Mr. Wilms

Architecture & Design

Hotel Design: Recognizing that Every Property Has a Unique Story to Tell

By Ed Wilms, Principal, DLR Group

I've grown up on hospitality design and for the last 26 years, I've been focused on creating restaurants, hotels, gaming/resort properties and world class retail/entertainment destinations. In other words: I know how to have fun.

Since joining DLR Group nearly a decade ago, I've been charged with growing our Hospitality studio across the country. I'm based in our Minneapolis office, and our Hospitality Studio is actively working on projects across the country from San Francisco to Miami, Minneapolis to Dallas. We've had the advantage of smaller studios with extensive resumes in designing for downtown as well as suburban markets. We've run the gamut in terms of location, brand (major to boutique), and sector (business to luxury). One thing is consistent across the board however: every property has its own unique story to tell.

Downtown destinations, set in tight urban areas, are their own special breed of beasts that are admittedly fun to tame. Compared to suburban properties, there are many more opportunities to create authentic experiences for guests and locals alike that capture the spirit and history of the cities where they're located.


My first piece of advice for potential owners and operators interested in any development, is always "location, location, location." It's a great old saying for a reason. Many are finding that it is difficult to obtain adequate land in the core downtown business districts. Instead, we are looking toward the fringe: the burgeoning neighborhoods that are adjacent to downtown and poised to become the next hotspot. Find the amenities that are walkable to the site (such as open green space, natural amenities like a riverwalk or waterfront, sports venues, restaurants, housing, museums, and theaters). If you can find a piece of property that hits on a number of those items, success is more likely because not only are you entrenching the traveler in their chosen destination, but you are also capturing revenue from locals who want to be tapped into the scene.

Food & Beverage

What are the elements that go into creating that scene? We believe that one of the most critical elements to success will be creating a strong food and beverage component. Perhaps your operations group has it all nailed down, but if they don't, partnering with local talent and creating a unique chef-driven experience can be essential in setting you apart from the crowd. If you can capture the guest traffic within the hotel and engage the surrounding neighborhood in a way that makes it the go-to watering hole for the locals, then that's a great accomplishment. A suburban property might only feature a detached, national chain restaurant on an out lot, while a more urban site could boast a lively happy hour on their rooftop deck or in a vibrant street level bar/restaurant. Downtown properties are also more easily accessible by public transit, most importantly in terms of recruiting and maintaining their labor force.

Adaptive Re-Use

Working in downtown or urban areas also allows us to be good stewards of the environment by reusing existing building stock. We're seeing huge growth in conversions of existing properties into boutique hotels. Whether it's a brand new concept from an entrepreneurial start up, or a major flag looking to capture new market segments, working in an existing building can offer exciting opportunities. We're currently engaged in designing a Canopy by Hilton in Minneapolis' Mill District on the edge of downtown. This is a neighborhood that five years ago had exactly zero sex appeal. Now, the new Vikings Stadium and a 1.1 million square foot twin office tower housing Wells Fargo have created a climate for aggressive development. There are currently nearly 800 hotel keys in development with an additional 400 market rate or luxury apartments in the neighborhood.

Our project is an historic conversion of one of the city's heavy timber buildings, built in 1900 during the hey-day of Minneapolis' flour milling industry. Originally built as a factory to produce steam powered wheat threshers, the building has beautiful exposed bricks and a patchwork of heavy timber that falls squarely in-line with Canopy's goals - a brand specifically developed with historic conversion in mind. This building is made possible by obtaining historic tax credits through a rigorous review process with the state historic preservation office and the National Parks Service. The benefit of reusing these types of properties is that it creates honest and authentic experiences that simply can't be re-created in a new building. These are the interesting and surprising moments that people find appealing and keep them coming back time and again. It creates an exciting alternative to the normal business class hotel.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of new hotels going up in downtowns across the country. We're still on the crest of a development wave, but with smaller parcels of land available, many brands are getting creative with the size of their room module to spur opportunities. That may be the biggest challenge in designing for downtown. Compared to the suburbs, sites are much smaller, so architects must get creative when trying to fit in all of the programmatic elements. Sometimes this means going taller, or possibly sharing amenities with adjacent properties.

The Moxy hotel was specifically developed to go on these parcels of land. Guest rooms are smaller, driving guests into the social spaces on the first floor or lobby areas. These kind of hospitality ideas are also being cross pollinated to other market sectors as the new workplace decreases the real estate of individual work stations and instead favors social amenity spaces where chance meetings between co-workers can occur. That's where the magic happens. As hospitality designers we're at the forefront of this paradigm shift.

Building Materials

In a new building, you can get creative with materials. We can create openness and a connection between indoor and outdoor that can be difficult in older masonry bearing buildings that rely on the thickness of walls to support the stories above. Modern buildings utilize curtainwall, operable glass systems, metal and cement panels, and a variety of steel structures to add a new texture to the city's fabric. It's important to remember that each city has its own unique constraints and standards to uphold. There will often be a design review board working to maintain the character of a neighborhood, and design teams can be challenged to develop buildings that reach certain percentages of the "right" materials so that the property is considered appropriate for the community.

DLR Group is designing a new hotel in Denver's Lower Downtown district (LoDo), where there is an urban planning idea to maintain contextual development that is pedestrian friendly. Building height, massing and setbacks are all part of the criteria that a designer must weigh when making decisions that affect the return on invest of the project, as a designer, I love the challenge of constraints. It's the juice that informs some of our basic decisions and propels a project forward. In Denver, we've been able to successfully navigate the standards and create a modern structure with timeless appeal. With 11 stories and 220 rooms, we've designed a building that responds to the neighborhood, meets the criteria set forth and places the bar pretty high for other developments. Watch this one as it comes out of the ground.


Multiple stakeholders can also affect the outcome of a design. But these are just more constraints, pieces of the puzzle that get us going. DLR Group recently completed a new JW Marriott at the Mall of America. The Port Authority of Bloomington owns the underground parking; the Mall of America owns the retail and office tower; and a third group owns the hotel. We needed to coordinate all of those interests to deliver a truly integrated urban development that would be seen by more than 40 million visitors a year. That's a lot of eyes, so it had to be done right. This mixed-use project has 342 hotel keys, a 300,000 square foot retail mall expansion and 187,000 square foot office tower, all seamlessly integrated both vertically and horizontally. The hotel is performing above expectations as it thrives on its own reputation and the strength of the Mall of America as an entertainment destination. It was a complex project but that is where the fun lies.

It might not always be easy to adapt a brand's standards to a downtown property, but no matter where one is designing, the main priority should always be helping clients identify their target audience and how to make their return on investments by creating the proper offerings for their location. Research is your friend here, which can come in the form of multiple charrettes with partner offices and the client or neighborhood residents. It will always lead to a deeper knowledge of the community you are entering and the ability to link the history of the site with the new property you present to it. The result will be guests who are able to sniff out those neighborhood treats, creating a property that supports the local community and a community that supports the hotel.

And that is mission accomplished.

Ed Wilms is DLR Groupís National Hospitality Design Leader. He is a frequent traveler, which he parlays into research for his next hotel design. Mr. Wilms works closely with flagship brands such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and his projects include the Canopy by Hilton Minneapolis Mill District, AC Hotel Gainesville, Austin DoubleTree by Hilton, AC Hotel Grand Rapids, The Elizabeth, Marriott Autograph, and the AC Hotel San Francisco. Mr. Wilmsís focus to deliver the best guest experience has led him to developing numerous world-class experiences to owners, developers, brands and guests to bring new hospitality venues to fruition. His strong leadership and guidance creates an effective project team. Mr. Wilms can be contacted at 612-977-3567 or ewilms@dlrgroup.com Please visit http://www.dlrgroup.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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Hotel Law: Issues & Events
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