The owner of an aging downtown Baltimore hotel hopes to breathe new life into the property with a gritty, cool makeover that incorporates graffiti, sleek, white couches and a chain link fence.
The multi-million dollar upgrade of the Brookshire Suites at Calvert and Lombard streets gives a new street twist to the 1958 building, which began as a parking garage but has been a hotel since the 1980s.
Modus Hotels saw an opportunity to stand out in Baltimore, which has traditionally been dominated by big names with conventional reputations, such as Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt, said Aaron Katz, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based owner of 11 hotels.
"We think we have a nice little niche and Baltimore is a really good market with a lot of unmet demand," he said. "There aren't a lot of independent, lifestyle hotels in Baltimore. … We think we have a lot of open space."
Boutique properties represent a small but growing share of the Baltimore metro region's hospitality market, which counted more than 250 hotels and 33,000 rooms in 2013.
The number of boutique hotels jumped from six to 10 between 2009 and 2013, with rooms almost doubling from 570 to 1,100, according to Smith Travel Research, which provides data on the hotel industry.
While occupancy rates for the region have held fairly steady, hovering around 64 percent since 2007, boutique properties have done better, averaging 70 percent in 2013, up from 66 percent in 2009, when Smith Travel started tracking the boutique market.
Hotel brands nationwide are moving away from established names to try to appeal to younger, "Gen X, Gen Y" travelers, said David Loeb, a senior real estate research analyst for the financial firm Robert W. Baird.
"It's a cool thing to call yourself," Loeb said, even if a mass-market boutique is something of an oxymoron.
Visit Baltimore President Tom Noonan said the Brookshire Suites — which will retain its name — is one of a handful of examples of boutique branding starting to emerge in downtown Baltimore, which has 40 hotels with a total of 8,000 rooms, according to the Downtown Partnership.
The 200-room Kimpton-owned Hotel Monaco opened in 2009, followed by the 250-room Four Seasons in 2011. The 420-room Lord Baltimore Hotel dropped its Radisson affiliation after it switched ownership last year.
"There's a little bit more of that than there used to be," Noonan said. "It's nice to be known for a really hip and cool hotel product in this city."
Occupancy rates for 2013 are still being calculated for downtown hotels, but they averaged about 63 percent in 2012, said Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler, a board member of Visit Baltimore, which promotes the city's tourism industry
"We hope to see good news again this year," said Fowler, adding that he has been pleased to see renovations at many of the city's hotels. "Hoteliers are really realizing they need to improve some aging properties and come up with a new spin."
Modus Hotels bought Brookshire Suites for $7.85 million in Sept. 2012 at the property's second bankruptcy auction that year. Meyer Jabara Hotels owned the Brookshire Suites from 1998 until 2012. Meyer Jabara Chairman William Meyer declined to comment.
Katz said the hotel had been "tired" and "capital-starved" and he was not worried by its experience in bankruptcy.
"I don't know what the circumstances were with the prior owner, but based on the location and quality of the rooms, I don't have any concerns," he said.
The Brookshire's relatively smallr size — 97 rooms — as well as an "edgy, modern" design from Seattle-based Dawson Design Associates meant to evoke local flavor will help set it apart from the city's other offerings, he said. Dawson also worked on San Francisco's trendy Zetta Hotel, which targets the techie market.
"For us, it's about creating an experience for guests and making them feel part of the neighborhood they're coming to," said Katz, adding that he hopes to appeal to a mix of business travelers and tourists. "Our vision here was to create a hotel that really reflected on the creative community and the edgy, modern feel of Baltimore and so we envisioned this urban playground."
Modus commissioned Baltimore painter Michael Owen to do street art-inspired pieces in the lobby, which is set off from the elevators by a chain-link fence. Redbar, the mod lobby lounge, will serve Maryland brands such as Heavy Seas beer and Knob Hall wine. Rooms, which feature graffiti wall art and white faux-leather couches, go for $139 to $239 a night.
Owen, the creator of the Baltimore Love Project and an artist-in-residence at the Creative Alliance, said he hopes his work will give visitors a glimpse of the city's "grinding," blue-collar atmosphere.
"One of the first questions I asked was, 'Are we trying to do something that feels like the Inner Harbor or are we trying to do something that feels like Baltimore?'" Owen said. "I wasn't interested — and nobody was interested — in creating a piece that felt touristy."