Downtown Hilton Rebranding, Undergoing $8.5M Renovation

By Cece Nunn, posted Nov 17, 2017
A rendering shows the plan for the new lobby at the 47-year-old riverside Hilton hotel in downtown Wilmington that will be renamed Hotel Ballast Wilmington. (Rendering courtesy of Sotherly Hotels)
Hilton Wilmington Riverside, a 47-year-old hotel in downtown Wilmington, is getting a new name and Hilton brand, while also currently undergoing an $8.5 million renovation project.

The owner of the hotel, Sotherly Hotels Inc. (NASDAQ:SOHO), announced Thursday that it has entered into a 10-year franchise agreement with Hilton to rebrand the hotel as the Hotel Ballast Wilmington, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton hotel. In addition, the hotel is undergoing an extensive restoration project that represents "a total refresh of all areas of the property, including but not limited to all 272 guestrooms plus meeting rooms, lobby, corridors, and pool, as well as the addition of a bridal suite," according to a news release.

“We are pleased to enter into an agreement with Hilton to extend the relationship at our Wilmington, North Carolina, asset," said Drew Sims, CEO of Sotherly Hotels, in the release. "This action is consistent with our strategy to rebrand our assets to offer a unique local experience for our guests. In this instance we retain the power of the Hilton reservation system, via its new Tapestry Collection by Hilton, while modifying our product and service to emphasize the history of Wilmington through the application of Southern Hospitality. We believe this will result in an opportunity for higher rates, leading to more profits for our shareholders.”

The conversion to the new brand is scheduled to take place on or before March 31, subject to the completion of certain product improvement requirements, the release said. The changes come at a time when a plethora of new hotel rooms have recently been added to downtown Wilmington or are in the works, including a $40 million, 186-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront at the Wilmington Convention Center. The convention center hotel is expected to have a soft opening in early December, said Brooks Johnson, director of development for the company building it, Harmony Hospitality.

At the Hotel Ballast Wilmington, renovations to the lobby of the North Water Street hotel will include all new furniture and finishes plus the addition of a communal library area, an art gallery featuring work by students and alumni of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), and a section dedicated to the history of the property and its significance to the city of Wilmington, according to a hotel fact sheet. The company has a strong relationship with SCAD because of its hotels in Savannah, Georgia, and Atlanta, but officials work to source art from local SCAD artists or that has a connection to Wilmington, said Lindsay Jackson, director of new media marketing for Sotherly Hotels.

Planned guestroom upgrades include hardwood floors, elevated bedding packages, and high-end marble bathroom finishes, while the hotel's meeting spaces will receive new furniture, carpeting and lighting, according to the fact sheet from Sotherly Hotels, which purchased the Wilmington property in 2004.

Hotel Ballast will be home to two restaurants: the existing Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Board and Barrel Coastal Kitchen, an all-new indoor/outdoor riverfront restaurant and bar that will incorporate locally-sourced ingredients and draw inspiration from Southern culinary traditions and coastal flavors, according to Sotherly Hotels. Additionally, the Hotel Ballast lobby will feature Buffalo Bayou, a gourmet to-go café serving local coffees, teas and house-made light fare, a fact sheet said.

Developed in 1968 by the Timme Corporation, the hotel opened in May 1970 as the Timme Plaza Hotel and was renamed the Wilmington Hilton in 1972, according to the Sotherly fact sheet and the book Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten by local historian Beverly Tetterton. Tetterton's book says bringing a modern hotel was critical to the city's urban renewal efforts at the time.

"When the hotel originally opened, guests could find a beauty shop, a gift and candy shop, the Dram Tree Lounge, and the Kings Inn Restaurant complete with a fireplace. Early guests could choose from 182 guests rooms at a cost of $12 for a city view room or $20 for a river view room," the Sotherly fact sheet said.

A lot has changed since then in downtown Wilmington and for the hotel. The price for a room there for a Friday night stay was about $165, according to the Hilton's reservation website Friday morning.

Explaining the new name, the Hotel Ballast fact sheet stated that the hotel’s name honors the maritime history of Wilmington and also serves as a nod to the property’s location on the Cape Fear River and close proximity to the Battleship North Carolina.

"A 'ballast' is a heavy stone or other material placed low in a naval vessel to provide additional stability -- much as Hotel Ballast  . . .  was a source of stability for downtown tourism and revitalization efforts in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Additionally, Water Street is said to be built atop rubble, ballast stones, and pieces of ships left behind from Wilmington’s maritime heyday," according to the fact sheet.

While the new name harkens to another era, the new brand is not yet a year old. The Hilton's Tapestry Collection was launched in January, and Hotel Ballast is one of the first member properties of what Hilton considers a boutique brand, according to a news release.

"Tapestry Collection by Hilton is a portfolio of original upscale hotels that caters to guests seeking reliability and value in their independent hotel choices. Each hotel will maintain its individual spirit, offering guests an experience that is approachable and familiar. In addition, each stay is backed by the reassurance of the Hilton name and award-winning Hilton Honors program – providing guests the best of both worlds," the release said.

Editor's note: This version has been changed to clarify the hotel's history and add additional details.

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