Clarendon Turnaround a Work in Progress for Bethel

Ben Bethel, owner and general manager of The Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix, AZ, has a rags-to-riches story.

Once upon a time, a four-story, 105-room hotel in the mid-town museum district had fallen into disrepair. It was known as a source of crime and blight. Drugs and prostitution were no strangers. Pigeons could be found in empty rooms with broken windows.

In 2002, that began to change when Bethel, then 32, became the hotel’s fairy godfather. He’d heard the property owners were unable to make their mortgage, so armed with credit cards and a home equity loan, he made plans to take over the property and renovate the rooms.

If he’d known better, he may not have done it. But he didn’t. So, he did.

“After traveling around the world between my teens and my 20s I was bitten by the travel bug. I thought it would be fun to open a small boutique hotel,” he recalls. As motivational speakers suggest, he wrote his goal on his mirror.

“I thought my path would be to buy condos, then a bed and breakfast, a small hotel, then a larger hotel of, maybe, 100 rooms,” he says. He accidentally jumped in all the way.

Once the bank let Bethel and partners take over the property they had to move fast to make their investment pay off. Using graph paper, they began to design room renovations. “We had to do it affordably because we didn’t have any money. We quickly learned about everything.”

They gutted and renovated rooms in large groups as money was available. And, of course, renovation and upgrades continue today.

“There’s always a project going on,” says Bethel. “In 2007, we demolished the pool area and rebuilt it. In 2010, we built a rooftop deck overlooking city and mountain ranges. We’re always doing things to keep the rooms refreshed.”

Bethel wasn’t shy about seeking advice. “I learned about the business by calling as many people as possible and relying on their kindness to help me out and offer advice. I had access to a lot of general managers. I think people who are passionate about their work are always interested in sharing their story.”

In positioning The Clarendon, he decided to stay independent. “Being an older property that was unique and different, we didn’t fit with many of the franchise models,” he says. “There was no choice but to be independent.”

“As an independent boutique property we’re able to give the guests more value and amenities,” he says. Among these are local and international telephone calls and internet access. The hotel also offers unusual entertainment such as free rooftop yoga on Sunday mornings and live flamenco dance lessons on Wednesday evenings. For added hominess, guests can request a live goldfish bowl in their rooms.

“We get a decent number of requests for [the goldfish] because we try to sell our guests on the total experience,” he says. “We know we fall short when it comes to the building itself. We’re not perfect, we’re not brand new. So, we try to make sure we compete by having the guest experience as perfect as possible.”

The Clarendon is riding the locally owned, independent wave. “There is always a part of the population that will go out of their way to avoid a corporate property. We strive to be attractive to that customer,” he says.

And, that has philosophical significance to Bethel. “I’ve always believed that the essence of travel is experience. Otherwise there’s really no point in traveling. The only difference from place to place can’t be just climate. If we can’t create something different in each city we’re going to create a culture of people who don’t want to travel.”

He sees the internet as leveling the playing field when it comes to franchise vs. independent. “I believe the franchise model was developed after the advent of the telephone. People needed a central number to call for reservations. After the internet became available for the masses, anyone could have a booking site. They didn’t have to rely on a brand.com to book. It doesn’t matter if I’m Ben’s Hotel or a Hilton property. I can have equal visibility and an equal playing field.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In March of 2009, when the economy was diving, Bethel says, “We thought we were going to have to shut our doors. We had to close the restaurant we had on site. We had to reduce everyone’s pay that we could. I thought I was going to have to reset my entire life. I’m glad that as an independent property I could act very quickly.”

That ability, and willingness, to react, saved the business, he says.

Given the seasonality of the city, the hotel has a significant swing in rates. Summer can be as low as $69, while the March convention season can reach $289. A $20 per night fee covers complimentary wine hour, covered parking, Internet, long distance/international telephone calls, unlimited bottled water, free snacks and drinks at the front desk, in-room Keurig coffee machines, morning newspaper, access to the fitness facility, access to UltraFit Boot Camp and access to Gold's Gym Elite.

“We do pretty well,” he says. “Because we’re a unique [and independent] property we can run Groupon,” says Bethel. “By offering those deals we can generate additional revenue. Our summer weekends are usually full. We’re close to 100% occupancy on Saturdays in the summer.”

Now, Bethel is ready to tackle another project. “I’d probably do another hotel. I have a desire to do a hotel in downtown Flagstaff, AZ.”

He hopes his hotel story ends happily ever after

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