Specialized accommodations take over Columbus; may threaten Convention Center lodging

The boutique hotel business established a foothold in Downtown Columbus 17 years ago when the owners and management firm of the Crowne Plaza on E. Nationwide Boulevard retrofitted a five-story historic property next door. The tony Lofts Hotel was designed to attract leisure and business travelers who wanted something a bit less cookie-cutter than the typical chain-hotel room.

The Lofts, at 55 E. Nationwide Blvd., pretty much had the cool, eclectic market to itself until the Pizzuti Cos. launched Le Meridien Columbus/The Joseph just north of the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2015. And since the arts-focused, lifestyle hotel of 135 rooms opened at 620 N. High St., other Columbus developers have clamored to join the market for boutique lodging.

“Small and eclectic is what's going on here,” says Charles Lagarce, the Columbus Hospitality Management president who operates the Crowne Plaza and The Lofts for Arena District developer Nationwide Realty Investors. “They're all the rage today, whether for leisure or business travelers.”

Pizzuti Co. President Joel Pizzuti calls the Short North advantageous for the development of upscale, boutique lodging because the arts and entertainment district is a top destination for tourists and other visitors to Columbus. “The Short North is one of the first things people ask about Columbus,” Pizzuti says. Le Meridien is priced well above other Columbus hotels, whether Downtown or in the suburbs. “But we're offering a unique product,” Pizzuti says. “We've tried to raise the bar in hotel development and offering.”

All told, Columbus developers now have more than 600 rooms planned just for the three-quarters of a mile area between Nationwide Boulevard and Hubbard Avenue.

Columbus hotelier David Patel and his Indus Hotels affiliate plan to start construction this year on a 167-room Canopy by Hilton at 77 E. Nationwide Blvd., a site that had served as the headquarters for the HER Realtors brokerage. It's next door to The Lofts.

Columbus-based Continental Real Estate Cos. and North Carolina-based partner Concord Hospitality Enterprises have a 163-room tower planned at 515 Park St., at Spruce Street across from North Market.

Continental and Schiff Capital Group, also of Columbus, separately have plans to transform the Bollinger Tower low-income senior housing complex at 750 N. High St. into as many as 190 guest rooms under the Cambria Suites banner.

Crawford Hoying Development Partners, perhaps better known as a developer of suburban apartment complexes and the $300 million, mixed-use Bridge Park development under construction near downtown Dublin, has plans for 119 rooms under the Moxy by Marriott flag as part of an office-and-lodging project on the site of the shuttered Haiku restaurant at 800 N. High St.

“That's pretty dead center of the Short North action,” says Crawford Hoying principal Brent Crawford. “With all that's happening in the Short North, that's where people want to go on weekends.” For business travelers, he adds, “the Short North is a fun place to stay.”

While some may disagree, many believe the hotels—all set for construction later this year—will benefit the once-sketchy neighborhood that has attracted restaurants and retail development since its rebirth in the 1980s. “Adding those hotels,” Crawford says, “only creates more vibrancy for the restaurants.”

The hotel developers also can attract the upper echelon of the travel and tourism market. “They can make money at that,” Lagarce says of the newcomers seeking to tap the higher-end hotel market. “The hotels can demand a higher rate because they're considered luxury hotels, but without having the overhead of the public (meeting) spaces convention hotels offer.”

Boutiques also for Capitol Square

The boutique hotel growth close to the convention center isn't the only addition of rooms in the North High urban corridor. Closer to Capitol Square, Chicago-based First Hospitality Group expects to open the 149-room Hotel LeVeque, affiliated with Marriott's Autograph Collection lifestyle lodging brand, by mid-February on nine floors within the LeVeque Tower at 50 W. Broad St.

Meanwhile, Mississippi developer Dawn Properties still wants to build out 117 rooms within the Hayden buildings at 16-20 E. Broad St., even though the company has been denied state historic preservation tax credits three times for the property next to the Rhodes State Office Tower.

And a boutique hotel is rumored for part of the PNC Plaza south of E. Broad Street between 3rd and 4th streets, but new owners of the property, Edwards Cos., would not comment.

While other buildings will be converted into hotels, the LeVeque Tower is reclaiming a piece of its past. Opened in 1927 as the American Insurance Union Citadel, the building included not only offices but a 600-room addition to the neighboring, since-demolished Deshler-Wallick Hotel. The hotel portion later became offices, but two residences remained at the top levels.

Michael Shannon, sales and marketing director for the new Hotel LeVeque, says the select-service, boutique hotel just a block from Capitol Square will offer upscale service to visiting business executives or those attending shows at the Palace Theatre and events along the Scioto Mile.

The hotel “will be exactly like nothing else. The level of service needs to match the quality of the interior and exterior of the building,” Shannon says. “Our competition is in the Short North, which is more of an arts district. We're in the central business district,” he adds.

With “a starry night” as the hotel's theme, the lobby features a sculptured chandelier and plans for a daily light show of projected stars on the ceiling at dusk as guests are invited to drink “Prohibition cocktails.” Guest rooms will have light projectors on bedside tables projecting an image of a galaxy, while the suites offer a wet bar. “It's all about setting the mood so you can relax,” Shannon says.

A 150-seat, mezzanine-level lounge and restaurant dubbed “the Keep” will have a speakeasy feel and be open to the public. Autograph Collection regulations mandate that the Keep must be ready before guests can book and check into the hotel. A spa also will be open to the public, but a fitness room is just for hotel guests. Hotel LeVeque will have two conference rooms/private dining rooms as well as a large, executive style conference room.

Undercutting convention efforts?

The prospect of all these new hotels has raised significant concerns about overbuilding. Brian Ross, CEO of tourism and convention promoter Experience Columbus, says that with the completion of a $125 million expansion and renovation of the convention center, the addition of too many boutique and select-service hotels will undercut efforts to build more full-service convention hotel rooms.

Those rooms, he says, are essential to attracting the larger conventions that the expanded convention center was designed to attract as Columbus seeks to better compete with cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Nashville.

“We're very fortunate we have this expansion and renovation of the convention center,” Ross says. “To maximize that (facility) and the increase in interest in Columbus for conventions and trade shows, we need to increase the convention hotel inventory.”

In fact, an industry consulting firm in 2015 advised the city's civic leadership and stakeholders in the convention and hospitality industry that Columbus needs a convention host hotel of up to 1,000 rooms to attract the major gatherings possible for expanded and refreshed convention halls. That could be accomplished through expansion of the 36-year-old Hyatt Regency Columbus or perhaps remote expansion of the Hilton Columbus Downtown, which opened across the street just four years ago with 532 rooms.

Ross cautions that the boutique and lifestyle hotels in the pipeline not only lower occupancy and average daily rates in a market, but they also typically don't participate in marketing of the convention center by committing guest rooms for conventions at discounted rates. Ross says those lodging packages must get committed four to seven years in advance when Experience Columbus and its travel and tourism competitors bid on the larger conventions, meetings and trade shows.

“When you have too many select-service hotels,” Ross says, “you create a problem attracting those new conventions to a city.”

Ross and Lagarce express confidence, though, that a plan for more convention hotel rooms will emerge this year. Lagarce suggests adding 370 rooms to the Hyatt—in which Nationwide Realty Investors controls a 55-percent stake—“is the best option.” That's because the anchor convention hotel already has the meeting space and other amenities in place, he says. “You just poke another tower right up there.”

Lagarce also has a measured reaction to prospects of the new hotels. “I'm not terribly concerned,” he says, “because of the timing and the size of the (individual) hotels.”

Still, Crawford says he is eager to complete the zoning and variance approval process and get his hotel and office tower on the old Haiku property under construction as early as April 1, a few months before his competition gets underway.

In an increasingly competitive market, time is of the essence.

“If you wait too long,” he says, “you may reach a saturation point and lose your opportunity. Certainly, we want to be first to market with all of those other competitors out there.”

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.