New Boutique Hotels Incorporate Local Culture

Hoteliers revitalize historic buildings and give travelers a reason to visit smaller cities.

Erica Riveraby Erica Rivera

“Translocal” is the next big trend in hospitality. Aparium Hotel Group is leading the charge with its independent boutique hotels housed in restored historic buildings, imbued with locally-inspired design, decor, food, and intuitive service. Thus far, Aparium co-founders Mario Tricoci and Kevin Robinson have successfully launched the Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee and the Charmant Hotel in LaCrosse, Wis. New openings scheduled for this year and next include the Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans, the Hotel Covington in Kentucky, the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, the Foundation Hotel in Detroit, and the MC Hotel in New Jersey.

Photo: The Lobby Bar at the Charmant.

The Lobby Bar at the Charmant.

Tricoci grew up in the business world; his father, an Italian immigrant, was the man behind one of the largest salon and day spa companies in the country. Tricoci studied law and later opened a hospitality practice, which led to becoming a partner in the opening of the Elysian Hotel Chicago in 2009, a $300 million project. The ultra-luxury hotel was #1 in the U.S. until it was sold in 2011 (it is now the Waldorf Astoria Chicago).

When considering his next entrepreneurial venture, Tricoci wanted to get as far away as possible from the “the branded product with no soul” and incorporate the culture of each city, from the local coffee roaster to the farm-to-table restaurant, into the hotel’s ethos. What he didn’t want were more hotels that call themselves “boutique” because they have cool light fixtures, sleek design, and allow dogs in the lobby but in fact have small rooms, loud music, and bad service. “We saw that there was this ultra-luxury opportunity where someone who walks in in jeans shorts and flip-flops could experience the same thing as someone who drives their Bugatti into the courtyard and comes out in an Armani suit,” Tricoci says.

Also: Lounging with the Locals at The Roxy Eatery, New York

Also high on the priority list? Approachable, genuine service. “The Four Seasons and the Ritz Carltons of the world, while they all have their place and they’re all wonderful, the service that was delivered there was very formal, very stoic, very structured, and formulaic. It felt so disingenuous,” says Tricoci.  

As for the markets targeted, once again Aparium went against the grain. Post-recession, while hotel developers and brands scrambled to set up shop in the big cities–Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and South Beach–Aparium looked toward the Rust Belt because of its low barriers to entry and non-existent competition. “We love these smaller markets,” Tricoci says. “They’ve got Fortune 500 companies that reside in them or have grown out of them, they’ve got important families with tons of heritage, there’s an incredible sense of pride.”

Photo: Rooftop terrace at the Charmant.

Rooftop terrace at the Charmant.

Aparium is “fanatically thoughtful” about the context of each hotel. The team researches as far back as the 1800s to unearth who designed the building, who owned it, and what operated out of it. Among its finds are a 100-year-old warehouse, a former candy factory, and a fire station. “That information helps inform the naming of the building, the stories associated, what services are going to be offered, and how we position the culinary experiences,” Tricoci says. “We do nothing that’s of-the-moment or reactionary. We’re not just going to put a record player in a room because Ace did it.”

The hotel group reaches out to local innovators, thought leaders, storytellers, designers, artists, manufacturers, and vendors when planning a new location. From the interior design to branding teams, emphasis is placed on people who know the city intimately. “We don’t want to be perceived as the interloper,” Tricoci says. “The last thing they want is a fancy Chicagoan or New Yorker to come in and tell them what they need. So we come into these markets and we ingratiate ourselves to these communities.”

“We do nothing that’s of-the-moment or reactionary. We’re not just going to put a record player in a room because Ace did it.”

When budgets and availability allow, furnishings are sourced from local makers. The Hewing Hotel will feature light fixtures made by a Minneapolis glass blower. A creative school in Detroit will curate an ever-changing art program in the atrium of the Foundation Hotel. Wood, metal, and doors from the original buildings are re-purposed into headboards or art. Crown molding and baseboards become elements of hardwood flooring.

No two hotels look the same. The Iron Horse, for example, is decked out in dark wood, black leather, motorcycle regalia, and American flags. “It represents and embodies what Milwaukeeans think about their own city and they’re proud of it,” Tricoci says. “It is masculine. Harley Davidson was born there. You’ve got local bourbon and local beers. It’s brew town. Local artisans handcrafted the wood in the hotel.”

Photo: The Library at the Iron Horse.

The Library at the Iron Horse.

Aparium has huge expansion plans. In addition to its 2016 and 2017 openings, Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Tempe, Az. are among the company’s future destinations. “Every city in the country has a little pocket that wants to be the next Brooklyn,” Tricoci says. “If we’re lucky enough to find those, we think we can continue to energize and play a meaningful role in the revitalization of these markets.”