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Boutique hotel trend means 'outside world' has discovered Columbia, S.C.

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

The newest bar in downtown Columbia, S.C., serves up craft cocktails, local beer and cooler-than-you tunes by artists like ZZ Ward and MGMT. Business travelers mingle amid soft lighting in a room styled in chic shades of blue, orange, pink and gray.

At the end of the evening, perhaps after slipping out to dinner in the Vista, they'll return to the bar and retire upstairs to their bedrooms — because Columbia's newest nightspot is also the city's newest boutique hotel, catering to a crowd seeking a unique stay in the capital city.

It certainly impressed 25-year-old Cameron Harper of Texas, who stopped into the lobby of the Aloft hotel last week to have a vodka and soda before dinner with Eric Busboom.

“If I lived here, I'd come here for a staycation. As opposed to other hotels, this would feel more like a destination.”

With the opening of the five-story, 107-room Aloft, at the corner of Lady and Lincoln streets, and the recent announcement of a 41-room independent hotel near Main Street, Columbia appears to be catching on with the global trend of individually styled, experience-based travel options.

The trend is toward smaller, boutique-style hotels with fashionable character, purposely different from what's typically offered by larger, traditional brands. And in Columbia, the apparent rise of boutique hotels could signal that the city is more than just a business destination, but a place people increasingly come for fun, too.

“Columbia has just not discovered itself and what it has to offer, but the outside world has ­— and that's why all this is happening,” said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., which helps guide growth in the downtown area. “Visitors get a really different view of the city.”

Often, Delk said, he'll spot groups of lawyers downtown who are visiting for professional events. And he'll stop and ask them, “What do you think about Columbia?”

“And they all love Columbia,” he said. “They tell me they want to come back to Columbia on vacation with their families because they get little glimpses of it while they're working. And they've found this is a pleasant midsize city to come visit.”

Columbia might not be able to replicate the allure of a coastal, historical city like Charleston, but it has its own charms to offer, and at a considerably lower price, said Rita Patel, who plans to open a small, non-chain hotel downtown with her husband this fall.

A trio of historic buildings on Taylor Street, in the Main Street district, is being transformed into Patel's Hotel Trundle. Jewel-toned decor and exposed brick and tin ceilings will set a scene for a one-of-a-kind stay in Columbia.

“The people's craving for vintage and authentic, that's a huge, huge common theme in boutique hotels,” said Patel, who is also a partner in the new Aloft. “What makes you unique?

“I feel like (big hotel brands have) exhausted the creativity of ‘cookie cutter,' so customers are demanding something else ... besides the bed.”

Chris Semones is the kind of traveler who seeks something more than a bed in a hotel stay. A frequent business traveler from Savannah, Ga., he's looking for character and a sense of experience.

“I will pay more for something that's not the same in every single city,” the 39-year-old said, drinking a gin and tonic at Aloft's WXYZ bar on a recent evening.

He doesn't need the room service that a larger hotel chain might offer, he said. (Aloft has a small kitchen but no dining room or room service.) He doesn't want to mingle with convention-goers at a boring hotel bar. He avoids eating out at chain restaurants when he travels and prefers to go where the locals go.

The modern traveler wants to live like the locals, said Scott Smith, a University of South Carolina professor of hotels, restaurants and tourism. That's a concept that boutique hotels are tapping in to and even larger, more traditional brands are catching onto, he said.

Even Main Street's skyscraping Marriott, the parent company of Aloft, blends in with the hip Soda City Market on Saturdays, opening its patio and lobby to the masses of locals and visitors.

At Aloft, the “live like the locals” connection looks something like the artwork by Columbia painter Julia Moore hanging in the lobby, or the floor-to-ceiling windows that create an almost seamless connection between the lobby and the Lady Street sidewalk.

Patel envisions Hotel Trundle's future guests sipping a local beer as they check in, sampling goodies from local bakeries in the lobby, then getting a recommendation to check out a restaurant down the street for dinner.

Smith isn't surprised to see the chic hotel market making its way into Columbia, especially since more millennials are becoming business travelers.

He and Delk said they expect downtown's hotel prospects to continue to thrive.

“I think what we're seeing is Columbia's maturing as a city,” Smith said. “We've got enough business out there that supports more than just a couple Holiday Inns or Marriotts. It's a good indicator that Columbia, as a business community and as a leisure travel community, is doing well.”

Sarah Ellis is a The State (Columbia, S.C.) writer.

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