Hotel Developer Lies Down On the Job
Owner Stresses Comfort, Service in New Boutique Hotel
When real estate developer Brian Obie was building his recently opened hotel in Eugene, Oregon, he decided to move things in the right direction by lying down on the job. Literally. “A lot of people want to know they’re going to sleep on a good bed. That’s the foundation of the experience. If you don’t have a good bed, you don’t have much,” says Obie. “So my wife and I went to different hotels and then bought six different mattresses and springs into our house to try.”
Talk about personal involvement in a project. But then Obie’s been pretty hands-on—and backside on—during the development of Inn at the 5th, the first new, upscale hotel in downtown Eugene, OR, since a Hilton opened nearly 30 years ago.
Wanting to create a unique property and guest experience, Obie thoroughly did his homework prior to beginning construction. From the custom maple coffee table in the lobby to the incomparable butler closets in each room, the 70-room boutique hotel clearly has its founder’s signature on it.
Located in a former Nike footwear store, the inn opened in February. Its first guest was, fittingly, Nike owner Phil Knight, also a big benefactor of the University of Oregon, located in Eugene.
“We’re positioning ourselves to be the best hotel in Oregon in the old throwback style of real service, where the employees like what they’re doing and they’re proud of the building,” says General Manager Erik Cole. He has spent nearly 25 years in the hospitality industry in the Pacific Northwest and has been integral to Obie’s Inn since the early stages of construction.
Rather than tear down the former athletic shoe store, Obie decided to keep it and even add a fifth floor. It’s now his personal residence.
“It’s easier to knock it down and start over, but we reused what we had,” Cole says. “The building has its own character that we didn’t fight it and just went with the flow.”
Working with an existing structure, however, meant dealing with electrical wires, ductwork, and plumbing that, according to Cole, snaked this way and that through the building. While other developers might have viewed that as a costly obstacle, Cole and Obie embraced it as part of the design, with its emphasis on individualism and comfort.
“Every room is absolutely unique and different,” says Cole. “If you look at a typical cookie-cutter hotel, it’s the same room across the hall from you. They run the plumbing and wire straight down. They do back-to-back bathrooms. Every single one of our bathrooms is in a different location. We took measures not to put bathrooms behind headboards. No machinery, housekeeping or service closets are behind any guestrooms.”
Each room features a butler closet, which allows for roomservice orders to be delivered—and received—without any personal interaction. While that may sound a bit impersonal, Obie said his research showed it was a feature that would, finally, meet a previously unmet need.
“The butler closets came about from interviews I did with people before we built the hotel,” he explains. “A number of women love room service, but they don’t like answering that door without knowing who’s on the other side. That was their number one issue about hotels. And when I talked to guys, the same issue came up. They have to worry about whether the person’s going to come when they’re in the shower or whatever.”
The server simply rings a doorbell to notify a guest that his or her meal is in the closet. Since both the hatch in the room and the one in the hallway lock independently, there’s no risk of intrusion.
“It’s working well,” says Obie. “People are loving it. They love not being interrupted, being able to be themselves in their room. And they love being able to pick up the tray, stick it back in the closet, and it’s out of the way.”
Because of the closet’s uniqueness and popularity, staff members have nicknamed it “the Obie closet.”
“The hotel looks better. We don’t have trays up and down the hallway,” says Obie. After a pause, he then added a not-insignificant benefit for any guest who’s been embarrassed while placing an empty tray in the hallway. “We don’t have people getting locked out of their rooms,” he said.
While Obie and GM Cole didn’t bulldoze the building that sat on the downtown site, there was one fixture that did have to come down: a decaying big leaf maple tree that has stood prominently on the corner for decades.
“It was on property on the west side of the building,” Cole explains. “It was condemned by the city of Eugene. Branches were falling into the old Nike building before we started construction of the hotel. So the city took it down for us.”
Rather than turn the timber into wood chips, Obie and Cole took possession of the giant tree trunk. With the help of employees at a lumberyard in nearby Springfield, they turned a portion of it into the spectacular, one-of-a-kind coffee table that now graces the lobby. The tree’s broad branches were hewn into end tables for each of the guestrooms.
The Inn at the 5th’s uniqueness also extends into its human resources. Erik Cole, who did most of the hiring, ended up recruiting about 90% of his staff from outside the hotel industry.
“You can train them to use a computer, but you can never train people to be happy,” he says of the culture that pervades the hotel. “They had the raw talent to start the facility.”
The inn sits adjacent to Eugene’s 5th Street Public Market, a collection of independently owned small shops that Obie developed gradually over three decades. It draws about a million visitors a year, and Obie observed that the shopping complex and the Inn complement each other.
“You won’t find a chain operation in here,” he points out. “[Customers] know we don’t have an Old Navy. They’ve got that at home.”
What hotel guests don’t have in their homes—at least so far—is that custom bed on which Obie and his wife now sleep. He’s branded it “Tranquility.” And, he’s happy to sell them—at a low markup, he noted.
“It has our name on it,” he adds. “It’s a great experience.”
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