Looking to start a business that resonates with locals? Take a cue from Proper Hospitality co-founder Brian De Lowe, who makes sure each of his new hotels authentically reflects its community.
If you want to know how important it is to Brian De Lowe, co-founder Proper Hospitality, that the hotels he opens reflect the cities in which they’re built, look no further than their names. “Our company is called Proper, and we call each hotel by the city name first and then our brand,” he explains. “So, for example, in San Francisco our hotel is called ‘San Francisco Proper,’ not ‘Proper San Francisco.’”
The company, led by De Lowe and co-founders Brad Korzen and Alex Samek, is being rewarded for placing so much value on keeping things local. Though San Francisco Proper opened just two years ago, it’s already performing extremely well against its competitive set. This summer, the brand is opening three new properties in the red-hot markets of Santa Monica, Downtown L.A. and Austin.
The brand’s focus on local culture isn’t only name deep, of course. At all the properties, the design, food and beverage programs and even the buildings themselves — San Francisco Proper is located in a historic flatiron-style structure that’s nearly 100 years old — are reflective of their communities. “If we’re going to be so fiercely local in even the way we name our hotels,” says De Lowe, “it’s really important that we’re in harmony with the surroundings.”
Here’s how he makes that happen.
1. Look at where you’re starting your business — and see what’s lacking.
“I had been working at Viceroy Hotel Group for a long time, and being in the hotel business, you’re always getting asked for recommendations. I’m from the Bay area, so people would be like, ‘Hey Brian, you’re involved in cool hotels, where do you think I should stay in San Francisco?’ And I never knew what to suggest, which was pretty shocking. In such an incredible city with so many talented people and great architecture, it would make sense to have a great hotel. There really wasn’t anything that existed of any scale in a main location that inspired me enough to recommend it to our friends and family, or that delivered the type of experience I felt San Francisco needed.”
2. Keep an outsider’s perspective.
“Eight years ago when we first found the building and started the process of raising capital, many people thought we were crazy to want to do a high-end hotel in that location on Market Street, adjacent to the Tenderloin, where things were pretty sleepy and it definitely didn’t feel high end or luxury. But as outsiders coming back into the city, we saw opportunity that locals didn’t: It’s literally right at the center of the city, every kind of transit option passes through, there are a bunch of beautiful historic buildings nearby… we just felt like it had an opportunity to gain back its position. Today there’s been a major renewal — new apartments, condos, retail, restaurants — plus the big tech companies like Twitter, Uber and Spotify have taken over those landmark buildings.”
3. Embrace the community.
“We open in places where we actually enjoy spending time ourselves, and what we’ve found is, if we enjoy a location or see potential in a location, our customers will share our same excitement. Funky design, local food and beverage and a cultural connection with the community are kind of the premise for Proper. And our secret — or not so secret — sauce is partnering with the best local creative talent within all of the worlds that make up a hotel: design, health and wellness, programming, food and beverage. Those are the things we obsess about.”
4. Even better, become part of the community.
“I was living in L.A. when we bought the building, and I decided to actually move up to San Francisco and live in room 211 of the hotel. That’s where I made home for about a year. At that point it was an unrenovated one- or two-star hotel with a boarded-up storefront on the ground floor. It just made sense for me to get up there and be on the ground, literally, and really get a chance to meet everyone in the community. We took the boarding off the storefront and opened a series of food and beverage pop ups during that period, and in doing that, we got to meet lots of really amazing creative people. That’s actually how we met Josh Harris and Morgan Schick of BVHospitality. They’re leading the beverage side of our culinary program today.”
5. Be patient.
“Particularly in real estate and hotel development, it’s a long process. Hotels are exciting, but the multiple-year process of developing hotels is a very long one, especially how we do it, in emerging neighborhoods and with a lot of partners involved. We didn’t have a big institutional partner for Proper San Francisco, mainly because almost every institutional partner we talked to passed on the opportunity. It was a challenge just being told ‘no’ so many times. Also, the places we tend to do hotels tend to be the places where it’s the hardest to get hotels entitled; it’s a very challenging, drawn-out process. Patience is critical.”
6. Stay true to your vision.
“We have a pretty clear vision for what a Proper Hotel is, and I think it’s important to stay confident in your vision. There were a lot of naysayers who just didn’t feel it was the right move to do a luxury lifestyle hotel in that location in San Francisco, but we stayed true to our vision. Today we’re performing extremely well against our comp set, and it’s because we’re continuing to stay true to it. We’re upping the game in San Francisco with our hotel every day.”