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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Wichita projects latest for boutique hotel pioneer

BY BILL WILSON
The Wichita Eagle

Paul Coury says he's lucky to be in Wichita. But his partners and industry experts say Wichita is lucky to have one of the pioneers in upscale boutique hotels pursuing two projects here.

"I've always had an eye for Wichita as a regional market that makes sense," said Coury, a Tulsa-based hotel developer who runs Coury Group.

Coury has two Wichita boutique hotels on the drawing board — the Ambassador in the old Dockum Drug Store building at Douglas and Broadway, and a hotel in the Commodore on Elm downtown.

"I'm basically driven, though, by the Commodore in Wichita, by the fact it's a sister building to the Ambassador Hotel I did in Tulsa."

He's also driven by his partners, Old Town developer Dave Burk and Key Construction president Dave Wells.

"When you get people like the Daves involved, it's an immediate education into Wichita and the market and that really moves us along," Coury said.

"It can take months to get your feet on the ground in a new city. But for me, hooking up with those two takes it literally down to 60 to 90 days. They are my eyes and ears, and when you trust someone, the feedback is invaluable."

Wells, who is renovating a hotel for Coury in Kansas City, said the two Wichita projects were an easy sell.

"Paul's the Bill Warren of boutique hotels," he said. "Bill does theaters exactly right, and Paul does hotels the same way."

Lender turned developer

Coury, 50, got his start almost 30 years ago as a real estate lender.

He left the banking business when Tulsa officials got serious about downtown redevelopment, at about the same time his business work expanded into hotels.

"I had a client who hired me in Chicago to dispose of an estate, one that owned a bunch of hotels — not luxury hotels, but luxury sites in luxury cities," Coury said.

"My job was to reposition them and sell them. It took me seven years, but I gained a lot of knowledge about hotels."

And the idea that upscale boutique hotels — bigger rooms, a fuller range of services — could succeed in the Midwest.

The building now housing the Ambassador in Tulsa was a vacant eyesore in the mid-1990s when its owner proposed a donation to the Catholic Diocese.

"We went through the building for the diocese and it was horrific," Coury said. "No roof or windows, damaged plaster, bird droppings everywhere, mold."

But it wasn't horrific enough to escape the eye of a man looking for a historic building to turn into a boutique hotel.

In 1999, the Hotel Ambassador Tulsa opened after a series of obstacles and Coury hasn't looked back.

"No one knew what a boutique hotel was," he said. "Non-flagged hotels were considered very risky for banks, and this one's in a transition area. It had a lot of strikes against it."

But the business model prevailed, Coury said.

"We're a market leader in Tulsa with rates double our competitors," he said. "If you're staying in Tulsa and you want a nice property, bigger rooms, more services, treated well, we're it."

Coury's done similar properties like the Ashton in Fort Worth, the Colcord in Oklahoma City and now the two in Wichita.

The Internet

One big part of Coury's business model is the changing face of the reservation business — all due to the Internet.

"It's leveled the playing field a lot between boutique and flagged hotels," Coury said. "There was a day when reservations were driven by affiliation, but you're paying 11 percent of gross to get a flag.

"Then here comes the Internet, here comes Facebook, Google and things like that. You can spend a little on placement and earn your way."

The rest of Coury's business model is simple — destination boutique hotels with small room counts, (60 in the Commodore, 117 in the Ambassador), bigger rooms, personalized services like shuttles and car pickups and, as with the Dockum building, history.

The idea, Coury said, is to be the first of several commercial and retail improvements in each area.

"We're going after the high-end business dollar in Wichita," he said. "With the Commodore, I know it's a transition area, but I believe that my hotels can turn an area around dramatically.

"It happened with Tulsa when we took a hotel into a very blighted area. Now it's a very solid, desirable area."

What others say

Coury's hotels "effectively fill a high-end niche in a downtown's hotel inventory," said Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Paul's hotels are first-rate hotels," Carrier said. "They are nice properties, very well managed, top-quality properties that fit in nicely with the flags."

The high-end niche remains largely unfilled in Wichita, said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.

"It's about creating a destination city," Fluhr said, "and one of the things you gain from a hotel like the ones Coury and Dave Burk are doing is that it is a destination.

"What they will do with this product is activate Douglas Avenue and the Elm area, too. You get several hundred people a night in those hotels. The first night maybe they eat in the hotel, but the second night they walk down Douglas, they walk to Old Town.

"So what begins to happen is you're creating an economic engine that supports surrounding businesses."

It's an economic engine with a history, and that's what drew Burk, the Old Town developer, into the two projects.

"It's the quaintness of the hotel," Burk said. "It's not a cookie-cutter hotel. The rooms are larger, the service is great.

"Obviously, I gravitate toward historic buildings, so that helps, too. Each of Paul's hotels has a long history, who built them, why they were built, what happened there.

"It's just a great concept."

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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