Sage Hospitality: Thirty-Five Years in the Making and Going Strong
By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | February 02, 2020
Conceptually, Sage Hospitality is a broad-based hospitality company that includes hotel management, development and investment. Under the umbrella of Sage Restaurant Group, it also develops and manages a national collection of independent restaurants. Recently, Sage began working more on the independent side of hotels, developing, trademarking and expanding brands exclusive to the company such as The Maven Hotel in Denver.
In 1984, at the age of 26, Sage President and CEO Walter Isenberg, along with co-founder and Chairman Zack Neumeyer, started the company and continues to lead it today. Born in Kansas City, Isenberg's first job was as a dishwasher at a country club at 14-years old. In the late 1970s, he graduated from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, which is considered to be the world's leader in hospitality research, education, and professional development. After working for Southern Host Hotels in Atlanta, he embraced the idea of doing hotels in a different way.
Initially, Sage focused on operating, managing, and market positioning. In the 1990s, the company began to develop hotels, including new ground-up construction and the adaptive re-use of historic buildings. Forays into the historic boutique hotel market were dramatic, featuring signature properties with iconic histories.
The Blackstone Hotel (left) was designed by Chicago architects Marshall & Fox in 1910. Dubbed the "Hotel of Presidents," it was considered one of Chicago's finest luxury hotels when completed.
Blackstone Hotel (Chicago, IL)
Overlooking Grant Park along the west coast of Lake Michigan, the Blackstone Hotel was completed in 1910, designed by Chicago architects Marshall & Fox. Dubbed the "Hotel of Presidents," it was considered one of Chicago's finest luxury hotels, hosting a dozen presidents. Politically, the hotel is particularly noteworthy as the location of the proverbial "smoke-filled room" where Republican Party leaders met in 1920 to determine that Warren G. Harding would be the Republican Presidential nominee.
Notorious gangster Al Capone would get his haircuts in the opulent marble barbershop in the basement. By the 1960s, both the hotel and the surrounding neighborhood declined significantly. In 1995, the hotel was acquired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, developer of transcendental meditation (TM) and guru to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The Maharishi used the property in part as a TM center. By 1999, the hotel closed due to endemic fire and life safety problems.
Working with Marriott International, Sage acquired the property in 2005, and announced a $112 million renovation. Between 2005 and 2008, the hotel underwent a comprehensive renovation, reopening as the Renaissance Blackstone. The rehabilitated building has 332 rooms, 12 suites, and 13,250 square feet of meeting space. The "smoke-filled room" was preserved, as was the dramatic Beaux-Arts, two story Crystal Ballroom, Art Hall, and Capone-preferred barbershop. Over a decade after the renovation, the Blackstone is still recognized as one of Chicago's top hotels by the Conde Nast Travelers Readers Choice Awards. An additional renovation led to it being renamed The Blackstone Hotel, its historic name, and re-positioned as a Marriott Autograph Collection in 2017.
The ornate Blackstone Hotel lobby retains its historic character and features sleek modern furniture.
The Nines (Portland, OR)
Two thousand miles to the west, Sage was also a partner in the planned redevelopment and adaptive reuse of the city's iconic Meier & Frank Department Store. Self-proclaimed as "The Greatest Store West of the Mississippi," the Meier & Frank Department Store eventually grew to occupy a full city block in the center of the city. With 650,000 square feet of space over 13 floors, it was the largest commercial building in Oregon. At its peak, the store was the social and retail center of the city.
Unfortunately, like so many department stores, Meier & Frank began to face market realities that threatened its long-term viability. Those threats began with the suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s, but also the rise of small, targeted destination shops in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1966, May Department Stores acquired the Meier & Frank Company, and in 2006 May was acquired by Federated. Modern retail concepts deemed the building a white elephant, too big to be viable. Acknowledging the bleak future for the building, the City of Portland pro-actively searched for viable adaptive uses for a building with a 40,000 square foot floor plate.
The City successfully negotiated a partnership with Sage Hospitality and Federated. The retailer would shrink its operations to the lower five floors of the building. Sage would then adapt the upper 8 stories for hotel use with 331 rooms, 13 suites, ball and meeting rooms and a destination rooftop bar. The center would be modified to create a central atrium that featured a signature Urban Farmer restaurant at the base level; a decade ahead of its time, Urban Farmer focused on farm-to-table offerings.
The $133 million project right-sized the downtown department store while resulting in the state's first four star hotel. The finished product received a National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as being named "Best Hotel" in the Boutique Design Awards.
The Crawford Hotel is located inside Denver's Union Station, first opened in 1881. The renovation, which includes retail, food, and meeting spaces as well as the hotel and was completed just a few years ago, cost approximately $500 million.
Crawford Hotel at Union Station (Denver, CO)
For a multitude of reasons, Sage's most dramatic initiative can be found in the Crawford Hotel in its home town of Denver. The station sits at the base of 17th Street, anchoring the street with its iconic "Union Station – Travel by Train" neon sign. The station first opened in 1881, burning in 1894 and then being rebuilt in two stages with an enlarged central portion completed in 1914. At its hey-day, the station was served by 80 trains daily and among the dignitaries who visited were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Like rail service and train stations generally, the rise of the automobile and airline travel led to declining rail service. By 1958, passenger travel from Denver's Stapleton Airport exceeded that from Union Station. Amtrak became the sole provider of rail service, operating only two trains between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area. The future of the station looked increasingly bleak and demolition of this great building was a real possibility.
By the turn of the 21st century, Denver's Regional Transit Authority had acquired the station and surrounding lands. The associated master plan envisioned the development of a regional transportation hub with both interstation and regional rail and bus service. A renovated station would be the hub and centerpiece of the project. The station would then be flanked by new office buildings and complemented by associated retail. The concept was both informed and limited by earlier train station renovations, including Union Station in Washington, D.C., which conceived of festival-style retail marketplaces.
A keystone question in the redevelopment was how to integrate the historic train station into the overall plan. One popular option was an office use with ground floor retail. Traditionally, office uses in historic settings – regardless of the quality of the renovation – are only able to secure Class C rents and generally under-perform. The risk is that an under-performing office component would significantly impact the retail and food service potential of the station.
Sage successfully advocated an alternative strategy, one that kept the gateway retail/food concepts but then adapted the upper floors of the station into a hotel. The fully rehabilitated station has 112 guest rooms and 4,700 square feet of meeting space. To make the hotel more viable, an additional floor was built between the ground and former first floor on each wing, resulting in the creation of "Pullman" rooms reminiscent of train compartments: small, functional and well-appointed.
The attic was also renovated into loft-style guest rooms. The hotel lobby is located in part of the station's dramatic barrel vaulted great hall. Named for noted Denver historic preservation advocate, Dana Crawford, the hotel and station are routinely recognized as premier destinations in the city and state. Integrated into the project are more than 600 pieces of eclectic Western art. The entire station renovation cost approximately $500 million.
Sage's success in repositioning properties and in exceptional management underpins the company's stable growth and continuing success. Hallmarks of the company lie with business intelligence as well as strong leadership and staff development. The company also takes seriously a need to be a good community citizen. It works to integrate its property into the sense of place in the neighborhoods and cities where they are active. These values have played a critical role in making them a preferred management company.
At the same time, the company continues to seek new opportunities to create its own brands, building on the success of the Blackstone, Nines, and particularly the Crawford. Its mission is to break new ground - not simply in the literal physical sense, but to establish some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world. At the core, the idea is to enrich the lives of its guests one experience at a time while making a positive difference to the people that work there and the communities in which Sage is located.
To that end, Sage hopes to build on its experience with Blackstone, Nines and Crawford Hotels to create its own unique brand. One ground-up concept recently completed in Denver is The Maven.
At its hey-day, the station was served by 80 trains daily. The building's history as a train station has been integrated into the current businesses and hotel.
The Maven (Denver, CO)
The Maven is located in the Lower Downtown (LoDo) historic district of Denver not far from Union Station. It is part of a full block micro-district called the Dairy Block. The idea of the Dairy Block is to offer world-class shopping and dining keyed to specifically selected local businesses. Architecturally the setting is a blending of new construction with historic low-rise commercial and industrial buildings. The hotel plays a critical and integrated role in creating the critical mass to make the project viable.
The hotel has 172 loft style rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows in a chic industrial-like atmosphere. What is distinguishing about The Maven as a prototype is the intent for the hotel to be a seamlessly set into a larger curated guest experience, narrowing the boundaries between hotel and community.
Led by Walter Isenberg from its 1984 founding, Sage Hospitality has established a reputation for exceptional management. Over time and as specific opportunities arose, the company also stepped into the business of hotel development. Many of these ventures have been iconic, many historic. One of the most recent successes is the Crawford Hotel at Denver's Union Station.
With a mission to enrich both guest and community, the company has worked to think outside the box in terms of the guest perception of the hotel experience, increasing focusing on making the hotel one part of a broader unique guest experience. Most recently, this has led to the Denver's Maven Hotel. The driving force of Isenberg's vision for Sage is "love what you do and love who you do it with." This philosophy has resulted in building a ground-breaking, innovative hospitality company from a standing start.
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