The Secrets of Starting a Successful Boutique Hotel
The boutique Society Hotel, a Old Town/Chinatown landmark in the Mariners Building, is very old Portland, but in a very new way.
Its history is certainly part of what attracted the creative team who opened the hotel, a group who had never owned or operated a hotel before setting eyes on the old Mariners Building. Built in 1881 by the Portland Seamen’s Friend Society to be a safe harbor for sailors, what is now the Society Hotel is one of about 20 rare cast-iron-front buildings left in Portland. (New York is the only other U.S. city that boasts more cast-iron architecture).
Before becoming the Society Hotel, the building had been frozen in time—all of the upper floors untouched since 1945. Old stoves, chairs, dishes, clothes, roller skates, WWI newspapers—you name it—were found just as they’d been left.
That was, until Jessie Burke and her friends saw its potential as a modern boutique hotel.
Listed on Register of Historic Places, the building retains a balustrade staircase and late-1800’s door trims, transoms, and wainscoting. Original studs have been used to fabricate benches, and original doors transformed into wall panels at the hotel’s reception desk. The classic cast-iron storefront façade and historic brick and stucco exterior are also fully preserved.
Among its accommodations, the hotel features a hostel-like bunk room. Each bunk sports a few fancy amenities, like curtains, outlets, and reading lights. There are private rooms with shared baths, as well as private suites with full baths. The hotel’s rooftop deck offers a spectacular view of Portland and even Mt. Hood on clear days.
Perhaps that blend of old and new is why it’s become such a favorite with guests from across the globe, boasting a high occupancy rate since opening in late 2015.
The hotel is a collaboration among Burke, the co-owner of a local coffeeshop and bakery who has worked on urban renewal projects, her husband, Jonathan Cohen, a building contractor who owns a company that specializes in commercial and residential energy retrofits, and two friends. One is former extreme athlete Matt Siegel, whom Jess and Jonathan met in a birthing class (with Matt’s wife), and the other is Gabe Genauer, a colleague of Jonathan’s in the construction field.
Burke’s upbringing didn’t suggest that she would one day become co-owner of a super-hip boutique hotel that’s been featured in the pages of The New York Times travel section.
Or, on second thought, maybe it does. After all, she is trained in an elegant combat sport.
When she was 12, Burke left home in Washington, D.C., to train as an Olympic fencer. For Jessie, who was focused on the style of fencing called épée, it was an intensely disciplined environment, with exceptionally high expectations. Overachievement was the norm for her and most of her peers.
Burke believes that hardcore training, and the discipline required to always be learning, practicing, and perfecting her skills day after day, was perfect training for running a business today.
“The learning curve is steep in business,” says Burke. “You hone those skills day after day, always perfecting or trying to improve on the day before. The hustle to get through every day, to get customers in the door, to keep any money in the bank, reminds me a lot of being a scrappy kid representing the United States and traveling all over the world with almost no money ever, but always trying to do something amazing.”
Finding their niche in the boutique hotel business
And amazing is exactly what the Society Hotel is, even after the building had been abandoned for so long.
“Matt suggested the concept of a low-cost, high-style boutique hotel in downtown Portland; we saw the demand and decided to start looking around.”
Burke and her group were drawn to Old Town/Chinatown’s central location and diamond-in-the-rough condition. Back in 2013, it “seemed like the last part of downtown that hadn’t been touched by the big developers yet,” said Burke. Which also meant that the group was able to afford something in the district.
They wanted to create a noticeable, lasting impact, and when they laid eyes on the long-vacant Mariners Building, they knew they’d found the place to do it.
“We knew it was a Portland Development Commission urban renewal area, so some financial assistance would be available,” said Burke. “The building was on the corner, which is better for our business type and had beautiful detailing…but wasn’t for sale. We called the owners and asked for a meeting to see if they were interested in selling. They were, and we went into contract before they ever put it on the market.”
After a market study showed that there would be a shortage of hotels in Portland until 2018, Burke and her business partners felt confident in their timing and vision.
“When no one was opening any affordable accommodations, we felt we had found a real niche market,” said Burke. As experienced international travelers, the group knew which amenities to offer, and which their guests wouldn’t miss. “The historic building was an amazing bonus that helped drive the design and also guided the vision for what our business has become.”
What also sets them apart from larger, perhaps more corporate accommodations is that each of the business partners is thoroughly involved with the day-to-day operations of the hotel.
“I hired every original staff member myself, together with our first general manager,” said Burke. “To this day, I am the point person for Human Resources and café and bar operations.” Matt oversees maintenance and design. Jonathan manages all of the building’s systems, from HVAC to computers, and marketing, and Gabe manages all the finances. Burke notes, “We were lucky to have come together in the way we did, and all have these unique skill sets.”
Indeed, Burke’s own work and extensive volunteering in the community has helped the group’s business.
“I spend a lot of time working on various boards or committees in the city,” said Burke, currently the Vice-Chair of the Old Town/Chinatown Community Association. She also heads up their Business Committee. “Having joined the community association really helped get us connected to the community quickly. They’ve been amazing.”
The experience of growing up poor but among the wealthy during her fencing career led Burke to an MPA in Public Administration, and she still cares deeply about public policy. She worked as a case manager at the Native American Youth and Family Center before becoming a small business owner. “I feel I’ve had valuable experiences that allow me to provide a helpful perspective to those developing policy for the greater good of the community,” Burke said. “So, I spend a lot of my time behind the scenes trying to fix things.”
A social experiment that pays
What advice does Burke have for would-be entrepreneurs? “I encourage other entrepreneurial types to get into a business that they know is needed,” said Burke. “Don’t jump on the bandwagon of an industry—once people are talking about it, it’s usually already too late. Explore the world around you and think of things that frustrate you and creative ways you could solve that problem.
I encourage entrepreneurial types to be entrepreneurial. No industry required!”
Which brings us back to the unique Society Hotel.
“The hotel has taken on a life of its own,” said Burke about the still-evolving Society Hotel. It’s an apt name for what’s becoming a neighborhood social center. “The idea was to have a ‘social hotel’ where we encourage our guests to interact by having our lobby double as the bar and café; and the bunk room.”
The owners focus on their guests’ experience not just of the hotel but of Portland. In addition to local recommendations, they offer their guests a “Choose Your Own Adventure” board in the lobby, with activities suggested by locals and, now, guests. “Our guests have made [the hotel] unique in their own ways, and it has worked beautifully. Our social experiment worked better than we could have ever imagined.”
All images courtesy of Nash.co and the Society Hotel.