If you build it, they will come, especially if you put your hotel in Portland’s hip downtown.
In hotel-speak they call it a sense of arrival: that first impression you get when you walk into a hotel lobby and know you’ve landed in just the right place. It’s the hotel designer’s job to effect this sense of arrival. But when does a city really arrive? And how do we chart that arrival? Mark 2014 as a turning point for Portland, Maine. For years the city has had all the key ingredients in place: a thriving farm-to-table movement, a stunning stretch of coastline, a seriously good music and writing scene, vibrant art galleries, and a cutting-edge museum. But four new hotels came to downtown Portland this year. That’s 450 rooms, if you’re counting, and this hotel binge may prove to be the city’s tipping point.
I wanted to understand what the hotel developers saw when they looked to build in this small, fiercely independent city, and the only way to do that was to put on a hardhat. So I walked the hotel construction zones. I rode service elevators and looked at blueprints. I climbed back stairs, studied site lines, and scrutinized energy-efficient generators. My journey into hotel-land took me from the top of the Old Port to the working waterfront, then back up to the Arts District, and many places in between.
If you build it, they will come, especially if you put your hotel in Portland’s hip downtown. Or at least this is the working credo of the city’s wave of new hotels. Jeff Cappellieri, VP of sales and marketing for the Westin Portland Harborview, says that when the chain began renovations on the iconic Eastland Hotel, “the old girl really needed a big redo.” It took two years and 50 million dollars. The designers brought in a clean, modern sensibility and kept the very best parts of the past—the gorgeous, chunky art deco ceiling moldings, the sweeping staircase in the grand ballroom, and the famous Top of the East bar with its panoramic views.
The Westin is now the largest hotel in Maine, with 289 rooms, and it sits across from the Portland Museum of Art in the center of the Arts District. When he sells a room at the Westin, Cappellieri says he’s selling Portland. “Where would you like to be?” he asks. “In the suburbs near the airport or in the center of the Arts District in the heart of Portland, surrounded by some of the best restaurants in the country?” He says it’s all about “that sense of arrival,” and he works hard with his staff to create a welcoming space. He’s booking well into 2015 now and is pleased that leisure travelers are coming to Portland, but also corporate business travelers and wedding guests. “Portland is on everyone’s radar now.”
When you think of a Hyatt hotel, you think national brand. But Tim Soley, owner and developer of Portland’s new Hyatt Place, took the strength of that big-brand identity and created a hotel that feels entirely new. Soley, who also owns East Brown Cow, a Portland-based real estate development firm, asked incisive urban planning questions when he conceived of his hotel: how could he make the design as bold as possible? How could the lobby remain open to the street and connect the hotel back to the city?
Together Soley and lead architect Patrick Costin, of Canal 5 Studio, pushed the envelope of design at Hyatt Place. They built a modern structure with a matte charcoal gray outer casing and a transparent glass wall that runs the outside of the lobby. There’s also a top-to-bottom crinkle-glass wall that wraps around one corner of the hotel. The look is decidedly contemporary and design-smart: a boutique hotel inside a brand hotel in the middle of the Old Port, complete with restaurant, bar, and local art.
You won’t find a Hyatt Place like this one anywhere else in the country, nor one as energy-efficient. Soley is fully committed to making his Hyatt green-certified. The hotel has LED lighting, airtight blown insulation, and low-flush toilets as well as other carefully considered aspects to make the structure as carbon-neutral as possible. Why build his hotel now? Soley says, “Portland is in a state of rebirth.” Even during the worst of the recent recession, he points out that the city’s hotels held their own. Their occupancy rates dipped, but only in 2009, and the market’s resiliency caught the attention of hoteliers all over the country.
Walk down Commercial Street in the summer and you’ll hear dozens of languages spoken by tourists from all over the world. “Portland is on the international traveler’s map now,” says Vin Veroneau, president and CEO of J.B. Brown and Sons, a familyowned Portland real estate development company that’s leading the new Courtyard Marriott. The Marriott, a five-minute stroll down Commercial Street from the ferry terminal, blends in so well with the historic Old Port that it feels like it’s always been there.
J.B. Brown has owned the lot that the hotel now sits on since 1845, but the family wanted to wait until just the right time to build. This Marriott, the seventh in Maine, fills one entire block of Commercial Street, with a bistro and bar downstairs and water views on every floor. Veroneau points to the restaurant boom in Portland as the key driver in the city’s growth. He also credits the cruise ships that offer their passengers just enough of a taste of the city that many want to come back later for more. Like all the developers I spoke to, Veroneau had to push his corporate headquarters to make a number of design allowances for a hotel in this unique, historic Portland market. Veroneau’s team was able to use local granite and millwork to imbue the big brand name with a distinctly intimate feel.
The Portland Harbor Hotel was the trailblazing boutique hotel that led a new wave of development back in 2001. There are 101 rooms at the Portland Harbor, and the look and feel of the rooms, says Gerard Kiladjian, former manager of the hotel, “is nothing like any of the other new brands. No wall-to-wall carpets. Instead we have hardwood floors and high-quality, Four Diamond service.” The impressive staff makes every effort to wow their guests, “so that when they come to the hotel they say ‘This is our home.’ ”
“You can only talk so much about a room,” Kiladjian says. “But you can talk a lot about food, and the Portland Harbor Hotel has great food. A very talented chef and exciting menu.” He explains that what the seasoned hotels like the Portland Harbor are doing to stay young is to spend a great deal of capital on their hotels. In the last few years they have invested money in everything from new paint to striking carpets in the lobby to comfortable new beds. The effect is a hotel in the middle of the Old Port that has a distinctly welcoming appeal.
Portland is Maine’s largest city, but it operates more like a small town, so people working in the hotel world here all know one another. “Let’s just say it’s a friendly competition,” Kiladjian smiles. He thinks more choice is a great thing for the Portland marketplace. All the hotels in the city rely on each other for help finding rooms in the crazy high season. John Schultzel, vice president of hotel management for the Olympia Companies, would concur. He manages the Hilton Garden Inn and thinks it’s always great when a hotel guest has
I ask him what his guests imagine when they think of Maine: “There is a cultural sophistication here. But we still have a smalltown feel.” He thinks people started coming to Portland when Sam Hayward of the Fore Street restaurant won a James Beard Award in 2004. He says visitors want fresh food, they want local, and they want to be able to see the chef cooking their meal. All of that can be found in dozens of acclaimed restaurants all over town. Schultzel called the hotel’s aesthetic timelessly chic—not beholden to any interior design trends. The hotel sits in the middle of the Old Port with spectacular views of the harbor. The guest rooms were all redone in 2012, and the hotel is constantly updating and refreshing itself. After the Olympia Companies put a silver titanium skin over the outside of the building in 2003, the Hilton Garden Inn became a landmark.
The Press Hotel is a full-service boutique hotel set to open next April in the original, stunning home of the Portland Press Herald. The Press wants to connect its guests back to the storied age of newspapers and the rich history of Portland. Its manager, Jim Brady, says the aesthetic of his design-focused hotel is very much old-meets-new. The wallpaper in the hallways features copy from long-gone editions of the Press Herald, while new paintings by local artists hang in a rotating gallery space in the hotel. Celebrated Portland designer Angela Adams has also crafted wall hangings for the rooms. The hotel is flooded with natural sunlight, and the city skyline can be seen from every room. Once we reach the fourth floor, the view of Casco Bay spreads out in all directions.
Brady, who was president of the Olympia Companies when they opened the Hilton Garden Inn on Commercial Street back in 2003, understands the Portland marketplace and believes that his hotel guests don’t want cookie-cutter. Brady is committed to fully integrating the Press into the buzzing local arts and food scene as well as making sure the hotel is green-certified. “It’s such an exciting moment for the city of Portland and for all the hotels here,” Brady says. “The promise of Portland is its authenticity. No one here is fooled by fake.”