The Hotel Boom

The hospitality world is changing – and Providence is leading the way

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“This is one of my favorite rooms,” says Jeff Karam, stepping through an open door. Jeff walks to the middle of the freshly laid carpet, and windows stretch on either side of him. The space isn’t quite finished; the bedframe is half constructed; the floor lamp has no shade. But all the important elements are here – fresh paint, electrical sockets, and the view. The room occupies a corner of the Homewood Suites, and the spotless vertical windows overlook the Woonasquatucket River.

“This is probably the smallest room we have,” says Jeff. “But the views are amazing.” In a few months, this room will be the perfect place to see WaterFire. From where he’s standing, a guest could watch the gondolas glide down the dark water, setting braziers ablaze. Jeff points to the small closet in the corner, which is wedged between sheets of glass. “The biggest challenge in here was trying not to block all the views.”

Jeff is leading a hard-hat tour through the nearly finished hotel. The building is eight stories tall and contains 120 rooms. Since its soft opening in late March, the Homewood Suites has become the first extended-stay property in downtown Providence. The model is literally groundbreaking, catering to long-term guests in the heart of Downcity.

As vice president of First Bristol Corporation, a Fall River-based developer, Jeff is the portrait of the 21st century entrepreneur: thick black beard, leaden blue suit, and a starched white shirt with no tie. He walks purposefully from lounge to stairwell, from bedroom to kitchenette, and his voice quavers with excitement. In the gym, Jeff speaks with authority about top-notch exercise machines and noise cancelling windows. Again and again, he drives the point home: Guests can stay for weeks, or even months. Rooms have stoves, full-size refrigerators, and wheeled workstations. For consultants, contractors, and visiting nurses, Homewood puts the visitor squarely in the middle of Providence, with many of the comforts of home. “It’s like renting an apartment,” says Jeff. “No one’s going to lease you something for two or three months. But we have everything you need, and you can stay as long as you want.”

First Bristol is a family company, and Alyssa Karam has joined the tour. She serves as asset manager, and she’s also Jeff’s sister. As she enters each new room, her eyes blaze with pride. “This is our tenth hotel,” she says, “and design-wise, we’re able to figure out from all our other products what works, what doesn’t work, what we need, what guests ask for, guest complaints. That really helps us as we’re developing properties.”

This thoroughness is important, because Homewood Suites will face a lot of competition in the next year – from all the existing hotels in Providence, plus seven new ones. Beyond that, Homewood must adapt to changing demands. Hotel guests of 2019 aren’t the guests of 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. And studio-like suites are just one accommodation that travelers are clamoring for.

Be Our Guest

Yes, Providence is in the middle of a “hotel boom.” That’s the simple way to put it. Within the next year or so, occupancy rates will skyrocket. Visitors will find more options than ever before, from bunk beds to penthouses to micro-lofts. New eateries will open up, partnerships will be forged with local retail, and thousands more out-of-towners will be able to rest their heads. Unlike suburban chains, most of these hotels will be nestled among urban towers.

But what does this boom actually look like? The latest data comes from the 2017-2018 fiscal year: Until recently, tourists could pick from about 2,500 hotel rooms in Providence. According to the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (PWCVB), conventions, meetings, and sporting events contributed $73.65 million in direct spending to the local economy. The PWCVB and the Rhode Island Sports Commission hosted 238 groups, which amounts to 112,464 “room nights,” as they’re known in the industry. Just the Dunkin Donuts Convention Center and Rhode Island Convention Center alone accounted for 71,904 room nights; if you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s the equivalent of 196 rooms being taken every night of the year.

The strength of conventions and local sports – plus leisure travel and the academic sector – may explain why demand for a place to stay is steadily climbing. The average daily rate for a room jumped from $165.52 to $170.20 during those same 12 months. Occupancy ascended from 70.8 percent to 74.2 percent; typical occupancy for a city of our size is in the 60 percent range. In short, Providence needs hotels. And if all goes well, the city will have nearly 1,000 more rooms within the next year or so.

The boom started about 13 months ago, when WoodSpring Suites opened on Corliss Street, about a mile north of Downcity. Like the Karams’ new project, WoodSpring is an extended-stay hotel, with 124 rooms designed for long-term habitation. From the street, WoodSpring is a standard low-rise building, its wide walls painted white and teal.

But WoodSpring’s completion was a landmark moment in the local hospitality industry; this venue is the first of eight new hotels scheduled to rise within city limits. Homewood Suites and the Residence Inn are on the verge of opening. The Hotel Beatrice, a boutique hotel, is expected to occupy the historic 1887 Exchange Bank building. At press time, four more hotels were still in development: Holiday Inn Express, Best Western GLo, Hotel Hive, and Aloft. To a casual observer, all those new properties may seem like an overnight coup. But there’s more to the story than just a bunch of hotels going up.

The “boom” has been a years-long process, and each hotel reflects a changing landscape – not only for Providence, but for global tourism. Travelers are changing. People are changing. The market is rapidly evolving, and so is our city center.

A lesson in cool from The Dean: Providence’s hippest boutique hotel isn’t just for visitors

For a long time, Providence didn’t embrace the idea of the boutique hotel. Then The Dean happened, turning a downtrodden building with a seedy past into the must-stay destination in the city. And GQ noticed. So did Vogue, Architectural Digest, Travel + Leisure, and Town & Country. But most importantly, Providence noticed.

The real difference between The Dean and other hotels in the city – some of which have tried to position themselves as destinations for locals to varying degrees of success – is that there are good reasons to hang out there, even if you’re not heading up to one of the 52 rooms filled with vintage art and local furniture at the end of the night. It’s not just a landing pad for out-of-towners when they come to Providence. It’s a part of the cityscape, and it feels so organic to what PVD is about that locals hang out there just because it’s a cool place to spend an evening. The fact that North, busting out of its West Side location, chose The Dean as its new downtown home says a lot about what the hotel is doing right.

Then there’s the rest. The Magdalenae Room is a sexy bar from Mike Sears of Lili Marlene’s and Justine’s, which has excellent cocktails and lots of dark corners.
The Boombox is an Asian-inspired private room karaoke lounge by The Salon’s Ethan Feirstein, with a fun selection of sake and Japanese candy. Bolt Coffee, which also has a location in the RISD Museum, roasts its beans on the West Side and keeps people caffeinated with really good brews. The bikes for guest use come from Dash Bicycle. The Dean gets Providence, and we, in turn, get to enjoy The Dean. They even do a partnership with Courtland Club, where some guests are put in an Uber and sent to an undisclosed location, which turns out to be the Federal Hill speakeasy, where they can drink from the private whiskey stash the hotel keeps there.

The thing is, though, that it’s not just that The Dean is cool. It’s that The Dean is showing people that Providence is cool, in an easy, Instagram-friendly way that’s readily apparent, even if you’re only staying for one night. That’s why all of those national publications focus on that particular hotel. And because they do, they’re ushering the city into a new level of recognition - which means more tourists, more tax money, more investment and forward momentum for everything Providence is working so hard to become. -Julie Tremaine

Hyperlocal and Individual

“It isn’t sudden, it’s strategic,” says Kristen Adamo, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for PWCVB. “We’re not just getting more hotels. We’re getting different kinds of hotels.” Providence already has a healthy and diverse hotel industry, especially for a city that is routinely labeled “second-tier.” We have the century-old Biltmore Hotel, which was recently acquired by AJ Capital Partners of Chicago and will metamorphose into Graduate Providence. We have stately hotels like the Renaissance, Omni, and Hotel Providence. There’s Hotel Dolce Villa, a boutique hotel in Federal Hill. We even have Esperanto Providence Hostel and Guesthouse, a comfy crash-pad for backpackers. And even the existing hotels continue to evolve. The Providence Marriott, a resort-like hotel that is best known for AQUA, has undergone systemic renovations in recent months, with the intent of making the aesthetics more local and unique. “Soon we will reveal a new approach to indulgence in travel,” says Farouk Rajab, the location’s general manager. “We have partnered with a local designer, DiLeonardo, to tell the story of our city through an innovative hotel design. This iconic building is destined to lead the local hospitality industry for many years to come.”

The most conspicuous hotel is The Dean. Here, guests find avant garde art, Edison lamps, and Bolt, the upscale coffee bar. The Dean offers the same basics as any other hotel – beds, bathrooms, an in-house bar – but the atmosphere is deliberately offbeat, like a European pensione decorated by Andy Warhol. With its vertical “Hotel” sign out front, The Dean is photogenic and fun; even the lobby looks designed for Instagram. As the hotel scene expands, so will its intended audience. Tom Riel is vice president of sales and service for PWCVB, and he uses himself as an example: Tom is in his 50s, and when he travels for work, he prefers to stay in his room, attend scheduled meetings, and grab a nightcap at the hotel bar. Yet he’s fully aware that younger travelers are moving away from this tradition. “The majority of travelers today – who are the Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials – they come in, drop everything, and they want to get out and experience what the city’s all about,” he says. “They want to live like a local. And that’s been a generational shift.”

“I think it has a lot to do with social media,” says Kristen. “If you travel, what do you do? Do you post your pictures on Facebook? You want to have a more immersive experience. You might be a hard core foodie who wants to get to those Asian fish markets on Broad Street. Or you might be someone who really likes green space and wants to run on Blackstone Boulevard. What it’s about is curating an individual experience.”

Providence is ripe for this kind of sojourn: Downtown is walkable and easy to navigate. Guests find restaurants, JUMP bikes, and novelty shops on on every major street. Most visitors can easily pick up a car at T.F. Green Airport and park downtown; meanwhile, a fleet of taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts may render car rentals unnecessary. Providence appeals to demographics that even Rhode Islanders may not think of, such as LGBTQ tourism and military reunions. Without much planning, our capital is a perfect launchpad for day-trips across the state. Scan the Internet for a few minutes – or visit GoProvidence.com for handy neighborhood guides – and you can embark on a localvore adventure with little more than a wallet. You may not even have to cross the street.

“We really sell the destination on its walkability,” says Tom. “We tell our customers about it, but when we get them here for a site visit, they always have an ‘ah-ha moment.’ They say, ‘Oh, you told me, but I didn’t realize.’” “We studied the new millennial mindset,” says Jim Abdo, the visionary behind Hotel Hive Providence. “When I say that, I don’t mean this is a millennial-based hotel. But we think the millennial mindset has had an impact across all age groups. Less is more. A shared economy makes sense.” The first Hotel Hive opened in Washington, DC, in 2016, and it was a game-changer for the nation’s capital.

Set in an historic building in Foggy Bottom, Hotel Hive offers “micro-loft” accommodations for far less than a typical inside-the-Beltway hotel room. The rooms are simple but trendy, with exposed brick, visible wood beams, and inspirational quotes that look like they’ve been typewritten into the walls.

Jim’s next project is Hotel Hive Providence. He will renovate two long-dormant buildings, the formers offices of the Providence Journal and the former site of Kresge’s department store, both located on Westminster Street. If Hive DC was a revelation for that city, Hive Providence is a total paradigm shift: The hotel will incorporate 129 micro- loft rooms, plus rentable apartments, restaurants, retail, a rooftop entertainment venue, and Hive HQ, its own coworking space. Hive won’t just be a place to stay the night; it will be a mixed-use community unto itself. “We call it refined minimalism,” says Jim, who speaks with the precise intensity of a TED lector. “When people are traveling, more often than not, they will spend more time in a social space than sequestered in their rooms. We want to encourage people to all come together. When you think of what a hive is, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of buzz, and it’s an efficient use of space.”

Hive is an outlier, but it may become the face of this new mentality: Abdo Development hired a Rhode Island architect, Eric Zuena, to design the $30 million structure. While Jim himself isn’t as well known in New England, his DC developments are legendary, and he’s spent more than 30 years as an “adaptive reuse and historic preservationist.” Jim says he wants the hotel to be a “multi-generational” business, not a real estate investment that he can quickly flip for profit. His research seems impeccable, and he talks about downtown Providence like a longtime resident – or, at the very least, someone who cares deeply about the city’s future.

“I want to go to cities that are on the verge of a transformation,” says Jim. “We try to get people to think inward, not outward. We like to celebrate the historical integrity of the buildings we target. Westminster is already a great street. I tip my hat to all the businesses and pioneers who preceded us. We want to help make those businesses stronger. And we feel very honored.

As buildings continue to go up, most of us may struggle to imagine them until they’re complete – and travelers will learn them more quickly than full time residents. But our city is becoming a destination as never before. And for the foreseeable future, there will be room at the inn.