Demand for hotel space is at an all-time high in downtown Wilmington, and local businesses are stepping up to meet the needs of a new generation of travelers.
The Wilmington Convention Center, the Live Oak Bank Pavilion and Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center have become draws for people looking for a place to stay while visiting Wilmington, but the average hotel room does not cut it anymore for these guests.
“The lines are blurred between hospitality and experience. Guests are looking for something more with their stay. Perhaps it is something special in their room or the opportunity to pair their stay with an adventure in town,” said Kaylie O’Connor, one of the owners of The Hive at 505 N. Second St.
In addition to attractions, O’Connor said Wilmington offers enough on its own.
“Downtown’s historic nature is a tourist destination for that reason. The city has done a great job in downtown leaning into the breweries and bottle shop trend right now,” O’Connor said. “The great restaurants and walkability of it is super cool. The Brooklyn Arts Center, Front Street and the riverfront all provide any number of things to do in downtown.”
David McLamb, executive vice president of Poteat Hospitality Associates, spent 10 years looking for a suitable location in the Wilmington market, finally deciding to purchase the Coastline Conference and Event Center at 501 Nutt St.
Poteat recently opened a new hotel at the site – the Aloft Wilmington at Coastline Center.
“With the expansion of the new convention center and seeing the void of hotel rooms, we sought to service that growth in the market,” McLamb said. “Aloft is a lifestyle brand ideally suited for downtown Wilmington.”
The Aloft features smaller rooms but offers a “much enhanced public space,” according to McLamb, to meet the expectations of today’s travelers.
“Aloft is designed to be fun and aimed at a younger set; it’s not about age, but a lifestyle. Age is not as important as expectation,” McLamb said.
To meet those expectations, Aloft features the WXYZ bar with large indoor and outdoor space with pool tables, games and music. A rooftop bar and bistro, aView, also provides a space to take in the sunsets over the Cape Fear River. A full-service, high-end establishment, The Atlantic Restaurant, will open next spring.
While The Hive offers complimentary snacks in each suite, personalized messaging for guests in order to “set the tone and brand personality,” O’Connor said they hope in the future, to “take it outside of the room and help guests to experience the city a little more.”
To provide guests with these one-of- a-kind experiences in the Wilmington area, O’Connor said The Hive is currently looking for businesses with which to form partnerships.
“We are looking at finding key partners within the city that feel on-brand with us. From restaurants to recreation, we are looking for partners who can uniquely cater to our guests,” O’Connor said. “It is what guests want, and it is going to be the future of hotels to make it a more immersive experience.”
Touchless is a trend that has gained momentum since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has become the preference of many travelers.
“We took the approach to use a lot of technology and be more limited service, and we did that even prior to COVID,” O’Connor said.
This gave them an advantage from the start rather than having to “retrofit themselves to be touchless,” as so many other facilities were forced to do.
“Instead of having multiple people at the front desk, our guests can reach us anytime via text. We are still there, but we are just not interacting with them all the time,” O’Connor said.
Other guests prefer a more hands-on approach to hospitality, and the Aloft is happy to oblige.
“Customer service will never go away. We anticipate what guests want and do everything in our power to fulfil that,” McLamb said.
An on-site pastry chef provides baked goods like fresh bagels and cakes for Aloft guests.
O’Connor and Hive co-owner Robert Rosenberg are expanding their reach with the recent purchase of 216-220 N. Front St. The 10,000-square-foot property will offer six units.
With the Live Oak Bank Pavilion and the Wilson Center, the Hive’s owners want their hotel to be “the choice spot for overnight talent.”
“It is a great option for the higher- caliber talent who come to town to have that exclusivity,” O’Connor said.
Recent guests included Melissa Etheridge and members of Wide Spread Panic. They also hope to be the choice spot for fans of the talent, too. Leon Bridges is the first show set to play in the spring, and The Hive is already sold out.
O’Connor said that guests tend to be from areas “like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C.” The Hive also sees a frequent number of “staycationers,” locals who live in other areas of town other than downtown who want the downtown experience.
To cater to guests who want to stay for an extended period of time, the owners of The Hive have purchased 8 acres in Castle Hayne where they plan to build around 20 cottages and accessory studio dwellings for weekly stays in the Wilmington area.
The mid- to long-term stays are an option for people who are building in Wilmington and waiting for their homes to be complete or those considering the move to the area and needing more time to meet with builders or Realtors, according to O’Connor.
Since film production in the city has blossomed once again, a significant number of “movie people” have been staying at The Hive, she said. “The film people would just love it if they had their own space, and it is halfway between downtown and the [ECU/Screen Gems] studios on 23rd Street,” O’Connor said. “They are good month-to-month or week-to-week options.”