The Boutique Boom: A New Crop of Hotels, Specializing in Personality, Welcome Denver Visitors

Across Denver's developing neighborhoods, boutique hotels, like the Born, Maven and Halcyon, are redefining the hospitality industry and filling a niche in a wide-ranging construction boom that is bringing dozens of new hotels and thousands of guest rooms to the city. They aim to lure travelers and entertain locals at the same time.
Step inside The Maven Hotel at Dairy Block, and note the retro Airstream trailer, the giant hand hanging from the ceiling and a wide array of locally produced arts and crafts that are all part of the new downtown development’s recently acquired $1 million collection.

 Glide through the lobby, where traditional hotel friction points, like check-in and overwrought salutations, are made friendly and efficient. Then head via the elevators to the upper floors floors with 172 loft-style guest rooms, each with signature art, landscape views and individual knick-knacks.

Take a load off in this “place for makers,” or let the hotel be your tour guide for experience-driven opportunities enhanced by in-house bicycles or nightly deliveries of “dreams” from a Denver poet.

At the Maven Hotel, hanging chairs invite guests to lounge in front of a wall and floor decorated by Robert Weidmann. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

Drawing out-of-towners and locals like, boutique, or lifestyle hotels, have sprung up as destinations within Denver, filling market voids, boosting the economy with new jobs and tax revenue, preserving historic buildings and adding to the fabric of neighborhoods.

“It’s not just that we’ve got guests that are coming here; these are local attractions,” says Walter Isenberg, co-founder, CEO and president of Sage Hospitality, which runs the property. These accommodations are “active, local operating businesses that happen to be hotels, but with their own identities.”

According to data from Tourism Economics, a firm that forecasts travel trends, a quarter of all rooms currently under construction nationally fall into the boutique category.

“In the old days, if you didn’t have a big brand name – Hyatt or Westin – you weren’t assured of a traveler finding you,” says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver. “But today, with opinion-driven recommendations, independent accommodations can get a lift from non-traditional channels.”

Why the boutique is hot now

So what exactly is a boutique hotel, and what’s all the hype about?

“Boutique can mean independent, and non-branded  – although we do have brands in that space today: lifestyle brands, (that are) smaller, often less than 100 keys,” says David Larone, a Toronto-based senior managing director with CBRE Hotels.

At the Hotel Born, a wall designed by Denver artist Joel Swanson greets arriving guests. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

 “They can be unique, upscale properties, some of them with a very original perspective on [food and beverage], and then there are local, community-type properties. We’ve had a broadening of the definition, and certainly a proliferation of product and interest over the last 10 or 15 years in this space.”

Indeed, Isenberg agrees the word “boutique” is misunderstood or interpreted in a lot of different ways by different people. He says these properties tend to be smaller in size, big on dining, drinking and design, telling of the local culture and catering to individuals.

“Today, people are talking about place-making and authenticity,” Isenberg says.

As a result, “You’re seeing a lot of big hotel chains adjusting,” says Scharf.

In Denver, more than 10,000 downtown hotel rooms are open or under construction within walking distance of the Colorado Convention Center. At the start of 2017, 22 hotels with 3,016 guestrooms were expected to come online in the metro area, nine of which opened in the first seven months of the year.

Next year, approximately 26 hotels are scheduled to open.

The lobby Airstream is a signature design element the Maven. Guests can get a quick coffee and snacks there. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

“One good thing to know is that all the hotel building we see going on right now is a product of demand,” Scharf says, citing the last decade’s worth of growth in the Mile High City.

Visit Denver has done much in recent years to make the city an actual destination -- and not just a place people pass through on their way to the mountains  -- by promoting its new and expanded museums, entertainment and restaurant scene and its seven professional sports teams. The city has become more walkable at the same time.

While many of the new guest rooms are part of hotels associated with hospitality giants, such Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hilton and Marriott, many are boutique brands.

The Hotel Born looks over the white canopy stretching across the rails at Union Station. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

Game changers

The Kimpton Hotel Born, opened in mid-August at 1600 Wewatta Street, adding 200 rooms in an upscale Union Station-adjacent building. Like the nearby Crawford and The Maven, the Hotel Born, designed by Semple Brown, along with Ellen Bruss, is filled with paintings, photography and mixed-media, all curated by Adam Lerner, director of the neighboring Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Von de Luna, general manager of The Born, calls the aesthetic “alpine modern,” adding, “It really encapsulates what Denver is becoming.” De Luna, who’s dedicated more than two decades to Kimpton, says boutique hotels offer “experienced-based stays, customized to each customer.” Before he moved to The Born, he worked at 1717 Champa Street’s Hotel Monaco, where he learned “The baseline is about genuine connection ... don’t try to go with every new trend.”

Boutique hotels allow Martha Weidmann, co-founder and CEO of Denver art consulting, NINE dot ARTS, to pursue projects without the expectations cusomters have at familiar hotel chains.  

“It’s all about imagination,” says Weidmann, whose recent projects include The Maven, The Crawford and many others. “We imagine a narrative that describes the guest experience, then brings that to life. We might tell a story that is approachable and alluring, engaging and intriguing, thoughtful in details or impactful in magnitudes. Moving beyond the transaction of simply procuring and installing art.”

The Hotel Born's art collection was curated by Adam Lerner, who directs the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Throughout November, Weidmann and her team are working with poet Mathias Svalina to deliver “dreams” to guests at The Maven and The Oxford with his Dream Delivery Service.

“It’s the kind of experience you won’t find anywhere else,” Weidmann says.

And ultimately, that’s what all these properties are striving to achieve.

Isenberg says he thinks technology and services such as Airbnb have played a major part in shifting consumer preferences and inspiring industry innovations.

“Trends and tastes are always evolving,” he says. For the hotel industry to remain competitive, “it must do things that Airbnb can’t, [such as] providing social spaces and experiences.”

Not just downtown

Seeking to surprise and delight, The Source Hotel will expand on its original, next-door concept from Zeppelin Development, opening its 100-guestroom property and adjoining 20,000-square-foot retail market hall in early 2018. The contemporary community gathering space will include restaurants, shopping, along with the hotel.

The Lobby Bar at the Maven. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

“Hospitality is not going out of fashion, regardless of any other trends,” says Justin Croft, vice president of development with Zeppelin Development. He explained that is why his team signed into an operating agreement with the St. Julien Hotel, a Boulder-based property, to help guide the ship on this new venture.

In the same neck of the woods, Ryan Diggins, partner with Gravitas Development Group says inviting out-of-town friends to his neighborhood has been challenging without robust over-night accommodations in the RiNo area.

So he decided to translate his prior commercial development experience – from his shipping container mixed-use micro-space next door and other projects – to The Ramble Hotel at 1280 28th Street, what will be a three-story hotel with 50 guest rooms, an intimate theatre, bar, retail outlet, restaurant and marquee lobby bar from Death & Co., set to open early next year.

The Ramble will take inspiration from French salons of the 17th century, with intricate masonry and metal detailing, designed by Los Angeles-based Avenue Interior design.

“I equate boutique with size and attention, and an empowered staff,” Diggins says. “It all needs to resonate locally.”

Diggins hopes his latest project can turn the gentrifying RiNo neighborhood into a true 24-hour district. “This intersection will always be lit up,” he says. “There’s going to be activity at this property from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.”

Cherry Creek, too

Meanwhile, across town, Cherry Creek spent most of the the last three decades as a popular shopping district with tight restrictions on construction. But a new Cherry Creek Area Plan, established in 2012, changed zoning rules allowing developers to buy up properties and create new projects based on pent-up demand for residential highrises, offices and others types of buildings

“That’s why you see such a flurry of activity,” explains Jenny Starkey, director of marketing and community relations for the Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District.

A hotel upsurge started there in 2016 with the Halcyon, a Sage Hospitality property that added 154 rooms, a rooftop bar, pool and two restaurants. This Monday, November 6, the Moxy opened, a $35 million Marriott-branded project, adding another 170 small rooms. Early next year, the Jacquard will come online with another 201 guest rooms, and spacious accommodations.

“There are now five hotels in 16 blocks; we only ever had 1.5,” Starkey says, citing the JW Marriott property and intimate Inn at Cherry Creek. The latter has recently been purchased by Matt Joblon, founding partner and CEO for BMC Investments, and the intent is to redesign the space in the not-too-distant future.

“Hotels have a built-in audience,” says Starkey.

Weidmann adds, “The impact on the community is undeniable,” of boutique properties in particular.

But is all news good news for these projects?

Joblon says the biggest challenge for hotels is “hard costs,” and an “epic labor shortage, schedule and budget overruns.”

Isenberg, whose Colorado properties — not all of which are “lifestyle” — total upward of 20 says, “The supply increases have been dramatic,” with thousands of new rooms coming alive in the last year or two and more in-the-works. He says the “good news is: demand is strong,” though he adds it will take time to “absorb all the new supply.” In the meantime, he’s keeping his fingers crossed there won’t be any sharp economic downturns in the immediate future.
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Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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