|By M.J. Mckenzie, The Idaho Statesman,
BoiseMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 21, 2011--IT'S THE SUBTLE THINGS -- like strolling down Boise's Main Street after a dinner out. Or mountain biking in the Foothills. Or the lush notes of a locally grown Chardonnay. Those are the things that stay with business travelers to this gateway to Idaho's Big Outdoors.
So say the experts -- Forbes magazine, in fact, placed Boise as No. 18 on its 25 Best Places to Do Business in a recent edition. The Boise Chamber of Commerce notes that with its central location, low energy costs and "personally committed governor," Idaho bends over backward to make it easy to start a company here.
But the biggest draw? It turns out it's Idaho itself, something Boise's boutique -- meaning the smaller, more personally attentive -- hotels want to exploit,
"When we branded Hotel 43, it was important to be very focused on Idaho," says hotelier Lisa Benjamin. "We wanted to provide an experience unique to the state, embodying that very independent spirit, the outdoors, the arts."
In fact, most guests at the 112-room Downtown Boise hotel "are shocked to find how much culture there is," Benjamin says. To that end, Hotel 43 created an Arts Passport that introduces guests to the museums, galleries, opera, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Trey McIntyre Project dance troupe.
Benjamin, a former Californian, has become one of the city's biggest cheerleaders in the way only a transplant can be. Tell her you're new in town, and she'll immediately congratulate you and then list, without pausing for breath, at least five things you must do over the next few days.
A CAREER DETOUR
Benjamin caught the hotel bug at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa after college, working in every imaginable capacity.
But later, she did a career switch becoming a surgical tech before realizing after coming to Boise that she missed "that hotel vibrancy."
She went to the Courtyard by Marriott and offered to do "anything they wanted me to do." They took her up on the offer, which, in a roundabout way, is how she came to land her dream job at a 4-year-old brand that recently won accolades from Entrepreneur magazine as one of the nation's top business hotels. The Hotel 43 concept (the "43" refers both to parallel on which Boise sits and the fact it's in the 43rd state) was put together by a group that includes developer Rick Clark of Cameron Investments and S-16 LLC, heirs of potato baron J.R. Simplot.
Benjamin, who met Clark through the Courtyard, which he also owns, says that by that time, "I was ready to be the GM."
She also got to have a hand in the building's redesign, though she's quick to credit architects CSHQA for their job in transforming the former Statehouse Inn.
Now, Interstate Hotels, a division of Marriott, manages it, "but we don't have a corporate master," Benjamin says. "We can respond quickly. If guests don't like something, we can change it. We brainstorm ideas and then implement them" -- such as the twice-a-week yoga classes held in one of the meeting rooms.
No small part of Hotel 43's success is Chandlers, a sophisticated restaurant that beckons the outdoors in. With its backlit wall of bottles and sandstone design elements that give a nod to the rock that built the Capitol building, the steakhouse has a wrap-around terrace that on summer nights is filled with patrons.
Other amenities at Hotel 43 include the Metro Cafe, meeting rooms and WiFi.
"Like The Modern, we offer an alternative to the standard chain-hotel experience," Benjamin adds, referring to the hotel a few blocks away that has caused a stir since opening in 2007.
MODERN'S RETRO VIBE
A short walk down Grove Street, and a couple continuum shifts -- though still on the same tuned-in wavelength -- from Hotel 43, The Modern's vibe hits you the second you enter the lobby. From the Palm Springs-style decor to the black and white prints of the owners' mothers on the walls, you feel like you've entered a mid-century-modern time zone.
Behind the desk on a recent afternoon, operations manager Michal Lloyd works the reservation line while checking in an obviously sleep-deprived member of some soon-to-be-famous rock band.
But don't be misled by its retro exterior. The Modern is every bit a conscientious product of brilliant minds tapped into, well, the modern way of approaching hotels as the 43.
The progeny of a partnership between owner/operator Elizabeth Tullis, developer David Hale, designer Kerry Tullis (Elizabeth's sister-in-law) and architect Dwaine Carver, the 44-room Modern was a gut/remodel that took $4 million and a year to create.
Each guestroom is unique, but all have a pillowtop bed, a wall-mounted flat screen TV, iPod doc, WiFi and spa-like bathrooms. The suites boast Japanese soaking tubs, cocktail bars and seating areas.
One room has been set aside as a business center. A cantilevered, skylighted ceiling transforms an inner hallway, and a long walnut-and-resin bar does the same for the restaurant/lounge.
Talking about her loyal cadre of repeat guests, Lloyd quotes one who told her: "You're not pretentious; you're just good." Extras like fresh-squeezed orange juice and high thread count sheets explain such loyalty.
Lloyd also notes that bartender Michael Bowers' Guadalajara Sour recipe recently was trumpeted in the The New York Times.
If that makes you envision drinking and dancing, it should. If Hotel 43 is known for its big-city restaurant and meeting-room yoga, the Modern is celebrated -- perhaps even notorious -- for such outrageous theme nights as last year's "Mad Men & Martinis."
Thursdays are music nights, when locals and guests alike gather in the xeriscaped patio, where fire pits and sail-like awnings serve as a metaphor for the Modern: both hot AND cool.
But the main event seems to be the annual Modern Art at the Modern, a celebration in early May timed to coincide with the monthly First Thursday, during which the entire hotel is closed to guests for the night, and each room is transformed into a work of art and/or gallery by area artists.
There's a cash bar in the parking lot, as well as performances by the Oinkari dance troupe, which speak to Tullis' lineage. In fact, one of the lobby photos prominently attests to that fact: It's of Tullis' grandmother in 1940s Nampa, standing outside her Basque boardinghouse under a sign proclaiming "The Modern."
Art was big on Tullis' priority list, she said in an interview with City x Design, when the hotel was being planned. "Every week, we would get together and have the form-and-function conversation ... we knew that design was going to be the biggest draw and that it was going to make it work ... and we had many, many conversations about art and putting art in the rooms. So there was the art camp and the non-art camp."
The camp that won -- Tullis' camp, you get the feeling -- was the one that wanted to make the hotel the art piece "in and of itself."
LINEN DISTRICT EVENTS
While the Modern is an oasis of charm in what is now a rather desolate section of Boise's West End, Tullis' co-partner David Hale has his eye fixed firmly on a future that goes beyond the boundaries of the Modern's parking lot. Across the street, for example, is his showpiece, the Linen Building, a large events space that anchors his vision for the area. According to his website, the Linen District "will be the hub of this expansion, along with the proposed new convention center, Capital Station, and the Capital City Development Corp.'s plan for the major urban space, the 14th Street Village."
Unfortunately, a pesky recession interrupted those plans. And while CCDC, Boise's urban renewal agency, has yet to make the Village a reality, it has entered a currently raging convention-center argument full bore -- one that is divided between developing the former Union Pacific Railroad land near the Linen District or a parcel closer to Downtown.
THE HISTORIC OWYHEE
That topic, however, is not on the agenda when you drop by the office of the agency's chairman, John May, whose family happens to own the Owyhee Plaza Hotel.
Situated between the Modern and Hotel 43 both geographically and ideologically, Boise's longest continuously running hotel (the nearby Idanha is older by about a decade but was converted to condos) takes its name from a long-ago misspelling of "Hawaii," an island chain that had just become an American territory when the hotel was being built, around 1907.
It's got a quaint name, the Owyhee, and a quaint and charming past. But along with the tacked-on "Plaza" came a clumsy 1970s-era remodel that obliterated much of the hotel's unique character, a fact with which genial second-generation owner/manager May readily concurs.
Indeed, it was well before his father, the late Larry J. May, bought the hotel in the 1990s that the (disastrous, some might say) decision was made to reconfigure the original 80-by-80-foot lobby, with its tall onyx column and soaring 25-foot dome, to one with a dropped ceiling, wood paneling and brass trim. Luckily, the dome is now preserved at the Idaho History Museum. And sepia-tone photographs dotting the lobby attest to its former glory, one that May hints could be restored if he finds the right investors.
The big, square building, once Boise's answer to New York's five-star Plaza Hotel (which opened around the same time), is dedicated to office suites now, the 99 nicely updated guestrooms having been relocated to a later-built annex. The Gamekeeper Restaurant -- which was at one time famous for its waiters dressed up like Robin Hood -- is closed now, as is the Prohibition-era Rooftop Garden. But there is a room that keeps the Owyhee's illustrious past alive.
Entering the Plaza Grille is like stepping into one of the old photographs. It's all still there: the soaring plaster ceilings, elegant carved moldings, cream walls, chandeliers. Listen: Is that Rudy Vallee on the gramophone?
No, it's just the squeal of a young guest splashing in the swimming pool outside. The wait staff hovers politely at the edges what was known as the Rose Room in the Owyhee's heyday, encouraging you to take pictures -- "a lot of people come in and do that," one waitress says.
Most of the revenue at the Owyhee Plaza now derives from events held in the hotel's banquet rooms, says John May, whose father passed away suddenly in 2005.
Larry James May was a career Westin man, and John -- who in addition to his CCDC duties also is the area representative to the Idaho Travel Council -- likens his childhood with that of an Army brat, as the family moved from state to state while his dad opened hotels for the chain. John attended Arizona State and graduated in 1983, just as Larry was starting his own consulting business. With some partners, the May family bought the Owyhee in 1992.
Today, the hotel's guests tend to be business people, says John, adding, "We're not the size of The Grove, but we do fill that niche." And with a new convention center possibly going up nearby, the Owyhee seems set to entertain more business people for years to come.
A brick plaza with dancing fountains -- the Grove -- nestles in the heart of Downtown under the 250-room Grove Hotel, which is run by a powerful stable of partners headed up by Larry Leasure, who was once affiliated with the Hotel 43's Rick Clark. Indeed, for all its high-rises, Boise still seems to be a small town, with a tightly knit circle of power brokers owning most of the land and running most of the show.
That's why, when Andrew Mentzer tells you it took two years to open his Downtown hostelry, you believe him. Gutting the onetime garage of the historic Idaho Building on 8th Street and partitioning it "was quite a project," he says earnestly, adding, "all paid for out of pocket."
If David Hale invented the Linen District, you could say Mentzer's fiefdom is the "Got a quarter for the washing machine?" district. But for all its low-rent ambiance, the unassuming, 10-bed Idahostel's location couldn't be more perfect: It's mere feet from the Capitol and opens onto an alleyway so picturesque it could have been lifted from "An American in Paris."
Brash, fast-talking, optimistic, the twentysomething Mentzer is a Gen-X entrepreneur of the first order -- though in something of a turnaround, his day job, he says, is "writer" -- he does a motorcycle diary for Boise Weekly.
But despite the ripe T-shirts and bunched sleeping bags decorating the bunk beds at Idahostel, you want to high-five Mentzer simply for having the audacity to play with the big kids and get in on the ground floor of the hotel wars in highly competitive BoDo. That's because the sum of Idahostel's meandering space -- in a former garage at the historic building developer Ken Howell owns at the corner of Bannock and 8th -- represents something greater than its admittedly humble parts. For Idahostel is run by youths and caters to youths, and thus represents the future of this city.
"I'm from Boise. I went to Bishop Kelley High and BSU -- go Broncos! -- and I'm passionate about Boise," Mentzer says.
He talks about working with Boise State to provide housing for students, touts his international clientele from 23 countries, and describes possibly expanding to 24 beds simply by moving a few walls. And listening to such confident talk, you feel that, quite possibly, the writer gig may end up on the back burner as the hostel thing takes off.
Which goes back to something Hotel 43's Lisa Benjamin said: something about Idahoans' independent spirit. About brainstorming and implementing new ideas. About getting people to fall in love with this city.
And if these very different, yet all very passionate hoteliers have anything to do with it, that love affair is certain to continue.
M.J. McKenzie: 377-6393
(c)2011 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)
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