Another downtown hotel? Cincinnati architects discuss hospitality market growth.

Downtown Cincinnati is in the midst of a hotel boom. The Autograph will open soon on Lytle Park. At Race and Seventh streets, the Kinley and TownPlace Suites are under construction with anticipated 2020 openings. Hotel conversions are planned for the Traction, Ingalls, Textile, Gwynne, First National Bank, and Duttenhofer buildings.

According to the Convention and Visitors Bureau website, there are more than 3,200 hotel rooms within three blocks of the convention center, although that number has fallen with the closing of the Millennium Hotel at the end of last year. Even with nine projects under construction, available hotel rooms downtown cannot keep pace with demand. This is a change from the 1990s and early 2000s.

“I was told by a key client many times over the years that Cincinnati was not just a bad hotel market, but that it was the single worst hotel market in the country,” says Jim Stapleton, a member of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and vice president at Nelson Worldwide. “In 2012, things changed.”

That year, 21c Museum Hotels opened their second location in what had been the Metropole Hotel (1912). The property took the boutique hotel concept to a new level, as a curated museum of 21st century art, open 24/7, with changing exhibits and permanent installations. Last year the hotel ranked third in the Midwest in Conde Nast Traveler’s “2019 Reader’s Choice Awards,” and it was added to the Historic Hotels of America program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“If you follow around 21c, those cities where they have hotels are a lot like Cincinnati,” says Stapleton. “These Midwestern cities have turned a corner and are transforming into new tech cities. They are also much more inviting places to live with all the advantages of a big city but without all the issues. That’s one of the reasons hotels are now doing so well here.”

Marquee Brands and Boutique Hotels

“The big hotel chains used to only build their marquee brands in downtown locations,” says Matt Erdman, AIA, partner at Luminaut. “Now, they are bringing their focused-service hotels to inner city markets. The Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites in the Enquirer Building is a great example.”

Each of the big chains has multiple brands in their network where their name is front and center, like Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, or Hyatt Regency. In addition, they have “soft brands” that allow formerly independent hotels, like the Cincinnatian, to retain their identity with a tag, “Curio Collection by Hilton.”

Independent hotels struggle to compete with the massive reservation systems of the large chains. Their access to business travelers already committed to loyalty programs is also limited. Joining a “soft brand” allows them to retain a unique identity while leveraging the resources and marketing of the chain.

Even as existing hotels join the soft brands, the large chains are developing their own smaller properties to target niche audience segments, not only through location and amenities, but also through the storytelling of design and architecture.

“The first step is conceptualizing not just what a hotel will look like, but also who will use it,” says Emily Woods Weiskopf, AIA, senior associate at interior and architecture design firm, FORRESTPERKINS. “Being part of a community brings more authenticity to the story.”

History Helps

Carving usable hotel rooms out of historic buildings can be difficult, like the Gwynne, which will be converted by Nelson Worldwide.

Today, driven in part by state and federal historic tax credits, eight hotels have joined the Hilton Netherland, Westin, Cincinnatian, and Hyatt Regency in serving downtown. Only two of those hotels were new construction — the Holiday Inn and the AC Hotel — while the other six are adaptive reuse, as are the nine hotels currently under development. Cincinnati architects play an important role in guiding these projects to completion.

“These are interesting buildings to work on,” says Stapleton. “The state has a lot of specific requirements for historic structures. For example, they want the original hallways to be put back as corridors. That can make it a challenge to make a working floor plan for a hotel. You want to see the historic structure and leverage the history of the space in the new hotel.”

Most of the buildings adapted into hotel properties were offices, retail, and commercial spaces. Carving usable hotel rooms out of these interiors can be difficult.

“In a new build, hotels are simple boxes with a lot of repetitive rooms,” says Erdman. “Adapting a historic structure is like a jigsaw puzzle. You have a set of room fixtures to fit into an existing footprint. It creates interesting moments that are not available in a new build as you highlight the features of the original building.”

“Historic buildings are rooted in a place and provide a strong sense of authenticity,” says Weiskopf. “At the Autograph, we are keeping as much of the historic fabric as we can and pointing it out to the guests. A Rookwood fountain was found in the basement during construction which we are reinstalling.”

Place Matters

With its proximity to attractions and transportation, downtown is an increasingly desirable location serving conventioneers, leisure visitors, family reunions, and business travelers.

“People would much rather stay where the activity is,” says Weiskopf. “The urban core of Cincinnati is so revitalized it’s exciting to stay downtown. The hotels are part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”

“There is a generational desire to have unique experiences, which has changed the way we think as a society about how we spend our money on travel,” said Erdman. “It’s a millennial mindset not confined to a particular age group. To capture that, you have to do something authentic and real.”

As travel priorities change, hotels have responded by diversifying the types of properties in their network. The large, full-service hotels with space for conventions and big groups are supplemented by properties targeting business travelers on extended stays, families on vacation, and individuals focused on experiencing the destination. Cities across the country are seeing a trend toward smaller hotel rooms and more accessible shared spaces.

“For younger professionals, there is a desire to be around people while they’re working,” says Weiskopf. “There is also an interest in drawing the public into these communal spaces. It creates a sense of community and belonging in the neighborhood.”

Hotels are also placing an emphasis on restaurants that serve guests as well as the people who live and work downtown. The restaurant in the not-yet-open Kinley hotel has already made Vogue’s list of “2020’s Most Anticipated American Restaurant Openings.”

“Hotels, like a lot of industries, are making the inside more outward facing,” says Stapleton. “They want to bring the city life into the lobby and the restaurants and vice versa. Making lobbies feel more like communal working spaces and adding restaurants not only increases food and beverage sales, but also makes the hotel feel more vibrant and alive.”

Smaller hotels don’t need the ballrooms and meeting spaces of a full-service hotel. The addition of destination restaurants, rooftop lounges, and welcoming bars are appealing to guests but also attract locals, which helps create a buzz about a property.

What’s Next

With the closure of the Millennium Hotel, conversations about a new convention center hotel will continue. Meanwhile, the nine hotels in varying stages of construction development will open and new projects will be announced.

“We’ve really seen these changes come about all of a sudden, everything is developing,” says Stapleton. “If you’d asked me in 2011, I would have said it’s never going to happen. But it doesn’t feel like the market is overheated. The banks are paying attention and doing their due diligence.”

In addition to their work in the Queen City, Cincinnati architects are developing hotels in other communities. Projects here may influence their work elsewhere, and their experience in other cities allows them to apply best practices and current trends to the growing downtown hotel scene.

“We have a lot of talent in this city around the hotel market space,” said Erdman. “Cincinnati architects serve international brands opening in the city, and around the world.”

As the world comes to the Queen City, drawn by events like BLINK and Cincinnati’s growing visibility on best-of lists, there will be a mix of hotels to accommodate all segments of travelers: historic, new, big, and boutique.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.orgThe views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati. 


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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.