The pandemic nearly stopped hotel business. But in Greater Cincinnati, there's a room boom coming

Downtown TownePlace Suites
Posted at 5:32 PM, Jul 26, 2021

CINCINNATI — After the pandemic restrictions nearly shuttered many hotels, there appears to be a hotel room boom happening in Greater Cincinnati.

A WCPO survey of local convention and visitors bureaus found more than 1,000 hotel rooms opening in the pandemic or planned to open in the next couple of years.

And that number could grow — a lot.

"I think it speaks to the strength of our market, our hotel market in Cincinnati and into Sharonville," said Julie Calvert, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Numbers provided by Cincinnati USA CVB show some quick rebound in leisure travel, particularly in downtown Cincinnati, which can hit 80-85 percent occupancy on a good weekend already. That comes after a pandemic lockdown low of — at times — 10 percent occupancy or less.

For perspective, Clavert called 2019 a historic year for occupancy, averaging 70-80 percent on any given night.

At the TownePlace Suites, which opened this spring at Seventh and Race downtown, some weekends have been sellouts.

"We opened May 25, on that Tuesday, and on that Saturday — we sold out," said general manager Shondale Turner.

It happened again last weekend. But the hotel, with 110 suites featuring kitchenettes, is designed for business travelers who are staying for a while, a segment of the market that hasn't returned yet.

TownePlace Suites Downtown room
The new TownePlace Suites opened on Seventh Street in downtown Cincinnati in spring 2021 and features 110 rooms with kitchenettes.

"Our leisure guests have really been helping us out, and that's been amazing, but we would love to get that extended stay or corporate guest back," Turner said.

Calvert agreed that downtown-area hotels need business and convention travel to return in order to really rebound.

"They're not equipped to survive on leisure alone because of the meeting spaces and the restaurants and things like that," she said. "But we're seeing some reasonable level of expectation for business travel to start to come back this fall and be strong."

In 2020, Cincinnati USA counted two new hotels opening in Cincinnati — the 94-room Kinley at Seventh and Race, and the 106-room Lytle Park Hotel on Pike Street. Two other properties renovated and rebranded in 2020: a 184-room Delta Hotel by Marriottacross from the Sharonville Convention Center, and the 203-room Graduate Cincinnati near UC's uptown campus.

Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
The new Courtyard by Marriott opened in the historic Ingalls Building on Fourth Street downtown. The building is the world's first concrete reinforced skyscraper.

Three hotels have opened in the city of Cincinnati in 2021. It includes the TownePlace Suites, a new 126-room Courtyard by Marriott at Fourth and Vine, and a 113-room Comfort Suites/Mainstay Suites in Mount Auburn.

There are two boutique hotel projects on the horizon, as well. A delayed proposed Kimpton in the historic Traction Building on Walnut Street could open in 2022-2023. Montage International recently announced a Pendry property will renovate the historic Gwynne Building at Sixth and Main, to open in 2023.

"We’re a market leader in boutique hotels and that’s been, frankly coming out of this pandemic, has been saving for us," Calvert said.

Not just downtown

The hotel room boom is touching most corners of the Tri-State.

meetNKY president and CEO Julie Kirkpatrick told WCPO Northern Kentucky will add roughly 900 hotel rooms through 2023, a 12 percent increase in its inventory.

One hotel opened in the last year in the commonwealth's northernmost region, even as construction slowed during the pandemic: a 91-room Hampton Inn in Richwood.

But there are five hotel projects in the final construction stages right now, according to Kirkpatrick. Three of them are in Florence — a TownePlace Suites, Drury Inn & Suites, and Hilton Garden Inn. A Homewood Suites will go near the new music venue in Newport's Ovation development, and Hotel Covington is expanding by 60 rooms.

Camp Cedar1.JPG
Camp Cedar grand lodge

Warren County welcomed one new hotel in 2020, a 92-room Tru by Hilton in Monroe. Great Wolf Lodge underwent an $8 million renovation that year, too, refreshing its more than 400 rooms and suites.

This month, the Camp Cedar luxury campground opened near Kings Island after a month-long delay. It features 75 cabins and dozens of RV sites.

Spooky Nook constructionjpg
The media was invited to a tour of construction at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in Hamilton. The multi-use sports and convention complex will have over a million square feet of space and is expected to be completed in December of 2021.

In Butler County, work continues on the Spooky Nook sports and convention center complex in the former Champion paper mill. Plans call for a 225-room hotel and possibly a smaller boutique hotel on the property.

"The youth sports are traveling," said Calvert. "Especially coming out of COVID, people are traveling for different reasons. They want experiences now."

Experiencing history

Downtown's smaller hotels are capitalizing on that desire right now, even a business-centric property like the new TownePlace Suites.

"It's the history," explained general manager Turner. "Our hotel goes back to the early 1900s: It was originally a bank."

Over the course of eight months of demolition and 20 months of renovation and new construction starting in 2018, developers kept the bank's vault in the basement. After its life as a bank, the building became McHahns clothing store, which Turner remembers.

Former bank vault in TownePlace Suites
Crews maintained a bank vault from the 1900s while renovating the former McHahns store into a TownePlace Suites on Seventh Street downtown.

"As a little girl, I used to come shopping at McHahns here, my parents used to bring me here," said Turner. "Now I'm running [the building]."

The recently-opened Courtyard by Marriott renovated the world's first reinforced concrete skyscraper, the 16-story Ingalls building of 1903. When it opens, the proposed Pendry will have renovated the Gwynne building, which housed Procter & Gamble's headquarters for decades and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"People want that unique experience, to walk into an old building, but it's brand new on the inside; it's hip; it's cool," said Calvert. "That is a signature thing for Cincinnati, which we're known nationwide for, taking these buildings and giving them a second use."

Dreaming big

Most of those hotels are considered boutique hotels. But there is one looming elephant in the (hotel) room — the former Millennium Hotel, which is currently being torn down across from the Duke Energy Convention Center on Elm Street.

Its replacement has not been announced yet.

O'Rourke Wrecking Company at the Millennium Hotel.

"We need a hotel connected to the convention center to really be competitive in our convention package. Whether that's 600 rooms or 800 rooms, we'll make sure that we get the best fit for Cincinnati," Calvert said.

She added that the pandemic caused Cincinnati USA and The Port to re-evaluate some things with the new convention headquarters hotel proposal, including where it would be located. The former Millennium site is one option; so is a nearby surface parking lot, garage and office building.

Millennium Hotel demolition is expected to be complete by June 2022.

Changing Downtown, Pt. 1: End of an era for blighted Millennium Hotel

Right now, though, the absence of the former 872-room hotel presents a problem for the convention business. Event planners now often have to juggle blocks of rooms across multiple, smaller hotels.

"Our strategy has been smaller meetings, but more frequent meetings," Calvert said. "Until we get that headquarter hotel, it will be difficult to compete with Columbus or Cleveland."

Columbus, which has a convention center twice the size of Cincinnati's, is building Ohio's largest hotel: a 1,000-room Hilton will connect to the center. Cleveland completed a 600-room Hilton attached to its convention center in time to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.

"The priority [for us] is the hotel first and then, down the road, we'll look at the center itself. Do we need to expand? How big? And what more hotel space would we need for that?" said Calvert.