Walk through the doors of The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee’s downtown Fifth Ward district and your eyes will immediately rest upon a motorcycle smack dab in the middle of the lobby. Staff members change out the vehicle every now and then; sometimes it’s an antique, sometimes a recently released beauty. But regardless of its pedigree, the instillation is a nod to the hotel’s name—many motorcycle enthusiasts label the bikes ‘iron horses’—as well as an acknowledgement of its location.
“We are right across the street from the Harley-Davidson Museum,” notes Scott Sullivan, director of sales. “We also like the name because we have railroad tracks behind the hotel and Native Americans used to call rail cars iron horses.”
This unique line of thinking extends far beyond the hotel’s motorcycle art. The property was built in 1907 as a mattress factory and purchased by the hotel’s owner in 2005. Completely transformed, it opened to the public in 2008 as the epitome of hip with exposed brick and piping, original wood floors and a variety of art pieces.
Meeting groups account for about 30 percent of the 100-room property’s business. Major market segments include corporate and associations for board gatherings and social functions. Along with its unique vibe is a roster of interesting meeting spaces (totaling 7,000 square feet, indoor and outdoor), starting with the Library—a space that previously operated as a bank vault—with a fireplace, long wooden tables, built-in bookshelves and leather couches.
“My groups love meeting in the Library,” says Bill Severson, manager of meetings and special events for Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee. “We also like to use it for social functions, set up a bar in the back and have pass-around food and beverage. It has a really nice ambience.”
Up on the sixth floor, groups will find The Loft, an 850-square-foot spot with 11-foot ceilings and full audiovisual capabilities. Also available are two smaller spaces, the Sandbox and War room, each around 400 square feet and perfect for board gatherings.
On the other side of Lake Michigan is another popular hip hotel, CityFlatsHotel, located in Holland, Mich.
“We don’t do anything that is standard in the industry as far as guest rooms are concerned,” says Stuart VerHoef, general manager of CityFlats. “We have our headboards in the middle of the room and the televisions on the wall, for example; we also don’t have normal bathroom doors, we have slider barn doors. All of our room floors are cork, not carpet. Each unit has a real loft feel.”
Environmentally concerned groups are especially attracted to CityFlatsHotel because of its LEED Gold certification, complete with low-flow showers and sinks.
“We also give our soap to Clean the World,” Verhoef adds, referring to the nonprofit that takes hotel soap, disinfects it and donates it to children in need throughout the world.
As for meeting space, the property offers around 900 square feet, primarily attracting corporate groups of around 40 people.
Beyond the Independents
Although properties like The Iron Horse and CityFlatsHotel—with clean lines, modern furnishings and unique textures—are popping up everywhere, Sullivan insists the emergence isn’t a trend.
“It is just becoming the norm to want to go to a hip hotel,” he says. “Even the big hotel chains are jumping on the bandwagon. Companies like Marriott, Hyatt and Radisson have their own versions.”
To his point is the January 2012 opening of the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel Chicago, located right next to the city’s Millennium Park. The 334-room property offers 28,000 square feet of meeting space, an impressive size for a property that feels a lot like a boutique hotel.
“Our property is incredibly modern and very well done,” says Fred Khoury, director of sales and marketing. “It has a wavy facade and inside you can see a lot of forward thought in terms of decor, from the Egyptian links to the 50-foot fireplace…and that is just the lobby area.”
Blu’s “hipness” extends to the technological offers inside each guest room. Units are equipped with Intelity capabilities, which means guests can order room service, book spa appointments or schedule wake up calls all on their room television. As Khoury explains, guests also can download the system to an iPad, so if you are off-site and know you’ll be hungry when you get back, you can just order your room service en route to the hotel and have it waiting when you return to the property.
The hotel averages groups of around 150 to 200 people and boasts a more than 12,000-square-foot ballroom—with windows on three sides—and more than 12 breakout spaces. The property is incredibly popular in the Midwest and Khoury attributes its success partly to its differentiation in the market.
“Most hotels in Chicago are traditional in style,” he says. “We’ve come to the market with something that is high-end and boutique in style, but still can accommodate meetings of an array of sizes. It’s a great fit.”
A New Norm
Khoury is quick to explain the reasons groups are gravitating to hip hotels.
“People really want a modern, clean look in the hotels they frequent,” he says. “The heavy floral and mahogany furnishings are a thing of the past, partly because those aren’t what people have in their homes anymore. When you see the guest rooms at trendy hotels, it reminds you of an upscale apartment—and people like that aesthetic.”
Patrick Clemons is the regional director of sales for Graves Hospitality Corporation, the company that manages Graves 601 Hotel Minneapolis, which opened in 2003. He also says groups today are looking for unique properties and are shying away from more traditional designs.
“We are living in such a fast-paced environment that people want something new and fresh all the time,” he adds. “That is why this type of hotel is getting so popular.”
Graves 601 is a 255-room property filled with trendy touches. Of its 20,000 square feet of meeting space, 5,600 are dedicated to a ballroom with walls lined with light boxes, giving the room an edgy vibe.
“The backlight in the ballroom gives every event an absolutely stunning feel,” Clemons says. “Beyond the ballroom, our property is incredibly modern and attractive with glass-etched, handcrafted headboards of the Minneapolis skyline, televisions in bathrooms and backlit photographs on the walls.”
Erin Howe, manager of meetings and events at General Mills, in Minneapolis, says she frequently brings groups to Graves 601 Hotel. And while her groups enjoy the service, decor and overall vibe, she is most excited by the staff’s flexibility and creativity.
“I find hip hotels, like Graves 601, are more creative,” she says. “When you are planning a meeting, you really can lean on them to help you design what you want because they already are thinking in a different mindset.
“If I was to advise a planner going to this type of property, it would be to brainstorm where to put a registration desk, how to set up a room, etc.,” she says. “You can really have fun with it.”
Katie Morell is a hip writer and editor who loves checking out the trendiest hotels in her native San Francisco.