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21C’s footprint is too small to pose competition to the larger players, but its execution on the local art and culture concept positions the brand as an inspiration to others just now looking to engage local businesses.
As global hotel brands go head-to-head in a race to align themselves with independent local hotels that travelers are increasingly seeking out, a small three-hotel group is quietly building its brand power in the middle of America.
21 Museum Hotel is, as its name suggests, part museum and part hotel. Guests walking into its properties in Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Bentonville, Arkansas are greeted by a curated contemporary art exhibition that changes every six months.
“We start from the notion that we are a true museum. We design our hotels to be a museum first and foremost and then around that a hotel, event space, restaurant, bar and all of the other amenities that go along with being a hotel,” explains 21C president Craig Greenberg.
Concept to Execution
The brand began with the founders’ intention to do something with contemporary art that would help revitalize downtown Louisville. According to Greenberg, they never imagined opening more than one 21C space.
Founders Laura Lee Brown, heiress to Brown-Forman Corp., and Steve Wilson used their own collection of contemporary art to outfit the first property and continue to pull from their works for the public displays. The hotel group now has a museum department with 10 employees dedicated to curating the exhibitions, often borrowing from other museums and artists.
Each property also collaborates with the local art community to host lecturers, events, and film screenings.
Although the hotels are currently located in smaller cities rarely mentioned as tourist destinations, Greenberg says the hotel is starting to eye properties in larger cities and international locations for the future.
There are currently two properties under construction and three properties in the design stage for Durham, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; and Oklahoma City.
There’s been a spike in travelers’ interest and awareness of local hotels that better represent the destinations they are based in via art, ambiance and cuisine. The trend is seen in the rise of brands like the Ace and Standard that take local design into consideration and in rush of big brands to align themselves with more local properties.
When asked about how 21C fits into this new landscape, Greenberg talks about the brand’s track record.
“At the end of the day, people talk a lot about various trends but it comes down to execution. How are you going to execute on the notion of providing a unique authentic hospitality experience?”
He calls the founders “accidental innovators” and suggests that 21C was creating what these brands are now only getting into six years ago due to a lack of experience in the industry.
“We don’t even know what box we’re supposed to think outside of because we’re not from the hotel industry. We really think about if i was a guest coming to a hotel, what kind of experience would I want?