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When Bill Kimpton launched the Clarion Bedford Hotel in San Francisco in 1981, he created the boutique hotel industry in America. Since then, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants has steadfastly maintained its early adopter status in terms of local design, locally-sourced F&B, corporate responsibility and community integration.
Many hospitality trends in the U.S. can be traced back to Kimpton, which now operates 60 hotels and a growing collection of independent restaurants across the country. Of those trends, the most significant is an unerring sense of place specific to a local neighborhood.
Bill Kimpton, who suffered from depression, developed hotels that were an antidote to his melancholy and adverse reaction to monotony. He designed each property with a charming artistic flair similar to the small European hotels he had visited during his previous career as an investment banker.
The hotels became part of their community fabric because the creative design and quality of F&B attracted a significant following of local residents. Before Kimpton, hotel restaurants were for the most part utilitarian. In effect, the hotels became travel destinations in their own right, connecting visiting guests and local residents.
“From the start,” Kimpton told Hospitality Design magazine in 1999, “I wanted to create something unique, offering a European flavor, good value and a sense of fun. Whether you are traveling for work or pleasure, you often arrive tired or worried, and a hotel should lift your spirits, not put you to sleep as you step through the door.”
The local community mindset for which Kimpton is well known is manifested in myriad ways. For example, general managers lead bike tours for guests in Washington, D.C. through local neighborhoods. When employees at any of the hotels work extra hours, administrators send flowers or gift baskets to loved ones. In the 1980s, Kimpton was the first corporate hotel group to publicly support the LGBT community in San Francisco. And Kimpton placed a priority on local food long before local food became mainstream.
Another brand initiative, the Kimpton Wine Hour takes place at every hotel from 5-6pm daily in the lobbies, when GMs converse with guests while complimentary wine and craft beer is served. To give everyone something to talk about, concierges place iPads filled with fresh local destination information around the room.
Recently, most of the Kimpton properties have begun incorporating employee recommendations about local travel experiences on the hotel websites. Anyone from the GMs to custodial staff are asked to share their favorite hangouts, updated monthly, offering a highly curated array of destination insight at a variety of price points.
Skift spoke with Mark Jennings, regional vice president, hotel operations mid-Atlantic at Kimpton Hotels, to learn more about the brand’s local neighborhood ethos and how it’s evolving today.
Skift: Can you tell us more about the website updates with recommendations from Kimpton staff members?
Mark Jennings: Throughout Kimpton’s history, our most important initiative is called ‘Like a Local.’ Every month, or more frequently, we’re always providing our personal recommendations for our guests on all of the cool things that we think they may not know about. That’s what people want, whether they’re international, domestic or drive-in. They really want something they feel they’re not going to get somewhere else. And they really feel special if it’s something that seems off the beaten path, or a closely guarded secret. I mean, we’ve had requests from people hot for this bead shop up on Connecticut Avenue. It’s different, it’s very local and it’s popular with locals.
Skift: Does that online conversation help drive business?
Mark Jennings: What it does, what we want people to do, is interact with the website. What we find is when people have that information, the click-through rate tends to improve. That’s our goal. The information compels people over time to click to the booking engine. It helps us organically too because people are often searching for activities in the area. And because we are so involved with that, it certainly helps us with our search results as well.
Mostly, we do it because we want to create loyalty. Our loyal customers who love Kimpton know that wherever they go they’re going to meet people in the local scene. We’re also communicating that internally with our guests who are already here, and we want them to go to the website while they’re at the hotel also.
Skift: How does Kimpton partner with local small businesses to create a more immersive travel experience in a particular destination?
Mark Jennings: I was just traveling in Seattle, it was my first time there. One of the hotels has partnerships with local wineries where the rooms are named after the different wineries. The amenities were very specific and seasonal coming from what is available in Washington state wine country. They also have documentaries about the local wine scene and the people who created it, especially in the Walla Walla area. The wineries really work well with Kimpton to set up regular winery tours for Kimpton guests.
The important thing is those relationships were all created locally. We are all encouraged to come up with the best local partnerships that we can that fits with what makes sense in our area. In other words, there’s not someone sitting at home office saying, ‘Oh I should set something up for this group of hotels.’ We’re all encouraged to be entrepreneurial and do it ourselves.
Skift: How important is food and beverage at Kimpton Hotels with regard to the overall hotel experience and your attempts to connect with locals?
Mark Jennings: Bill Kimpton traveled considerably throughout Europe and he loved the boutique hotels that were there. What he decided was he wanted to recreate the same thing here, because we really didn’t have that in the United States at the time. That was his goal, to have a small intimate place with real interactions between the staff and guests. That whole Wine Hour thing came directly from him because he experienced that in Europe.
The other thing that sets us apart in Bill’s model is having a separate restaurant. Ours are separate entities, and oftentimes the restaurants have a much more local recognition than the hotels do. Over 80 percent of the business we get in all of our restaurants is local. I can’t tell you how important it is to attract a locale clientele. The local business and people driving in have kept us extremely busy and highly occupied. Our government business has dropped way off because they’re not doing anything. But our occupancy is at an all time high.
Skift: During the 1980s, other early boutique hotel groups had a somewhat elitist attitude. But Kimpton Hotels never embraced that vibe. Why is that?
Mark Jennings: I know exactly what you mean, I’ve been to those hotels. You’re standing in the lobby and the staff is looking at you like, ‘You don’t belong here.’ When I came over to Kimpton, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I don’t know how you find any other culture like we have here. I don’t think you could create it with any existing company. It started because that’s the way Bill Kimpton wanted it, and ever since then no matter how large we grow, it’s been incredibly important to foster that culture.
Skift: In terms of overall design for the Monaco and Palomar brands, and the individual hotels, how does Kimpton maintain national brand standards and remain true to the local neighborhood?
Mark Jennings: The Monaco product wherever we have one is adaptive reuse and most likely inside a historic building. So that’s definitely a local experience, but with Kimpton’s interior touch. Like the one here in D.C., which was the original post office built in 1839. The large windows were designed so people could sort mail. In Baltimore, the Monaco is the old B&O railroad building.
Then we have the Palomar brand. It is more modern, often a newbuild or reuse of a not-so-old building, and it’s more geared toward the hip arts and culture scene.
And all of the rest are almost brands of one. They have consistency among the staff and programs, but they’re all just a little different from each other. Every time we go through the initial design process, it is always with an eye toward, how does this tie in locally? How does this match the neighborhood? How does this match the history and culture? You know, what is important to this part of the city?
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.