Lodging’s 2010 Innovators: Alex Calderwood, Founder, Ace Hotel

Turntables in rooms, hangover pills in vending machines, copies of the Kama Sutra sitting next to the Bible—when it comes to design choices, Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood isn’t afraid to be unconventional. With his first space—a 28-room hotel with some shared bathrooms in Seattle’s downtown bar district, to his latest in New York City—a larger, more developed property with 58 different room types and a bustling daytime lobby scene—Calderwood has redefined the industry standard with quirky mix of clever design and cutting-edge collaborations, despite the economic downturn. “We are flourishing because our positioning and our brand [coincided] with a shift in what people are looking for. If we had been a more generic product offering, I would have been more freaked out.”

For Calderwood, going against the norm has always been second nature: instead of going to business school, the entrepreneur learned about raising capital through trial and error. After opening Rudy’s, a chain of edgy hair-cutting salons, he financed the first hotel in Seattle for less than $2 million, through a mix of debt, investor and personal money, undertaking the renovation of a distressed old building that he felt had “good bones.” The risk paid off. When the property exceeded his own projections with occupancy rates on par with the established brands by the second quarter, he knew he’d found an undertapped niche within the market—creative professionals looking for something unique and different.

“We didn’t have any hotel experience but we’d traveled a lot. We just wanted to make a place we’d want to stay in, and lucky for us people liked it,” says Calderwood of the decision to open the hotel.

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In Portland, his second hotel venture, Calderwood took on another complicated renovation, transforming a property in the edgier Stark Street area with a too-small, older elevator, and shared bathrooms; a project that may have scared off bigger brands. Most of the furniture for hotel number three in Palm Springs was found at local thrift stores and antique stores, and in New York, Calderwood’s prescient eye helped him score a turn-of-the-century landmark location in a Midtown neighborhood known mostly for knock-off vendors. In the two years since opening, other major restaurants and hotel chains have broke ground in the area as well. “I feel we are the right idea for the time so we’ve been modestly successful,” says the hotelier.

In all of his builds, his renovations use as much of the original architecture as possible. Instead of a signature design, there’s a “similarity of spirit,” says Calderwood, “An honesty of materials and a simple approach that celebrates the original architecture.”

Sustainability is core to the Ace brand, but, explains Calderwood, “a lot of it just comes down to practicality.” Much of what makes the Ace hotels green comes from reclaiming materials. “We reuse scrap wood from the renovations because it’s resourceful. We use vintage furniture because it feels more personal and residential.”

Collaborations with the local community have also been extremely important to the brand’s success. In Portland, Calderwood saw a synergy with favored coffee roaster Stumptown and brought them to New York. Partnerships with the Spotted Pig’s April Bloomfield and in-the-know shopping store Opening Ceremony have earned him even more credibility with the local community in New York.

For Calderwood, the final ingredient is having people around him who also understand the importance of keeping an ear to the ground. “Although we’re very hands-on, we’re building an excellent team that has good instincts also.” When hiring employees, Calderwood looks for “real people.”

Now with four hotels in the chain, more partnerships with designers, musicians and filmmakers are in the works as Calderwood seeks to elevate his destinations into immersive cultural experiences. “A sense of place is very key to the brand, so part of that is a give-and-take with the city and its people, instead of just plopping down our own pre-formed hotel and our own culture,” says Calderwood. “We just like to work with our friends and people whose work we admire.”

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