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New Bloomington hotels embrace urban, new-age styles

May 11, 2015

As Bloomington's downtown housing market spent the past decade growing taller and more fashionable, its hotel industry has done the same.

Three hotel projects finished last year — Hyatt Place, Spring-Hill Suites and Candlewood Suites — have added about 420 rooms to the city's tourism industry, according to Mike McAfee, executive director of Visit Bloomington.

As of today, the city has 2,306 rooms. Almost 750 of them are in downtown proper. And at least 260 more are on the way by 2017's end.

The new digs are increasingly adopting an urban style, throwing public art installations and new-age building materials into the mix. Their placement in the midst of iconic local staples such as the B-Line Trail and the courthouse square, paired with the district's restaurants, clubs and entertainment venues, shows how the city's hotel market has enjoyed a new partnership of location and upscale accommodation.

"You've got very smart, large tourism development companies coming in here, investing in this market and wanting to compete, because they know (Bloomington) is a growing, lucrative market," McAfee told The Herald-Times. "The interstate is growing; the university continues to expand. Then, you've got the hospital (relocation) news and the tech park, creating growth, growth, growth."

McAfee cautions that people shouldn't be fooled by the city's hotel occupancy rates, which have consistently hovered around 49 percent to 51 percent in the past few years — not robust numbers when occupancy nationally has hovered in the 60 percent to 65 percent rate.

But maintaining those rates as more rooms are added to the market demonstrate a powerful, increasing guest demand.

One concern here is that many events that bring the hotel crowd to town fall on weekends, while rooms go empty in the middle of the week.

That problem could be helped by expansion of the convention center, say backers of that project.

Its current capacity is not sufficient to attract larger, regional conferences or conventions that instead pick Evansville or Fort Wayne.

Some landmark weekends, such as the annual Little 500 weekend and its 25,000 visitors, cause Bloomington's hotel occupancy to surge well into the 90 percent range. The city also can expect a near sellout for IU's commencement weekend, and such big events create spillover business for hotels in nearby cities and towns, too.

The city booked 448,000 total rooms last year, roughly 50,000 more than it did in 2013. And as of late April, the city is about 9,000 rooms ahead of last year's trailblazing pace.

"That's the number that's most important for us," McAfee said.

Talisha Coppock, executive director of the Bloomington/Monroe County Convention Center, says much of the success not already attributed to the city's tourism brand should be directed to a recovering, post-recession vacation culture.

"Gas prices are down. And the economy is coming up," she said. "Also, the major brands — your Hiltons, Hyatts and Marriotts — are starting to try out newer products that maybe aren't so well-known."

Take, for instance, Hilton's 107-room "Home2 Suites" concept, approved 6-0 by the city's planning commission in February. Its modern brand looks to bring a "second home" motif to its near-downtown location at 1410 N. Walnut St., complete with trendy furniture and accessorized kitchens.

State Sen. Mark Stoops, who purchased the 52-year-old, defunct University Inn in November 2014, is already hosting a handful of guests at his revamped Cascades Inn concept at the 2601 N. Walnut St. site. He hopes to book its former capacity figure of 100 guests within three years.

Even the polarizing six-story Graduate Hotel, which drew criticism from nearby churches and public figures in February due to its planned scale, aims to place nearly 150 boutique-style rooms at 210 E. Kirkwood Ave., along IU tourism's signature entertainment strip, by the end of 2017.

"The Graduate is probably going to be the most upscale property we'll have," McAfee said. "The Hyatt Place is premium as well.

"But downtown is where everybody is at — and wants to be."

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