By Athena Cao, Jordan Missal and Joe Ulica
The two hotels recently opened in downtown Lexington have prospered this month as parents flocked into town for Parents and Family Weekends at the two local universities.
The Georges and the Robert E. Lee Hotel were fully booked on both weekends. Parents of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute students even fought for next year’s Parents Weekend reservations.
The question is whether the 2.5-square-mile town can attract enough visitors to sustain those hotels when the local schools and the Virginia Horse Center don’t hold special events.“It’s almost like we are releasing a new iPhone,” said Thomas Burke, general manager of The Georges.
The two hotels added 57 upscale rooms to Lexington. The Rockbridge area has a total of about 1600 rooms, as well as many country inns and bed and breakfasts.
Before this summer, the Hampton Inn Col Alto, with 86 rooms, and the Sheridan Livery, with 12, were Lexington’s only upscale lodging options. Hampton Inn General Manager George Moore said Lexington has the need and the new hotels should have minimal effect on the Hampton Inn.
“I think that we each have a niche that we fill,” Moore said.
At the corner of Washington and Main streets, the 225-year-old Alexander-Withrow House reopened in May as the Washington building of The Georges. The house was one of the few that survived the 1796 fire that leveled Lexington.
The Marshall building, named after another George, opened in August. Located on North Main Street across from the Washington, it was built in 1809 by John McCampbell and opened in 1907 as the Central Hotel.
Teddy and Ann Parker Gottwald, the owners of The Georges, who live in Richmond, bought the two historical buildings for $830,000 in December 2012, court records show.
The two Georges have a total of 18 rooms, including three suites and six junior suites. Nightly rates range from $150 to $400 and can rise above that on special weekends.
Burke said the hotel has been packed almost every weekend since the openings. He is confident that Lexington has the charm to attract visitors and bring them back.
“Anyone coming into Lexington is so happy to have options to stay in town,” Burke said. “There has been a demand and there continues to be a growing demand for rooms here in town.”
The Robert E. Lee Hotel
Built in 1926 as a hotel, the Robert E. Lee building had housed low-income residents for almost two decades before Ugo Benincasa, owner of the Sheridan Livery, bought the property for $1.8 million in August 2011.
The hotel opened in September, after three years of renovations that cost millions of dollars.
The six-story building is on South Main Street, with 39 guest rooms; three condos on the top floor are for sale. Nightly rates range from about $150 to $350 and can rise to $379 on graduation weekend.
Its occupancy rate has hovered just above 60 percent since it opened in September, said General Manager Sean Taylor.
Although morale is high and the business is ahead of plan, Taylor remains cautious about the future of the Robert E. Lee Hotel and Lexington’s lodging market.
“We’ll have to see how things play out,” Taylor said.
The Hampton Inn Col Alto
On East Nelson Street in Lexington, the Hampton Inn has 10 rooms in the Col Alto Manor House built in 1827 and 76 rooms in the newer addition.
Nightly rates range from $169 to $179 and jump to $239-$250 on special weekends.
Since it opened in June 1997, the occupancy rate has stayed at about 70 percent on an annual basis and sales have grown about 3-4 percent a year, Moore said.
The manager has seen other hotels and inns enter the market over the years, but he said they have had a minimal effect on the Hampton Inn.
“Lexington still has potential – now, how much, I don’t know,” Moore said.
The Hampton Inn upholds the same standard as the chain’s 1900 other locations around the world. The guests know what to expect – free Wi-Fi, free hot breakfast and other guaranteed services that come with the brand. But unlike the three boutique hotels, the hotel does not and probably will not have a dinner restaurant, Moore said.
On 12-15 weekends every year, Lexington and Rockbridge County see a big influx of visitors coming for events at Washington and Lee, VMI and the Virginia Horse Center, said Sammy Moore, executive director of the Lexington and Rockbridge County Chamber of Commerce.
About 2,200 people came for Washington and Lee’s Parents and Family Weekend this month, said Lynn Fitch, manager of Student Affairs Operations at the university.
Lyn Bradford is one of them. She has stayed at the Hampton Inn, the Georges and the Robert E. Lee Hotel. The Birmingham, Ala., resident said she is happy to see a great selection in Lexington, but it’s still competitive to get a room on Parents Weekend.
“I’m going to try all three of them [for next year’s Parents Weekend] and just hope I’ll get into one of them,” said the mother of first-year student Alice Bradford.
VMI’s Parents Weekend and graduation create a similar scene in Lexington’s lodging market.
With 1,700 cadets in the Corps, the institution could easily have more than 3,000 family and friends over for graduation, said VMI’s Katrina Butner.
“During major events such as graduation, the hotels have a tendency to require booking in advance with no availability, and increase the room rates exponentially,” Butner, office manager of the chief of staff and inspector general, wrote in an email.
For the rest of the year, many tourists visit the area to see the Valley of Virginia and learn the history of Lexington, but the flow fluctuates and tends to slow down in the winter.
The Hampton Inn’s occupancy rate drops to 40-50 percent from December to February, Moore said. That’s about 30 percent below the annual average.
Burke said when The Georges first opened, he was warned about the slow winter, but he believes the unique Lexington experience will draw people back.
“They love Lexington…. They are looking for an excuse to come back, so we are trying to give them one,” Burke said.
Economic growth for downtown Lexington
The downtown hotels’ guests are likely to spend money in shops downtown, the Chamber’s Moore said. He said those hotels have been anticipated for a long time.
“We export everybody out of town, so it’s kind of good to import people back into town,” he said.
There are other openings in the area.
Maple Hall Inn on North Lee Highway reopened in August with 21 rooms. The Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center, which is under new ownership, reopened in March and has 157 rooms; they are in the process of being renovated.
Moore hopes more visitors staying downtown will boost demand in a wide range of businesses and even stretch the operating hours of downtown shops.
“It will be a new day,” he said.