March 24--After serving as a corporate executive with Marriott Hotels for the past 34 years, it would seem that opening a small hotel in the town of Kiawah would be a breeze for Donald Semmler.
After all, he's overseen about a third of Marriott's hotels in the United States, and managed the global branding for Marriott International.
But for all the experience he's had as a hospitality professional, Semmler admits that hotel development was, until now, an untouched realm of his career.
"I haven't ever built a hotel from the ground up. I just know how to run them," Semmler said. "Now, I'm a project manager. It almost makes you a different person because you learn so much."
In 2012, the former Marriott executive decided to foray into the unknown with his first independent project, the Andell Inn, a 100-room boutique hotel that opened last week at the end of Betsy Kerrison Parkway, between the entrances to Kiawah and Seabrook islands.
Like most hotels billed as boutique operations, the Andell Inn has many unique bits of flair, such as its spacious great room with swinging couches and digital art installations crafted by local artists.
But perhaps the most intriguing part of the hotel is how it mirrors the man behind the project.
The Andell Inn is a fusion of independent style and big-brand expertise, a description that just as easily could be the tagline for Semmler's biography.
The model for the Kiawah hotel was no doubt crafted for profitability, a skill Semmler said he learned from Bill Marriott, CEO of the lodging giant. The Andell Inn is stylish and upscale -- traits that mark so many successful boutique hotels. But Semmler decided to marry those interesting aspects with parts of the corporate hotel concept that he said leisure guests appreciate, such as extended-stay rooms that include kitchenettes and homey living areas.
"The combination had never really been tried, but I was convinced I could do it," he said.
Semmler added that the firm that last year bought Kiawah Partners, the island's primary developer, didn't want a branded hotel.
"A local, boutique hotel, we felt, would better reflect the culture, history and lifestyle of the Lowcountry and in particular the Sea Islands," said Mike Touhill, spokesman for Kiawah Partners. "The flexibility that boutique hotels have in terms of design allows them to capture the intimate details of a destination which then gives guests the feeling that they are in a truly unique and special setting."
Semmler met the developers' vision and created a hotel that could be marketed as an independent venture, without losing the advantages that the Marriott connection provides, like access to its reservation system and worldwide customer base.
Technically speaking, the property is classified as a franchise of the Residence Inn, an extended-stay flag that's part of the Marriott umbrella. To keep the focus on its independent image, the hotel won't use the logo for any marketing or branding purposes.
"Strategically, it felt perfect," he said. "I could bring (Kia-wah Partners) what they want-ed as a boutique hotel, but I could make it work because it's a Marriott."
Semmler knew the corporate-independent partnership could work because he helped create the concept.
In the mid-2000s, boutique hotels such as The Kessler Collection were starting to gain a foothold in leisure markets. To get a share of the success, Semmler helped forge a relationship between Marriott and Richard Kessler's properties. Billed as the Autograph Collection, Marriott's boutique hotel program now handles bookings and customer rewards for nearly 90 independently owned lodgings.
Semmler may not boast his many accomplishments with Marriott, but he's not shy about his knowledge of the industry. That's good news for College of Charleston students in the School of Hospitality and Tourism. Semmler said he plans to get involved with the college to help train young hospitality professionals.
"I would love to work with students at the college. I want to find their skills and help them differentiate," he said. He added that the school would be wise to build its hospitality curriculum around the emerging trends in the industry. "College of Charleston is this unique, artsy school. I think it would make a lot of sense if they had a boutique hotel program."
While he has no plans of becoming a professor any time soon, Semmler has every intention of training young hotel professionals with his unique set of skills. Four recent graduates of the College of Charleston's hospitality program already have been hired as key associates at the Andell Inn.
"I work well with people who are ambitious and who really want to grow," he said. "Sometimes when you hire college graduates, they don't have real work experience. All the people I've hired from the college have been servers at big Charleston restaurants, so I know they can handle it."
The opening of the Andell Inn is only the first step on Semmler's new path. He established Local Hotel Adventures, a hotel management company, in 2011 with the intention of building a collection of uniquely designed hotels, as well as a highly specialized team of professionals.
"My idea was to go someplace where I could grow and create something different," he said."You've got to differentiate, otherwise you suffer from a sea of sameness."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail