The hotel on the U of M campus will relaunch this fall as a higher-end boutique. Will the university clientele go for it?
Updated: August 1, 2012 - 9:13 PM
For nearly three decades, a Radisson hotel sat smack-dab in the middle of the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus.
But last March, Ohio-based RockBridge Partners bought the 304-room property for $18.5 million and promptly announced plans to sink another $14.8 million into the aging structure. The newly named, four-star Commons Hotel will officially launch in October -- and embrace the area's "industrial schoolhouse chic."
It's the newest entrant to the Twin Cities' burgeoning boutique hotel scene, which includes Graves 601, the Grand Hotel and the Hotel Minneapolis, among others.
"We don't call it a renovation. It's more like a transformation," said Duane Rohrbaugh, general manager of the Commons Hotel, which remains the only full-service hotel on the U campus.
Private rooms, public spaces and meeting areas are being overhauled, along with the structure's mechanical systems, he said. Noble House Hotels & Resorts, a Seattle-based hotel management company that is no stranger to tony magazines such as Travel+Leisure and Wine Spectator, is guiding the hotel through the renovation and rebranding.
"Both [RockBridge and Noble] are very good companies with lots of experience," said Kirby Payne, a hotel consultant with HVS Hotel Management in Newport, R.I.
RockBridge, which has invested nearly $3 billion in the hospitality industry since 1992, has developed hotels in college towns in Oregon, Iowa and Michigan. And Noble House is known for operating 16 smaller-scale, chic hotels in rarified locales such as Telluride, the Napa Valley and Naples, Fla. The University of Minnesota hotel is the firm's first Midwestern locale.
Payne said turning the tried-and-true Radisson into a boutique hotel eliminates the franchise fees associated with being a known brand -- which amounts to roughly 10 percent of room revenue. But not being affiliated with a known chain also presents Noble House with challenges in terms of marketing, he said. (An affiliate of Payne's firm brokered the sale of the hotel from Maddux Hotel Corp. to RockBridge and performed other consulting services before the sale.)
Rohrbaugh says the rebranding into the Commons Hotel will focus on patrons "embracing a sense of inner geek" -- a nod to the location's scholarly environs. He hopes the hotel will attract not only a university crowd, but "higher-end" corporate and leisure travelers, and the conference market, as well. A "roaring fire pit" will grace the front drive, the fitness center will be enlarged, and a new restaurant will aim to attract foodies. (Details on the new restaurant inside the hotel have yet to be released.)
A traditional room with two double beds at the hotel now goes for about $130 to $170. The hotel will begin booking under the rebranded name in mid-August and new rates will be released then.
Payne said a university setting presents some challenges to hoteliers. If demand centers on university business, "a lot of people are traveling on government grants, or funded on state budgets that have a cap on spending. That market segment is notoriously conservative in their spending," he said. "That could put a little bit of a crimp on their potential average daily rate. The way they could overcome it is by attracting non-university business."
The hotel's rebranding literature hints of such a strategy. It encourages a "geek-to-chic" makeover at the nearby Aveda Institute, a "science buzz" at the Science Museum in St. Paul, and a foray into "personal story and book creation" at the Loft Literary Center across the river in Minneapolis.
Although the hotel industry was hit hard in the Great Recession as leisure and business travel was curtailed, the boutique hotel niche has fared fairly well despite the dire economy, Payne said.
"[Boutique hotels] are real important to younger travelers in their late 20s, 30s or 40s -- people who want to be independent and more adventurous" regarding their lodging choices, he said. "They want to try something different when they travel."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752
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