Creating a Unique Sense of Place: Provenance Hotels

By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | March 31, 2019

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, there are an estimated 54,000 hotel properties in the United States serving 4.8 million guests per night with cumulative annual hotel revenue of $245 billion. For the hotelier, these statistics represent both a challenge and an opportunity. There are of course "big dogs" out there that dominate the marketplace. The top five hotel products, led by Holiday Inn Express, comprise 14% of the market. These products, much like the original Holiday Inn, are based on value and consistency.

Marketplace opportunities, particularly with the newest generations of travelers, lie with finding a niche that creates a unique sense of place, often tied to the unique characteristics of the community. The roots can be found with the rise of the boutique hotels in the 1980s, pioneered by Bill Kimpton with the Clarion Bedford Hotel in San Francisco, and followed shortly by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell's (now closed) Morgans in New York City.

In the decades that followed, the boutique hotel "movement" took hold, prospered, and evolved. Recently, major nameplates such as Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton have developed "soft brand collections," such as Autograph, Unbound and Curio respectively – attempting to blend the strength of the parent's management with a less standard design approach.

Despite the rise of "soft brand collections," there remain opportunities for niche brands that create their own unique experiences. One such brand is Provenance Hotels, founded in Portland, Oregon in 1985. Today, the company's portfolio includes fourteen hotels with four in development. The portfolio includes both owned and operated properties and managed assets with 2,500 plus rooms under its control.

Bashar Wali is president of Provenance Hotels. To him, words like "boutique" and "lifestyle" have become overused and diluted. The cutting edge concept that the original boutique hoteliers provided is increasingly dated and unfortunately often formulaic, being dumbed down to mean smaller, quirkier properties. In contrast, Provenance Hotels focused intently on its audience, which it considers "forward thinking creatives," developing hotels that are not only great places to stay, but a greater place to stay an extra night.

Wali sees opportunity in smaller-scale properties that provide a more handcrafted or curated approach to design, operation and experience. "As a truly independent company, we are able to remain nimble and focus our time and energy on customizing the guest experience to create something surprising that reflect the personality of the destinations we develop in – even when we have more than one hotel in a given market," says Wali. Provenance Hotels' core concept is not providing a consistent building, but rather seeking consistency in creating a specific human place that is energizing to the creative soul.

This concept looks to older, vintage buildings that of themselves are interesting both visually and historically. Having a great back-story is an asset. Provenance Hotels then leverages the unique characteristics of each property and uses those elements to create a unique full-service hotel. Integral is high quality dining with food and beverage partners; as with the aesthetics, the dining is not about a white table cloth experience, but a culinary one created with locally sourced produce in the hands of creative chefs. A common denominator too is the use of unique, property-specific original art work. Behind the scenes is a professional hospitality staff imbued with the brand's culture of creating a human experience and skilled in its execution.

The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery (New Orleans, LA)

One example of the Provenance Hotels style is the Old No. 77 & Chandlery in New Orleans.

The bones of the Old No. 77 & Chandlery were the Ambassador Hotel, an uninspired three-star property in what became the Warehouse Arts District just south of the French Quarter. It was the Ambassador that combined three four-story antebellum warehouses into a competent 160+ room hotel that was most attractive for its price. The aesthetic of the Ambassador was standard fare for its class for the late 20th century, with exposed brick walls, wall-to-wall carpet and tile flooring, painted gypsum board ceilings with ceilings fans, and Georgian Revival "hotel" furniture.

In 2014, Provenance Hotels gained control of the Ambassador. The location was ideal on many levels. Just south of Poydras Street, it was close to the convention center, Riverwalk, and the National World War II Museum. The property was a bit away from the chaos of the French Quarter, but not too distant. The immediate area was a historic warehouse district with 19th century buildings serving the Port of New Orleans. Beginning in 1976, the area began a new life as an arts district with the opening of the Contemporary Arts Center, which resulted in an increasingly rich mix of music, theater, and dance combined with a cutting edge gallery scene. As the area grew in popularity, it became home to award-winning restaurants. The district came to have an edgy, artsy and sophisticated vibe in the city.

                  Provenance mixes historic settings with culinary arts is Old No. 77's Compere Lapin restaurant

This vibe paralleled the Provenance Hotels vision of a hotel as experience. Provenance Hotels invested $14 million over nine months to transform the Ambassador into the Old No.77 Hotel & Chandlery. As illustrated by its name, which is the property's historic address, Provenance embraced the heritage of the site and like the surrounding neighborhood, sought to leverage the unique characteristics into an edgy, artsy vibe. "We made it our mission to connect with the incredibly creative folks who call New Orleans home and have been able to push boundaries in how the design and programming manifested. "The result, we believe, is a hotel that is truly rooted in the community," says Wali.

The hotel's tag line is "where art and history come together." Of course, the historic exterior was fully rehabilitated while the interior transformed into an art experience. As part of the renovation, the character was enhanced by an extensive collection of local art works in the public spaces and guest rooms. The guestroom artwork was curated through a partnership with the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). Established in 1973, NOCCA is the City's foremost arts school founded by artists, educators and community activists to offer intensive instruction in culinary arts, creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts while also demanding academic excellence.

A New Orleans gallery, Where Y'art, curates a gallery located just off the lobby with works for sale by local artists that rotates multiple times per year with new shows as an extension to their main Marigny location. To keep it edgy and to connect art and its public, the hotel also hosts an artist-in-residence program for a month, at no charge to the artist, with each season ending with a special exhibit and programs.

Integral to the guest expectation is a culinary experience equal to the art. Typically, Provenance Hotels properties are supported by food service that is locally sourced led by a notable local chef. At Old No. 77 & Chandlery, that chef is Caribbean-born Nina Compton at Compere Lapin. In 2018, Compton was named Best Chef South at the 2018 James Beard Awards.

Not surprisingly accolades have followed: In 2015, Old No. 77 was named of the top 10 New US Hotels by Gayot, in 2017 Conde Naste Traveler Reader's Choice Award for Best Hotel in New Orleans, and in 2018, one of the 15 Best City Hotels in the Continental United States by Travel + Leisure.

Woodlark (Portland, Oregon)

One of Provenance Hotels' most recent ventures is Woodlark, which actually combined two adjacent National Register buildings, the Cornelius Hotel and the Woodlark Building, into a single property. The seven-story Cornelius Hotel was built in 1908 in the French Renaissance style. It featured a dramatic sheet metal mansard roof on the outside and an equally dramatic plaster coffered ceiling in the lobby. In the 1920s, the Cornelius was one of the City's most opulent hotels, nicknamed "The House of Welcome."

As with many downtown hotels, after World War II it became a less popular and eventually morphed into a residential hotel. A fire in 1985 made the upper three floors uninhabitable. By 1992, the building was for the most part boarded and abandoned. In 2014, the condition was so poor, the owner asked the City for permission to demolish the historic building.

History was kinder to the Woodlark Building. A steel-frame office building, the Woodlark was designed by noted Portland architects Doyle, Patterson & Beach, clad in a distinctive white terra cotta. Completed in 1912, for its first decade it was the headquarters of Woodward, Clarke & Company. In the 1920s, the building was converted entirely to office use and continued into the 2010s as a Class C/historic office building.

In 2014, Portland real estate developer NBP Capital acquired both properties and began working with Provenance to create what is now known as Woodlark. Following a $70 million comprehensive renovation, the hotel opened late in 2018 with 150 guest rooms housed in a meticulously restored exterior. The aesthetic balances the style of the French Renaissance with a modern edge, mixing luxe textile, raw wood, blue leather, black lacquer and brass to create a warm, yet sophisticated environment with a strong sense of place. The guest rooms are designed to be a home away from home with features like custom designed wallpaper, created using Northwest botanicals plucked from the city's Forest Park. "We tasked ourselves at Woodlark with creating a hotel that speaks to the future of hospitality in the Pacific Northwest, raising the bar in terms of guest experience," says Wali. "Everything at this hotel is elevated and thoughtfully curated, from our partnerships to the art to the design itself.