Kimpton CEO on hotel company's future, including Charlotte expansion

When did Charlotte first come onto Kimpton’s radar as a market for expansion?

When we first started considering Charlotte, we were considering a broader approach to this area of the country. We recently developed in Savannah and Nashville and Winston-Salem, and others started to show up in this radar. Charlotte became a very natural target for us. This is among the hot growth cities in the South, the South being such a great place to be right now.

We’ve been partners with the Barings company and their other iterations for the past 20 years. When we started talking about this, they wanted to do something that was completely individual and completely unique to their project. They wanted to influence it and we’re the sort of brand that welcomes that — that collaboration is important to us and important to the partnership, and to make sure that it works within the market.

But we’ve noticed especially when you’ve got a local developer with a local group of people, they really do know what the market wants, what the market needs. We riff off of that, take their inspiration and try to turn that into the business model that is our hotels and restaurants and rooftops and all the other things we do.

When you heard about Barings’ involvement in 300 South Tryon, was that when it initially occurred to Kimpton to put a hotel here, too?

Barings brought us in to be the hotel operator, but we start three years out before the hotel is built so we can be a part of that inspiration and creation.

We take it at a very textual level and they brought us in for that reason. We’re not brand-heavy; we’re property-specific heavy. That’s our focus, to make sure that we create something completely unique. We have a hotel down in Winston-Salem that is in a historic landmark building. We love not being typecast into one sort of hotel or one attitude or point-of-view.

Looking at Charlotte’s hotel market as a whole, do you believe there’s room for growth and diversification here?

I think that a lot of the hotels in this market have done some of their own repositioning and renovations and upgrades over the past several years. Sometimes that’s natural, sometimes that’s in response to new inventory coming on, but it’s all good for the city and the stock in the city. The occupancy is strong here, the corporate market and the demand generators that fill hotel rooms on Tuesday nights are very strong here. And then the leisure elements in Charlotte continue to, frankly, outperform many other markets ... there’s a tremendous demand for weekend business. What I’ve seen is a fairly consistent rate strategy that goes across the different days of the week and it stays strong and perpetual throughout the seasons of the year, too. A lack of seasonality and a strong leisure and strong corporate market make for a great hotel market.

There’s a lot of markets in the country that are a little bit oversaturated. This, we don’t think, is one of them. We think there’s room certainly for hotels, especially for boutique hotels and design-driven hotels like ours, and certainly the restaurant market in this town is still robust and people love to party and eat and drink and celebrate. Those are places we like to be

Do you see future growth here in Charlotte for Kimpton?

We’d love to. We don’t have anything on the docket at the moment but it’s our goal when we go into a market to find submarkets and sublocations, and go into these different neighborhoods and areas and try to build other types of hotels that are different. It might appeal to a different customer, whether it’s a different price point or a different style or a different neighborhood. Those are all ways that we throw in diverse inventory into markets where we already exist. In Washington, D.C., we have 10 hotels. In LA, we are about to open our fourth hotel. In Chicago, we have four hotels. That’s very common for us and we’d love to do that in Charlotte.

At one point, Kimpton was looking at opening a hotel in Dilworth. Is that neighborhood somewhere you might look at again in the future?

Yeah, we really liked Dilworth. The timing wasn’t right with the developer. We were brought in as a manager and we were helping to inspire what the property would be. But we became really bullish on that submarket, and we still think there’s room for growth in hospitality in that neighborhood and others in and around Charlotte — and in Charlotte downtown, too.

What we’re seeing in a lot of different cities is neighborhoods and areas where you wouldn’t normally have thought you would have stayed 10 years ago are now becoming places that are super cool and fun to be and where the next wave of traveler — whether it’s a mindset or an age group — is heading to those areas, and we love to be first in in those evolving areas. A little bit of grit is good for us.

What are some of the key things you look at in the site selection process?

We develop our hotels to target a certain level, a certain niche — whether it’s upper upscale or what we like to call lean luxury or luxury lite. In order to perform in that segment, you have to have a market that will support it. You’ll need the corporate demand and you’ll need high occupancy and you’ll need weekend business and demand drivers; you’ll need to be in an area or neighborhood that has that. Those are all things we look at in terms of the market dynamic. And then when we look at what product we want to bring to the market, we say, “OK, who’s going to want to stay here? How much are they going to be willing to pay based on what the guy up the street is paying?” I’m looking at a Residence Inn and the Ritz — what are they paying there? And then we target where we want to be. The product has to correspond with that positioning. There’s many elements and those puzzle pieces work together — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This, we think, really works well.

The hospitality industry is changing so fast, with new technology and platforms like Airbnb — even within the hotel industry, there’s a lot of change and disruption. How does Kimpton stay competitive?

We think that regardless of the different niches in the market, whether it’s staying in somebody’s house or staying in a fancy hotel or staying in a hostel, people are looking for unique experiences, people are looking for something that is decidedly not home away from home — they’re looking for something different. Kimpton competes very well in there because we never do the same hotel twice, we never do the same restaurant twice. We provide really warm, welcoming service.

But we don’t rest on our laurels and we will tear up the blueprints from this building. The design in the next property that we’re opening (this) week in Palm Springs is completely different and completely Palm Springs, and that’s what I love about our approach — there’s no Kimpton in a box.

Ashley Fahey
Charlotte Business Journal

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