|By Tom Walsh, Detroit Free
PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 9, 2010--In a lousy economy where local hotels are lucky to be half-full -- and some big ones are for sale -- why would anyone invest nearly $10 million now to convert a nice 20-year-old property into an upscale Renaissance brand hotel and restaurant?
"My dad and my uncle built apartments, and they always said it was a great time to build when things were slow," says Steve Wickens, president of the Lansing-based Wickens Group, which will raise the new flag next Friday on the renamed Baronette Renaissance Detroit-Novi Hotel at the edge of Twelve Oaks Mall.
"It's a great time to renovate, to take rooms offline when things are slow," Wickens says. "It's nice to create some jobs; it's easy to find good subcontractors."
Wickens bought the 149-room Hotel Baronette out of bankruptcy in 1993 and has run it as an independent hotel ever since.
It was built in 1990 by a Japanese developer, Suzuki and Son, and was designed to appeal to foreign travelers at a time when Japanese auto companies and suppliers were locating plants and research centers in metro Detroit and Battle Creek.
But Suzuki's timing was terrible: the Baronette opened at the height of the first Gulf War, as international travel was plummeting.
"We had a nice run," Wickens says of the independent Baronette, where business picked up in the mid-1990s and two Matt Prentice restaurants -- first Trattoria Bruschetta and then No.VI Chophouse and Lobster Bar -- attracted a fine-dining crowd.
Now that the Internet has transformed the hotel industry's business model, though, it's time for a new approach.
"The hotel business has changed a lot. It's driven by Web sites and frequent-traveler reward programs," says Wickens, who also owns Courtyard by Marriott hotels in Brighton and Lansing. "About 65% of our business at those locations is coming through Marriott channels."
Marriott, which he says has the seventh-largest revenue-producing Web site in the world, approached Wickens in 2008 with the idea of branding the Baronette as a Renaissance hotel.
Marriott has 15 lodging brands; Renaissance is positioned as a "lifestyle boutique" hotel at the high end of Marriott's portfolio, just a notch below Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott.
Of 140 Renaissance hotels worldwide, only one other is in Michigan, the Inn at Bay Harbor. Renaissance insists that its hotel operators also run its distinctive restaurants; that's why Prentice moved the No.VI Chophouse to a nearby location last year.
New eateries, as well
Renovation of the Baronette includes a new restaurant and wine shop, the Toasted Oak Grill & Market, that is to open in May. Designer David Ashen, whose credits include the Catalan restaurant Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago and the RocPopShop of hip-hop artist Jay-Z in New York, created the look for the Baronette's new lobby and the Toasted Oak.
Art curator Paige Powell, a longtime sidekick of Andy Warhol, has assembled the artwork, using Michigan artists, including some from Cranbrook and Detroit's College for Creative Studies.
With a good location along I-96 and proximity to a fine shopping mall and the Rock Financial Showplace, the frugal way to ease the Baronette through a rocky economic patch would be to lay some new carpet and slap a little paint on the walls.
Wickens is taking a big risk to pump a lot of money and more than a little flair into this makeover.
We could use more of that attitude around here.
Contact TOM WALSH: 313-223-4430 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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