by Andrea Doyle | March 02, 2015

The downtown hotel scene in major cities throughout the U.S. is hot -- and getting hotter. Areas once seen as too gritty or hectic are now in demand for groups seeking a memorable, distinctive experience. Proximity to a city's culture, music, art, and trendy eateries and lounges has become a major selling point for meeting planners. And the rise of hip hotel chains and efforts from established brands to connect with the local nightlife are drawing more groups to the heart of the city.

"We all know one size doesn't fit all and a downtown location satisfies a variety of personalities and age groups. The attendee is literally steps away from all the local flavor of the destination. If the attendee wants to go to a restaurant, a jazz club, or take a river cruise -- downtown is an affordable playground for adults," explains Debra Dohnert, CMP, senior manager of meetings, special events and travel for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). "It is also a cost savings to the organization since it doesn't have to arrange buses to different locations with time constraints."


Elizabeth Lowrey

The most successful downtown hotels provide a sense of place. "Guests want to have an authentic experience; they want to have really been to a place, as opposed to being dropped into a homogenous environment that could be located anywhere," says Elizabeth Lowrey, principal and director of interior architecture for Elkus Manfredi Architects. "They want to walk away having experienced the vibe, the personality of a city or neighborhood." She adds that hotels should "be a window into that particular culture," showcasing the specific spirit or point-of-view of the city in which they are based.

An important attraction for today's attendees is the prominence of a music and entertainment scene -- and hotels are taking note. Aloft Hotels has made live music central to its brand identity, so much so that last year it launched 100 Days of Music, which saw the Starwood sub-brand host a marathon of live concerts in the Aloft event spaces, open to guests and the public alike. Launched in 2008, the Aloft brand has worked to fill a niche for travelers seeking a destination offering top-quality amenities and chic design, but with a casual, welcoming feel that appeals to younger generations of both business and leisure travelers.

"You can just come down to the bar and be part of something. It's not pretentious and is totally approachable," says Paige Francis, vice president of global brand management for Aloft Hotels. "When you travel, you are looking for a great vibe, and a good energy." Francis points out that while the 100 Days of Music is putting a spotlight on this particular series of concerts, every Aloft property makes music a key part of its identity and hosts musical events year-round. For example, one of its newest properties, Aloft Liverpool, is in the heart of the city center that's home to The Beatles. The brand has built a following with its Live at Aloft Hotels music programming as a way to experience local emerging artists up close and personal.   


Design elements like the floating
staircase in The James Royal Palm
give downtown hotels a chic feel

The James hotels located in New York, Chicago, and Miami bring local cultural experiences into their properties in interactive ways. The inaugural collection draws from relevant cultural touch points, including art, literature, film, cuisine, music, and comedy. For example, the Second City comedy improv group started in Chicago and is now featured at The James Chicago. The Second City is part of its Curated Meeting Break program where groups have an interactive session with a Chicago comedy twist.

"The James' Cultural Collection brings the most captivating elements of each of the local communities into our hotels and provides special offers and access unique to our guests. It's about offering anticipatory services in the hotel, as well as our role supporting the arts within each city," says Lisa Zandee, senior vice president of brand management for The James.

Story Club is a nonfiction storytelling show that combines the spontaneity of an open-mic night with the experience of live theater. Each show features members of the "live lit" community in Chicago telling a story in eight minutes or less. JIMMY at The James Chicago hosts a monthly Story Club event open to hotel guests and locals, where performers can tell a nonfiction story live. A special Story Club cocktail is created by JIMMY partner, Johnny Swet, for each show.

These programs aren't limited to Chicago. The James New York partners with the Lower East Side Film Festival to screen outdoor films in its Urban Garden, and offers a selection of in-room independent movies for guests to watch.