November 15,’ I answered, ‘I can get the Grand Opening out of the way, and then I’ll have my baby.’ I actually thought that’s how things worked.” She laughs again. “Well, my water broke on the morning of the 15th. I missed the Grand Opening because I was in the hospital delivering my oldest daughter Heather.
I had Plan B organized, though. Brian took care of the meet-and-greet with the guests. My mom and my mother-in-law also stepped in to help. Although I wasn’t there on Grand Opening day, I worked every day after it.”
What year did she purchase the business? “Earl explained my job came with the requirement that I buy into the business,” she says. “So, I started as an investor from Day One. Six others were also involved. Through the years, I bought them out. By January 2012, I had bought out all the partners, including Earl. Since then, Brian and I have owned 100 percent. I knew when I invested in the Super 8 that I would probably stick it out for some time, but I had no idea it would be nearly 40 years,” she marvels.
“It was a good career choice for me, though, because I could work and still be at home to raise my family. Back in the day, nobody worked at home.”
“I had attended SDSU to be a home-ec teacher. I thought I was going to be an educator. But, of course, life changed. And I’m very satisfied with the career I chose. The hospitality industry is a fun business. It’s easy as long as you enjoy hosting people and making them feel at home. That, of course, is key.”
She points to the good help she found along the way, too. “I think I usually had about 12 employees and a lot of them were part-timers. Several of them juggled other jobs during the week and just worked at the hotel on evenings or weekends.
Carol Halverson stayed with me for 20 years. She wasn’t full-time because she also worked at State Auto. Mary Ellen Buchele was here for 13-plus years. Bianca Barrios was my main housekeeper for over five years. I had a very good staff. We attained and maintained the Super 8 Pride status for many years. That meant keeping a standard of excellence according to the Wyndham system.
But she says, “It’s equally important to change with the times. When we opened in 1985, some of our rooms featured waterbeds. Those were the upgraded rooms,” she says and laughs. Our standard room rate then was $23.88.
Brenda experienced a myriad of other changes over the years, but says “the biggest one was going from paper to digital. Everything from reservations to check-out used to be done by hand.”
Back in the day, rooms also had dial-up phones and sometimes you had to pay to use them. You looked up numbers in the phone book kept in the nightstand. Brenda says, ‘We still have telephones in the rooms. We definitely don’t need as many telephone lines anymore. Now, the number one thing guests leave behind is a phone charger. We collected a lot of those and would pass them on to people who had forgotten theirs at home. The front desk also stocked combs, razors, deodorant, toothpaste, and toothbrushes for guests who had forgotten them. And they often did.”
Although the hotel still has a few vending machines, Brenda thinks they might be removed when the new owner remodels. “Things have transitioned to more of a marketplace at the front desk,” she says. “And breakfast has also undergone a major transformation. When we started, we only served coffee. Then we put out Danish pastries and it evolved over the years. Now, we offer eight breakfast items, including hot waffles. Breakfast is definitely what travelers want.”
And Brenda knows her customers. “We always had a good amount of repeat business travelers, including through the weekend, and that was year-round. In the summertime, the hotel was even busier because there were more events for leisure travelers then. But the majority of our business was commercial. We welcomed guests from every state in the union, and our overseas customers generally came from Europe.”
‘Regardless of where they hailed from, Brenda says It was fun to get acquainted with them. “We had regulars that came every week, or maybe every two or three weeks. I got to know them and heard about their families. They liked to visit because they were on the road by themselves. They got kind of lonely. I would hear about what was going on with them and they would catch up on what was going on with me. They watched my kids grow up. A lot of my customers were like family.”
“We lived at the Super 8 until our son, Chris, was about five years old. In 1999, we bought a place in the country. By then, I had been in the motel business for 14 years and we had three kids. Chris was an outdoorsy person, and I didn’t want to raise him on concrete. Heather had just become a teenager, and so we thought being on a farm would be good for everyone. I will never regret that decision.”
After we moved out, I continued to hire a night manager, an individual or couple, and they lived in the hotel apartment and took care of the nighttime hours.
Overall, those years were pretty busy. I was on the board of directors for the Milbank Chamber and also served as its president. I was part of the Glacial Lakes and Prairies tourism organizations. My children attended St. Lawrence School, so I was active in their parent group. I was on the extension board appointed to oversee the 4-H operations in Grant County, and I did a lot of volunteer work with 4-H when my kids were involved. After they were done, too. I have also been on the board of our area’s Chautauqua Concert Association for over 35 years and I’m active in their membership campaign.
Now her kids are all grown up. Brenda and Brian sold their farm about five years ago and bought a house in the Black Hills. We started to share our time between the Hills and Milbank, and we moved back to the apartment at the Super 8.
It proved to be a convenient arrangement during Covid as she had only a skeleton crew. “I had to assist the housekeepers during the day and work the desk in the evening. Business was still good, though, What really saved us was the construction going on in the area. Construction workers were considered essential workers and they became the mainstay of our business.
She is grateful now, though, for a schedule that will allow her to spend more time with her children and granddaughters. “Heather has two, Heidi has two, and Chris’s girlfriend Celina, also has a little daughter.”
Heather is married to Kiel Zinter and they live in Milbank. Heidi lives in western North Dakota in Regent, which Brenda says is near the end of the earth, kind of between Bismarck and Dickinson. Chris lives out in the Hills. “So”, she says, “we can form a triangle: leave Milbank, drive up to see Heidi, and then go down to the Hills.”
Reflecting on the last four decades prompts Brenda to repeat how much she will miss the people — her staff and her guests. “But,” she attests, “I feel I achieved the American dream. I worked hard to start with, but I kept going, and eventually, I owned my own business and was able to make all my own decisions. Owning a business was challenging, but it was rewarding. Very rewarding.
And now her successor is ready for his shot at the American dream. The new owner, Sapan Desai, is originally from eastern India and arrived in Milbank via Virginia. He and his family lived in Fairfax, Virginia, for six years to get accustomed to the US and allow Desai to choose a career path. When Desai visited his cousins, who are in the hotel business in Texas, a lightbulb went on. He immediately began searching for a hotel property that was small enough for him to manage by himself.
Last fall, he viewed properties in Nebraska and Wyoming, but when he and his family looked around Milbank things suddenly got settled. He and his wife, Gantry, and their nine-year-old son moved to South Dakota in the middle of January.
Brenda recalls, “They came when it was really, really cold. After they had been in Milbank for a few days, he sent me a text that went something like, ‘Um, when does it warm up here?’” Brenda says, “I thought: I’m not going to answer that. He’ll get used to it.”
She knows Sapan will be spending some time remodeling because, in order to get the franchise from Wyndham, he had to agree to a property improvement plan. She explains, “Wyndham forces new owners to bring things up to the standard of a Super 8 just opening. New furniture in the rooms, new carpet. I was surprised he was required to replace some things because they were in good shape. But, it’s a 20-year contract and they are probably afraid that if they don’t put those things on the list now, they are going to be there for another 20 years. I believe he plans to keep most of the staff, though.”
Until recently, Brenda also remained at the hotel to help train Desai. But now, she has no reservations about letting him take over. She and Brian plan to do more traveling this year, which means more nights in hotels. This time around, though, she won’t have to make the beds.
Photo: Brian & Brenda Block, Sapan & Gantry Desai and their son