Location, location, location. It’s a common theme among planners, but there is only so much space in highly desirable downtown areas of captivating, easy-to-reach cities. Hoteliers have taken a new tack to address this shortcoming, converting previously commercial spaces and historic buildings into funky hotels with a backstory and unique pre-built décor, and with all the amenities of a traditional hotel.
While easily adaptable spaces such as former homes and civil spaces have long taken on new life as accommodations, many new hotel openings today highlight increasingly non-traditional spaces, from airport hangars to prisons to hospitals. The trend offers meeting planners many of the things they need most in one package: an automatic unique setting preferably without extra costs for décor and typically located in prime downtown locations of walkable, historic cities.
“The older spaces tend to have more vertical spaces, which is beautiful as well depending on what you’re doing.” — Patricia Alonzo
Renovating historic spaces into hotels isn’t an entirely new concept, but the number of conversions is rising every year. Nearly one-fifth of Kimpton’s buildings started out with other uses. The Marriott chain uses repurposed buildings for 10 to 20 percent of one of their brands and has an entire line devoted primarily to strikingly unique historic conversions — the Autograph Collection. Properties such as St. Ermin’s Hotel in London is part of the portfolio as is the Union Station Hotel – Autograph Collection, Nashville’s former railroad terminal.
When it opened in 2007, after nearly 30 years of preservation, planning and persistence, the Union Station Hotel was one of the first of a new wave of hotels that prized its historic origins and thoughtfully incorporated those elements into a modern setting. While the guest rooms highlight many original features, such as 18-foot ceilings in the fifth-floor signature rooms, some of the best historical touches are in the hotel’s 12,000 sf of meeting space, which includes the original train entrance lobby and the mayor’s meeting room with original stained-glass window, fireplace and walnut paneling.
Today, hotel newswires are thick with reports of unique or covetously located repurposed hotels. One of the most sought after sites was The Old Post Office in the nation’s capital. Donald J. Trump’s organization was the ultimate winner. The Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C., is scheduled to be completely transformed by 2016 into “one of the finest hotels anywhere in the world,” said Trump, president and chairman of the Trump Organization, at the groundbreaking ceremony in July 2014.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop one of this country’s most historic buildings, and we will spare no effort to ensure that the hotel…lives up to the legacy and integrity of this iconic landmark,” said Ivanka Trump, executive vice president, Trump Hotel Collection at the ceremony. “Our commitment to historic preservation and long history of redeveloping landmark properties is reflected in our design approach, which is inspired by the legacy of this great structure and executed in a manner that captures the sophistication and luxury of our brand.”
In April in Stockholm, one of the most striking art nouveau buildings opened — the 1910 Ateneum school for girls, envisioned in sleek new Scandanavian style as the 92-room Miss Clara, with artisanal wood and leatherwork throughout and two meeting spaces for mid-sized groups.
Shortly after, in June, Le Méridien brand debuted its new Le Méridien Tampa in the city’s 100-year-old federal courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The $26 million renovation created 130 guest rooms and 4,000 sf of meeting space, including a grand ballroom. The hotel has incorporated the original marble and terrazzo lobby into its signature Le Méridien entrance experience — The Hub.
In 2015 in Columbus, Ohio, a more than $20 million renovation of the historic LeVeque Tower, the tallest building between New York and Chicago when it opened in 1927, will include a 47-story, 155-room Marriott Autograph Collection and, later in the year, The Foundation Hotel will debut in the 1929 Detroit Fire Department Headquarters. The Aparium Hotel Group will transform the one-of-a-kind space into a 100-room hotel with a “Detroit State of Mind.”
Planners are increasingly finding that the built-in extras of these venues provide them with more for less. Hotels built in historic venues automatically make guests say, “Wow, that’s cool!”
For Nicole Wei, corporate senior marketing manager for Waltham, Massachusetts-based data management company Actifio, it’s all about the wow. “We’re a very innovative company, and we wanted to find a place that’s very different, not your typical Marriott ballroom type of place,” she explains. “I’m always looking for a place that’s out of the box and is striking for folks, especially when they’re coming from overseas and are used to something different than your average American hotel.”
Due to her location in Waltham, Massachusetts, 15 miles outside Boston, The Liberty Hotel was an easy choice for internal attendees, but also provided the something extra she wanted to provide for external attendees. She held her 2012 and 2014 annual kick-off events for the company salesforce and global customer partners, some of whom arrived from as far away as Dubai and Australia, at The Liberty.
“I think people were pretty much bowled over,” she said. “Their jaws dropped. When you check in, you roll into this rotunda with music bumping, and people are taken aback by the place. It makes it more fun and laidback. They loved it: the hotel in general, the atmosphere, the vibe,” she continues. “It’s funny with folks checking in with their kids and others are walking around with drinks, and local folks know now it has that vibe, but professionals, especially in the tech industry, are not used to that. It’s kind of a boutique hotel, but at the same time, it’s a Starwood.”
“Anytime you have a building that’s been restored or changed, you get to keep some of the history, so it’s not just a cookie-cutter hotel,” says Candace Barrow, director of operations for Nashville, Tennessee-based Safe Step Walk-In Tub Co. Barrow recently conducted a meeting for sales and call center managers to discuss a new product at the Renaissance Denver Downtown City Center Hotel, which was constructed in 1915 as the Colorado National Bank and now has 6,000 sf of meeting space.
In addition to small historical touches, the hotel has preserved key aspects of the original banking business. “One of my favorite parts was the history wall, with original letters about the architecture and some of the deals they made,” says Barrow. “It was interesting and unique and gave people something to talk about besides business. They also had the original bank clock, and the whole space was beautiful, just gorgeous. I really liked the architecture; the marble columns were still there, and three of the meeting spaces are actually bank vaults. We will definitely be going there again.”
Due to the incredibly unique setting, Kaitlyn Morrell, manager of volunteer services at Gresham, Oregon-based Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center, holds her annual volunteer recognition dinner for around 150 attendees in Blackberry Hall at Edgefield, which has served as the county poor farm, tuberculosis hospital, jail, insane asylum, and nursing home and rehabilitation center. “McMenamins (the parent company of Edgefield) is a favorite among Oregonians!” she says. They also operate a 1915 elementary school in northeast Portland, a 1939 Catholic schoolhouse in Bend, a 1922 Masonic Lodge in Forest Grove and a 1908 Old West saloon in Centralia as hotels.
“We were looking for a local venue large enough to host our group, but fit within our budget, and Edgefield is always the perfect choice,” Morrell explains. “We love the unique artwork and design of Edgefield. Additionally, Blackberry Hall is very versatile for setup, with several entrances, and you can set up the room in a variety of ways. With historic hotels, you have to evaluate the space first. Depending on the artwork, lighting and overall layout of the room, you might become inspired to think outside of the box when planning a conference, meeting or special event.”
Though many planners assume that historic spaces will be dark and cramped, historic commercial buildings that have been converted into hotels often provide the exact opposite atmosphere.
“It was so nice to be in a beautiful place that was open and airy,” says Patricia Alonzo, global manager of creative connection at New York City, NY-based global marketing and communications company Y&R, about her experience at Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Rome, the former Dresdner Bank built in 1889 in Berlin, Germany.
“It was nice to feel like you were outside and not stuck indoors. What tends to be the case with these meetings is that you’re in this nice city, but you feel like you’re locked in a dungeon. It messes with the flow and the overall ambience and the energy you want in the room. When you’re cooped up, you lose focus and all you’re thinking is: when is my next break, when can I step outside.”
The former Dresdner Bank has made a name for itself as a light-filled meeting space that brings the city in so that attendees feel like they get to see the city even when they are in sessions. The 3,000-sf ballroom was once the cashier’s hall and opens to the city with windows along the 30-foot-high ceilings and to the sky with a glass room. When the season permits, receptions on the rooftop terrace heighten the experience further.
“This hotel was chosen by our travel department for its great space and amazing location, and the grand ballroom was like the cherry on top,” says Alonzo. “It was super spacious, had everything we needed, and, even nicer, it has a glass ceiling, which is a huge, domed space. It was hands down the best meeting room I’ve had. It lent itself to everything: when sunny, it shined in bright and felt invigorating, and it was even nice to feel like the rain was falling on top of you. You felt like you were one with whatever nature was offering, and the space was super versatile and more than enough space to segment as we needed.
“What makes our group different is the fact that, coming from an agency and being an entire group of creative folks, there’s something really beautiful with attention to detail and the style of that era,” she continues. “It’s a source of inspiration. The older spaces tend to have more vertical spaces, which is beautiful as well depending on what you’re doing.”
Joelle Novak, project manager for Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based Alamo Pharma Services, also found that natural light at the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia, located in the landmark Lafayette Building built in 1907, a huge plus for her 50-person, four-night new product training meeting. “We used the larger ballroom on the first floor or downstairs, and I loved it because there are windows,” she said. “It gave it that little bit of something when you want natural light for conversations and role-playing. Everybody, as soon as they walked in, said, ‘Oh, this is the coolest hotel.’ ”
The repurposing of historic buildings into hotels has picked up in recent years, and we can expect this trend to continue.
For meeting planners, these renovations mean that an old building doesn’t mean cramped meeting spaces and dark rooms, but rather a way to check off many of their most important venue criteria all in one neat, often centrally located and fascinating package. C&IT