Making the Walls Talk
Aparium Hotel Group
In today’s world, hotel guests expect more than a tidy room, a comfortable bed, and a place to sleep and shower – they want experiences, and few hotels are better equipped to meet and exceed the expectations of travelers and locals alike than Aparium.
Under the leadership of highly skilled and seasoned professionals, the Aparium Hotel Group provides patrons with top-tier service, outstanding food and drink, and rich cultural experiences unique to their location, whether they are staying or dining at the Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Hotel Covington in Kentucky, the Foundation Hotel in Detroit, or any of the other stellar hotels under the Aparium umbrella.
With nine properties financed, under construction, or acquisitioned, and ten currently in operation, the Aparium Hotel Group continues to grow, says Chief Operating Officer and Managing Partner Kevin Robinson. A veteran of the industry who previously worked at Four Seasons Hotels Ltd., Robinson founded Aparium along with entrepreneur Chief Executive Officer Mario Tricoci in Chicago in 2011. Seeking to bring unparalleled service to clients, the duo actively sought out markets in cities with unique characteristics, where there was a need for not only a special kind of property, but places that would truly tell the story of the city. These are more than hotels; they are quirky hidden gems aching to share their charms.
Aparium strives to maintain the individual character of the buildings it chooses through adaptive reuse of existing assets. “The markets we are in, the buildings — they are all one-offs,” says Robinson. “We don’t replicate anything.” Using the analogy of the Rocky film series, which saw the sequels fail to measure up to the original, Robinson says the intent of Aparium is to customize its properties at every single opportunity to complement the uniqueness of their former selves, not try to make a knock-off. The Hotel Covington in Kentucky, for example, was previously a retail clothing store purchased by a wealthy horseracing enthusiast, and as a tastefully stylish hotel, it pays homage to clothing and fabrics.
Rather than pursue oversaturated markets, the team at Aparium looks for stable areas that are less impacted by economic instability, with fewer financial peaks and valleys. “Probably more importantly is that these smaller markets are saturated with personality with the local community and local residents, and lots of old buildings with character,” says Robinson. The Group has transformed a former chocolate factory, mattress manufacturer, and even an old farm implement warehouse into hotels. These repurposed structures are rich with charm, and contain decades of stories about what they were like over the years.
Devoting themselves to researching both the community and the building’s history, Robinson and Tricoci incorporate these elements into building the brand of the hotel. In the case of Michigan, Aparium – serving as owner, co-developer, and manager – spent millions of dollars transforming the historic Detroit Fire Department Headquarters into a 100-room independent hotel. The move, appreciated by the local community, not only created a unique landmark hotel, but helped to bring 100 full and part-time jobs to the area.
“It’s such an important building that we wanted to make sure we did something special with it,” says Robinson. “You go there now, and you can tell when you pull up that it’s an old firehouse. When you go in, you can see it’s got great design that complements the automotive history of Detroit, and the streetscape, and the original integrity of the original firehouse building. None of it is distasteful; it’s all done in subtle complements and makes up the experience of your stay.” The Foundation also boasts a Chef’s Table and a prix fixe culinary experience, along with showcasing food and alcoholic beverages from local suppliers, further enhancing the restaurant experience for hotel guests and residents. “We try to design and build things that are timeless.”
Unique properties, unique personalities
When creating the Aparium Hotel Group, its founders not only envisioned one-of-a-kind structures offering tremendous service, food, and amenities, but also saw the need to retain staff who reflect the Aparium vision. Fast approaching 1,000 full-time employees, the Group looks for individuals who are passionate about quality and who have unique personalities.
When he worked at the Four Seasons, there was a strong focus on consistency, says Robinson. Taking this ideal, he sought to marry consistency of service with the best qualities that independent boutique hotels of the world have to offer, namely personality and character. To ensure quality is met, the Group has a strong focus on training, yet balances expectations with freedom for staff to execute service intuitively, based on their interpretation of the needs of their guests. This is of course measured, and there is accountability in place. “The hiring process is our most important part,” states Robinson. “We look for people who are comfortable in their own skin. We focus on hiring people who are unique individuals, and not following the flow of everybody else. That is really important to us.”
Rebranding the Hard Rock in Chicago
Recently, news broke that the Hard Rock Hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue would be rebranded, and managed by Aparium. Located in the striking Carbide & Carbon Building, an Art Deco masterpiece sharpened like a champagne bottle and dating back to 1929, the property is slated to reopen in the spring of 2018 as St. Jane Chicago, honoring activist Jane Addams. Evoking Chicago’s rich past, the building will boast a full-service restaurant, cocktail bar, café, and thousands of feet of event space. “We want to complement it the way we always do, along with the city and the history of the building,” says Robinson. Impressed by the Group’s other properties, owners of the building approached Robinson about a year and a half ago, asking if they wanted to participate in the future of the hotel – and he enthusiastically agreed.
Aparium’s clients are as unique as the hotel’s properties themselves. Rather than pigeonhole guests into areas such as age, gender, and salary range, the Group focuses on the overall experience of its guests. It is not unusual to see someone ride up on a motorcycle one minute, while a group of local bankers come in the next to enjoy great food, outstanding bars, and terrific conversation in their own hometowns. And with amenities such as ballrooms, boardrooms, meeting spaces, flawless Wi-Fi, and comfortable lobbies, Aparium hotels are able to meet all needs.
“Building a successful restaurant and bar for the local community is the most important means to an end,” says Robinson. “As an independent, we can’t invest enough money in trying to market ourselves around the world – it just takes too long, and it’s not as powerful as word-of-mouth. So what we do is we essentially build restaurants and put hotels on top, which continues to be a thriving destination for locals where they want to eat multiple times a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” With a focus on local markets, Aparium uses area suppliers, including farms, along with brewers, distillers, artists, and even uniform suppliers. “While it’s a slightly more expensive way to operate, we’re essentially a local entrepreneur, and entrepreneurship relies on supporting other local entrepreneurs in order to be successful.”
By the end of 2018, Aparium aims to be at 17 properties, possibly 18, and by the conclusion of 2019, the Group plans to be at 25 or more. “As long as we continue to have unique properties and unique destinations, and I continue to have my finger on the pulse of it, we will continue to grow,” comments Robinson. “I want to be able to do this for a long time, and I want to continue to be proud of what we do. Nothing we do is about ego or pumping ourselves up, for myself or anybody else. It’s about building a great, sustainable platform for long-term growth. We are just trying to fill voids so we have a long life ahead of us.”