At the Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor, don't look for a front desk, coffee makers in rooms or hotel workers in uniforms.
The RL brand, from Spokane, Wash.-based Red Lion Hotels Corp., prides itself on being different.
At the 130-room hotel on the corner of Calvert and East Redwood streets, jeans-clad employees roam the rustic, contemporary lobby carrying electronic tablets to register guests or taking food and drink orders. Guests who need a ride in the city are offered a lift in the hotel's 1971 Volkswagen minibus parked out front. A centrally located coffee bar serves guests complimentary cappuccinos.
Baltimore is the site of Red Lion's first RL hotel, which the hotelier describes as a lifestyle brand inspired by Pacific Northwest culture. It plans to spread RLs to 80 urban markets.
RL opened in the 10-story converted historic Keyser office building Saturday, adding to a growing number of boutique hotels in the city, including Hotel Monaco, Hotel Indigo and the Ivy Hotel. As many as 50 more RL locations are planned in the next year in Atlanta, New York and Salt Lake City, among other places.
The hotel, like other so-called lifestyle brands, was designed with a young, tech-savvy generation in mind.
"Our target is the millennial guest or those who have adopted a millennial mindset," said Stacie Votaw, the Baltimore site's director of sales and marketing.
Jan Freitag, a senior vice president with Smith Travel Research, said a number of new brands have launched over the last few years in the United States, and RL clearly targets the millennial traveler.
"The millennial customer is important, if not in spending power, then in numbers of people," he said. "The lifestyle segment is not just attractive to the younger generation but also the traveler who wants an experience, no matter the age range."
"It's a competitive advantage against the standard, nondifferentiated hotel box," Freitag added.
As a midpriced, casual and full-service lodging choice, the hotel fills a niche, said Bob Pottberg, the hotel's general manager.
In the lobby, designed both for gathering and working, outlets for laptops and phones are plentiful, a Victrola Coffee Roasters coffee bar shares space with a bar and grill, and a graduated seating area called The Steps faces a small stage.
In such an environment, Pottberg said, guests and members of the public can expect to find "great Internet and a good glass of wine. ... We want to bring back this 100-year-old building and say, 'This building has life.'"
Rooms, which will range in price from $159 to $229 a night depending on season and market availability, feature hardwood floors and 55-inch flat-screen TVs. Travelers can use a smartphone app to check in or unlock room doors. The hotel offers meeting space and a fitness room.
Red Lion, which owns, manages and franchises 130 hotels under brands such as Red Lion, Red Lion Inn & Suites and Settle Inn, bought the Redwood Street property for $15.7 million in December. The Keyser building was built in 1905 after the Great Baltimore Fire and once had more than 100 offices, according to the list of Maryland's historic properties.
A firm headed by Annie Kim bought the building for $4 million in 2004 and planned to convert it to a Hotel Indigo, but financial troubles halted the work when it was about 70 percent finished. The property's holding company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The building sat vacant until Red Lion acquired it with plans to spend $3.5 million to complete the renovation.
"The property was this incredible find," Votaw said.
Renovations started in April. Red Lion has said it plans to invest more than $50 million in the next 18 months to convert other old hotels and office buildings to the RL brand.
The RL has joined other boutique hotels downtown that have helped fill out the city's lodging offerings in addition to big, convention-style hotels and less pricey limited-service properties, said Tom Noonan, Visit Baltimore president and CEO.
"A lot of people prefer that [boutique hotel] product when they travel," Noonan said.
Red Lion's decision to open its first RL in Baltimore "said a lot about that location and the city, or they wouldn't have selected us for their first location," Noonan said. "They're really branding themselves in some really unique ways."
Freitag said it's too soon to tell how millennials will shape lodging demand in the future.
"It's still a bet, because the millennial traveler is just now starting," he said. "They're obviously not in the high-earning income bracket yet, but give it a couple of years."