New types of travelers and a boutique hotel shake up downtown Fort Wayne's hospitality scene

The hospitality industry, as a whole, is slowly making a comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic. But Fort Wayne hoteliers say the pandemic’s effects may be felt longer in their industry—even after other segments of the economy show signs of material improvement.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated more than 10 years of job growth in the accommodations sector.

Despite the tepid outlook, downtown Fort Wayne’s hospitality scene is about to get even more interesting with the addition of The Bradley, a new boutique hotel slated to open on South Harrison Street this summer.

So how are local hoteliers staying afloat during the pandemic, and how will a new boutique hotel impact travel in the urban core?

The bar at the Hilton Fort Wayne is empty during COVID-19.

Mark Luttik, General Manager of the Hilton Fort Wayne, has a pulse on the national travel industry, overseeing a handful of hotels in markets from Connecticut to California. Mark Luttik, General Manager of the Hilton Fort Wayne.

Luttik says the lodging industry, overall, is not as anemic as it was in March one year ago when the pandemic and shutdown began. And within the Fort Wayne market, there are some early indicators of optimism.

For example, leisure travel has become a larger chunk of the Hilton's profits than it was pre-pandemic, as residents from nearby cities and states take "staycations” close to home for an escape. 

Still, it’s also important to look at the big picture and realize that lower demand for travel overall is driving down hotel rates, which contributes to this uptick in business.

“Our rates are depressed across all markets, and therefore, we're attracting leisure travelers who historically might not have stayed at this hotel,” he says. “It does not compensate for the loss of group and convention business, but it’s making up a bigger portion of our business than it used to.”

Visitors enjoy the Starbucks inside the Hilton Fort Wayne.

Luttik says youth sports travel is also driving some business to the Hilton during the pandemic, and his staff is grateful for that. But as a hotel connected to Fort Wayne’s Grand Wayne Convention Center, the bulk of their profits come from large conventions and individual business trips, many of which have been canceled due to the pandemic. That means, they’re still feeling the loss of those revenue streams.

As vaccination rates increase and social distancing restrictions ease, Luttik is optimistic that his pre-pandemic clientele will return. He also feels that Fort Wayne hoteliers have a unique advantage to emerge from the pandemic more quickly than their big city counterparts.

Across the hotel industry, the general consensus is that business will return to hotels in phases. First to rebound is likely to be leisure travel, followed by business travel, and last but not least will be larger group visits and conventions, starting with smaller regional events and slowly building to national events.

“I’m hopeful that, being in a market like Fort Wayne, where we rely on more of a regional or state draw as opposed to a national draw, we could recover sooner here,” Luttik says. “A lot of the group travel business we do does not require air travel, so I'm hoping that can get back to normal as capacity restrictions ease.”

In the meantime, he says it’s a matter of getting by with fewer staff and smaller budgets, but there is finally a “light at the end of the tunnel” as vaccines rollout.

David Bolla is seeing similar cautious, but hopeful trends, as the dual Director of Sales and Marketing at Courtyard by Marriott Fort Wayne Downtown and Hampton Inn & Suites Fort Wayne DowntownDavid Bolla is the dual Director of Sales and Marketing at Courtyard by Marriott Fort Wayne Downtown and Hampton Inn & Suites Fort Wayne Downtown.

For the time being, he says his team members are stretched thin, due to being short-staffed. 

“I think for a lot of people in hospitality, the roles have changed,” he says. “A lot of us are being asked to do more and/or work different hours. But in the same breath, we're doing what we can to grow our business levels to be able to bring additional people back and continue to grow the hospitality talent pool we have.”

A return to pre-pandemic levels of staffing and business may be a few months down the road. Still, Bolla is encouraged by an increase in “staycations,” as Luttik mentioned. He’s seen people from neighboring states visit Fort Wayne overnight or for a weekend to enjoy what he refers to as “a sense of normalcy for an evening.” That could be a romantic dinner for two, a trip to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Science Central, or other attractions. 

The Hampton Inn & Suites is located at 223 W. Jefferson Blvd.

The Hampton Inn & Suites is a destination downtown itself, Bolla says, with Fort Wayne’s first rooftop bar, Conner's Rooftop, providing a respite from COVID-19 anxiety. 

"While we've had to limit our capacity up there, you're going to feel safe, have a great cocktail, enjoy a great appetizer and atmosphere, and make friends in the process," he says. "The numbers are back, in terms of employee engagement all the way to the customer satisfaction side. They're there at all-time highs because the team has been able to adapt and really give the local and out-of-town guests a place to escape from the real world."

Inside Conner's Rooftop

Since the bar is overlooking Parkview Field downtown, business could pick up on May 4 when the TinCaps make their return for a much-anticipated 2021 season.

Also on an upward trajectory, Bolla says the youth sports segment of their business is robust at both of the hotels he represents. It helps that Fort Wayne has a number of great athletic facilities that serve both youth and adult professional players. They’re working with Visit Fort Wayne to cater to this niche.

Even so, the decline in mid-week business travelers means they’re trying to make up the difference, and Bolla is unsure when—or if—business travel will ever return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“A lot of companies are hesitant to put their employees back on the road, or they're finding they're able to do a lot of their work from home,” he says. “We don't know if that's ever going to necessarily return how it was (pre-pandemic), if people are just as efficient working from home. Maybe they don't book that Sunday through Thursday trip, like they historically have.” 

The Bradley is expected to open in the summer of 2021.

During a season of uncertainty and fewer clientele, one might assume downtown hoteliers would be nervous about another hotel opening soon. On the contrary, Bolla says. Excitement would be a better way to describe his sentiment toward The Bradley.

In his mind, another hotel downtown means more opportunity. 

“In every market I've been in, we've welcomed new hotels,” he says. “And to be honest, there's not a boutique option in Fort Wayne. So I think it is going to give your leisure traveler something new to look forward to. It's honestly going to be great for the city. The better downtown does, the better we all do. And if we can get more people to come to Fort Wayne, that will create jobs. We really want to show off the city.” 

The Bradley will offer nine designer suites.

While the distinction between traditional hotels and boutique hotels is somewhat blurry, boutique hotels are largely characterized by their smaller, more intimate sizes, personalized services, and local flair tailored to the community around them. These attributes could attract a new type of “local first” traveler to Fort Wayne, “seeking unexpected and authentic experiences."

Once complete, The Bradley’s 124-room boutique hotel at 204 W Main St. will offer nine designer suites, a marquee ground-floor food and beverage operation, rooftop bar, and more than 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, as well as leasable ground floor retail space.

The Bradley is owned by Providence Hotels in partnership with Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, co-founder of Fort Wayne's iconic lifestyle brand, Vera Bradley.

Acknowledging the timing of the new property, General Manager Zach Miller says his team bullish on the schedule to open this summer. They feel confident their concept will provide for a new era of Fort Wayne visitors in the post-pandemic world. 

“The project has been in development for quite some time, and fortunately, we have been able to safely continue construction over the course of the last year,” he says. “While the travel industry has been greatly impacted, we’re resilient. With the ramp-up of the vaccination rollout and subsequent sentiment toward travel growing, as a result, it’s encouraging as we look forward to summer and fall this year. We're optimistic the timing is just right.”  

This story was made possible by the Downtown Improvement District.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.