Building A Community: Engaging Locals During Hotel Development And Opening

capella hotel
When managing partner Bruce Bradley envisions his soon-to-open Capella hotel, he speaks of a space where guests and locals alike can gather over food and cocktails, a luxuriously private space where he and his wife can entertain client and business associates.
Bradley, a longtime fixture on Washington’s business and social circuits, is known to spend much of his time in Washington’s luxury hotels – in fact, his first meeting with the author took place at The Four Seasons, just blocks from his construction site.

But how will he and his new staff go about getting community buy-in? The tricky process of designing a hotel meant not just for guests but for locals as well is one where Capella has succeeded remarkably in an area where many others have failed. But it all comes down to a few simple points:

Fit the Location
Have you ever seen a modernist building smack dab in the middle of a group of historic townhomes and wondered, “How the heck did that get there?” That’s exactly the concern that Capella hoped to avoid.

Nick Demas, a partner at Castleton Holdings LLC, the hotel’s ownership group, told DC real estate blog DC Mud that by restricting the redesign primarily to the building’s interior, developers avoided many headaches and the “community backlash that often follows these sorts of projects.” Of the community, he commented, “We are thrilled that our plan was so well received by our neighbors, the ANC and the Old Georgetown Board.”

Mud called the project a “hugfest” and ANC2E Commissioner Tom Birch called the process “turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
This is a stark contrast to another proposed hotel project in Washington. Developer Brian Friedman has spent nearly a decade trying to turn Adams Morgans’ former First Church of Christ into an upscale boutique hotel. The property was once planned to become an Edition, part of the Marriott brand, and will now be run by the same New York group that developed the Ace and NoMad properties. The hotel, which has not yet begun construction, has faced significant opposition from locals who fear that the luxury property will not fit in with the neighborhood’s less affluent residents and more casual culture.

Capella, by contrast, is an ultraluxury property in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, sandwiched between a Four Seasons and a Ritz-Carlton, two of the world’s leading luxury hotel brands.

“This is a hotel that’s meant to be very quiet and unassuming with the character of guests that would be here, but still very elegant and tasteful,” Capella architect Michael Winstanley told the Georgetown Dish.

So far, the Capella design hasn’t ruffled any feathers, even with the notoriously difficult Georgetown ANC. District commissioner Bill Starrels says that Capella has “done a very nice job with their building,” calling the relationship “one of the better ones [the ANC] has had.”
The key, Starrels says, was that the hotel’s ownership and developers met early on with the ANC to air their concerns. Since then, construction managers have been only a cellphone call away. When we brought up the contrast to the notoriously controversial Apple store that entered the neighborhood several years back, Starrels demurred, saying that stories of controversy surrounding the design were largely exaggerated.

Still, he points to open communication from both ends and minimal disruption to surrounding area as keys to success. Even the construction and potential added traffic to the street shouldn’t be an issue – a “hotel of this caliber” will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

While the Adams Morgan property has had ongoing pre-construction issues, it is important to note that no final deals have been signed. There is a chance that these concerns will be resolved before ground is broken, although there is also the likelihood that this project will become a hugely unpopular addition to the neighborhood. It is too soon to say whether or not the Friedman hotel will, like Capella, sail smoothly towards opening or whether they will ever even break ground.

Which leads us to our next point …

Foster Strategic Relationships
It’s a simple enough concept, and one that has certainly been written repeatedly in business texts: you are only as good as the people who work for you.

Capella, as much or more so than their other brand counterparts, hires carefully, selectively, discerningly, particularly with their key employees. General managers are often recruited from other properties, and hires are most often made with word of mouth recommendations. The end result? A staff that is not only dedicated to the brand tenets, but to each other, bonded by the process of hand-selection.

Staff comes on board early, often nearly a year out, to help guide all aspects of the opening process. They study carefully – not only the brand, but the location and their place in the community, working to form strategic relationships within both the hotel itself and with the community.

Erin Hosler, general manager of the soon-to-open B South Beach hotel, knows how important it is to foster the right community relationships. Like Capella’s Georgetown neighborhood, South Beach is notoriously insular, and having the right community relationships is critical. Hosler, who returned to South Beach after several years working for clients in other cities, says that re-connecting with key people within the city, from the hotel and motel association to the CVB and City Hall has been critical to helping establish the hotel’s pre-opening presence.

Larry Auth, area director of sales and marketing at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, says that this process is necessary, and that relationships should be selected carefully to match the hotel’s target clientele. For example, his property has relationships not only with an area museum but with a luxury boot maker famous in Texas. “In each city it’s different and unique.” Post opening, he says, it’s important to continue engaging with the local community – his properties have special local rates as well as special Texas-themed events at the hotel specifically designed to cater to the local community.

For Capella, much of this job has fallen to Director of Sales and Marketing Pegah Ghoushbeigui, whose impressive resume boasts stints at other luxury hotels in the Washington market including the Park Hyatt and The Jefferson. Since late summer, Ghoushbeigui has been networking both within the community and outside of the D.C. area, visiting cities like New York for regional media tours as well as Cannes, France, for the International Luxury Travel Market, where she met with more than 60 travel agencies and key media to help boost the hotel’s visibility in the marketplace.

She has also worked hard to establish relationships within the Washington community, creating unique guest partnerships with the Washington Ballet, where guests will have exclusive access to performances, classes and behind-the-scenes tours as well as with celebrity hair stylist Luigi Parasmo.

“We are thrilled to partner with an establishment who values customer service, commitment and professionalism as much as we do,” Parasmo says. The Capella Hotel team demonstrates integrity, passion and commitment, and as a professional in the industry, I have a major appreciation for that.”

Know Thy Clientele
Capella has spent significant effort to understand its guest profile. CEO Horst Schulze explained recently to CNBC that his target guest was one who used to stay in a suite or on a hotel’s executive floor and is now craving a more intimate, personalized guest experience.

Shulze’s background with the Ritz-Carlton company is one that he undoubtedly carries with him as he seeks to develop the next generation of luxury.

One such way he hopes to achieve this is through the hotel’s Personal Assistant program, where dedicated concierge staff will take care of guests on a more individualized basis.

Capella Washington’s lead personal assistant, Luis Colmenares, is eager to take up the challenge. The veteran concierge holds not only a quarter-century of hospitality experience but also the highest membership honor in the concierge world, Les Clefs d’Or, as well as the title of president of the Washington Area Concierge Association. To what does he account his signature success? “I’m a people person … I like to watch people … I like to make them happy.”

Hostler, a Ritz alum and former “hotel historian,” agrees. “One of the biggest lessons I carry with me is the Ritz-Carlton experience, “she says. “It’s important to understand why someone is loyal to specific hotels … what are their likes and dislikes.” At her new property, she aspires to create a similar environment to the one Capella is working with, albeit at a slightly lower price point.

“I don’t know why hotels haven’t been doing this all along,” she says. “I think the reason why hotels are doing this is that they’re finally starting to understand that to keep someone loyal you do have to treat them like a family member.”

And it’s that family mentality Capella is hoping to achieve. We’ll see how well they achieve this when the hotel opens in early February.

[Image Credit: McLean Robbins]