Small hotel chains like Ace Hotel are expanding in college towns and smaller hip cities.
There’s a downtown vibe to the newest 21c Museum Hotel. Contemporary artworks fill the public gallery spaces in a former factory building. The restaurant features an open kitchen, white subway tiles and stout concrete pillars. Guest rooms above look like lofts with platform beds and floor-to-ceiling drapes to draw across expansive steel-framed windows.
A trendy boutique hotel in New York or Los Angeles, perhaps? Try Oklahoma City, where the rates start at the comparatively modest $219 a night.
Like similar small but growing hotel brands, 21c has taken the lifestyle hotel more common in big cities to secondary-in-size locations, offering smart design, destination restaurants and local programming where few comparable options existed. And the choice of location for these boutiques, in cities like Lexington, Ky., and Madison, Wis., and sometimes in seasonal resort areas, makes for attractively priced weekends, especially for travelers used to paying big-city prices.
One of the earliest of its ilk, Ace Hotel opened in 1999 in Seattle, and has since progressed to both large cities, including London and New York, and smaller ones, such as Pittsburgh. The new Ace New Orleans opened in March in a former furniture store in the Warehouse District with retro design from the firm of Roman and Williams, a music venue, a New Orleans-accented Italian restaurant, a rooftop pool and rooms from $189.
Steve Wilson, a founder of 21c Museum Hotels, said: “There are a lot of cities in the country without a great hotel and they happen to be in secondary cities. It’s sort of an untapped segment of the industry.”
Here are three small hotel companies tapping it.
21c Museum Hotels
Major contemporary art collectors, Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, opened their first 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., 10 years ago to help revitalize downtown and create a cultural center in the community through their art holdings, now found throughout each of six hotels.
“We are about revitalizing city centers,” said Wilson, who had no prior experience in hotels when he started. “We thought if we were able to be successful in downtown and make the city center more interesting to live and work in, we’d be preventing sprawl.”
Most of the 21c hotels (21cmuseumhotels.com) occupy repurposed buildings, such as an automobile factory in Oklahoma City, which opened in June.
Most college towns are the domain of undistinguished chain hotels, which the new Graduate Hotels aims to change. Graduates impart a sense of place through design and food in six locations including Tempe, Arizona; Charlottesville, Virginia; Athens, Georgia; and Madison, Wisconsin.
Started in 2014, the company serves university visitors; alumni, especially on football weekends; local business communities; and at least one surprising group: wedding parties.
Lark Hotels stakes out its territory largely in New England resort destinations and small towns. Since opening four years ago, it has grown to 18 locations, including the new Summercamp that revitalized a historic hotel on Martha’s Vineyard (rooms from $149).
“The motivation was basically to bring a new, fresh, modern take on what has been happening in New England forever, which is hospitality,” said Rob Blood, the chief executive of Lark Hotels.