Steve Groppe has a big task: returning a nearly 30-year-old Downtown hotel to its glory days in a slow economy and with a brand-new hotel waiting in the wings nearby.
Groppe is general manager of the Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square. Formerly the Hyatt on Capitol Square, the hotel was a symbol of urban renewal when it opened in 1983.
On the same block as the revitalized Ohio Theatre and steps away from what was then the heart of the Downtown shopping district, it instantly became the premier hotel in Columbus, with rates to match.
A quarter century later, things had changed. The Capitol Square area struggled, with the Columbus City Center Mall, attached by a walkway to the Hyatt, in decline and eventually closing. The major retail venues established themselves in the suburbs. The Hilton Columbus at Easton became the hotel commanding the highest average rates in the city. And the vibe of Downtown seemed to have shifted to the Arena District.
Not surprisingly, that didn’t help the Hyatt on Capitol Square. The decline, exacerbated by the financial crisis, caused the new owner of the Hyatt — Hertz Investment Group of California — to struggle with the property not long after it spent $30 million to buy it in September 2007. The hotel ended up in receivership.
Groppe’s employer, Florida-based Driftwood Hospitality, was able to buy the 400-room hotel at 3rd and State streets this year for $19.5 million. The company is investing $10 million in an extensive renovation of the property, which should be completed by summer.
“We’re going to take this sucker back to what it was,” Groppe said, walking the spacious, quiet halls of the hotel shortly before Christmas. “We know what it was back in the day. The location is still great, and the building has good bones.”
Eric Belfrage, a hotel specialist with CB Richard Ellis in Columbus, said the Sheraton has a good chance of turning around if it executes its renovation well.
“It’s still on Capitol Square. The legal and business community, the lawmakers ... it’s still the place where that crowd has lunch, and people stay there when coming in to do business with them,” Belfrage said. “Individual business travelers typically pay a higher rate than groups, and I think if they do the renovation well, they can recapture that business.”
A section of the lobby is already walled off as renovations begin. The marble floors and reception desk will stay, but nearly everything else — furniture, lighting, carpet — will get an overhaul in an Art Deco-influenced theme.
Darby’s Restaurant, which used the patio facing State Street in fair weather, is closed. In its place, a full-service Starbucks will open in the spring. The lobby cart currently serving Starbucks coffee will be replaced with a sundry shop.
On the other side of the hotel, Groppe put up a Sheraton sign where none had been before; it faces southwest toward the new Columbus Commons park. Formerly the walled-in City Center, the area is now open and attracting people to a revitalizing Downtown, he said, so the sign will identify the hotel from that vantage point.
Being part of the Starwood group of hotels is an advantage in booking business and meeting travelers, Groppe said. The nearby Westin Columbus (formerly the Great Southern) is the only other Downtown hotel that is a Starwood brand.
Being across from the Statehouse, the hotel also attracts many travelers doing business with state government, Groppe said. It hopes to recapture some of the business in weddings and receptions lost in recent years to newer hotels.
“This is going to be the nicest place in the city, short of the new Hilton that’s being built from the ground up,” he said, referring to the hotel being built with public financing across from the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
As one example of what is being done in the hotel’s 18,000 square feet of meeting and event space, Groppe points to a single chandelier in the corner of one room that is dramatically brighter and more sparkling than the rest.
“We cleaned it up and fixed the lights,” Groppe said. “Unfortunately, about a third of the lights in these rooms weren’t working. They just weren’t kept up in recent years.”
Groppe agrees with many other Downtown hoteliers that the new Hilton, scheduled to open in September, presents both opportunity and risk. He’s hopeful that it will attract more large conventions to Columbus but worries that without proper promotion, it will simply draw business away from existing hotels. Experience Columbus has been lobbying the city for more funding, with those efforts increasing this year.
“You can’t add 500 hotel rooms without an increase in business, without an attendant increase in funding to (convention and visitors bureau) Experience Columbus to bring more groups in,” he said. “ If that doesn’t happen, then nobody will make any money, and you’re going to have other hotels in receivership. That’s just a fact.”
Still, Groppe has confidence in the market and the prospects for Downtown.
“We believe in the Columbus market,” he said. “The better Downtown does and the better Columbus Commons does, the better for us.”