A Young Urban Hotel

By Sheryl Kornman

ALOFT Tucson University by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide transformed an aging hotel property into a post-modern, tech-savvy hotel offering “style at a steal.”

The hotel was “rebuilt from the bones,” said Simon Turner, Starwood’s president of global development. Significant renovations included new skin, windows, mechanical, electrical and plumbing – plus relocation of the swimming pool.

“We totally peeled it apart and created a new asset,” Turner said of the aging former Sheraton. “It’s a kinder, gentler hotel.” The renovation took a year, and ALOFT opened in April.

The new, minimalist décor and room furnishings have clean lines to appeal to a new-generation traveler.

ALOFT is a “vision of W, a very successful brand for the trendsetter and trend seeker,” Turner said. ALOFT hotels are based on the W hotel model, with a contemporary, casual feel – but at a lower price point.

The decision to buy the 42-year-old hotel property at 1900 E. Speedway Blvd. and reposition it in the market was made after careful study, Turner said. The site’s 600-space subterranean parking was a plus, as was its location near the University of Arizona main campus and medical center, plus downtown and Tucson International Airport.

“The vibe of a university town – young, energetic and inquisitive – led the design,” Turner said. “The synergy is just great.”

Time-lapse photography of the transformation – pre and post-conversion – is shown in a video loop on a screen in the hotel’s open-plan lobby/lounge.

The 154 “loft-like” rooms have nine-foot ceilings and feature platform beds with plush bedding, blackout shades, retro bedside alarm clocks and plug-and-play docking stations that link tablets, laptops and music devices to the room’s 42-inch LCD television. Bathrooms have walk-in showers with rainfall showerheads. The liquid soap and shampoo dispensers mounted on the shower wall reduce waste. The custom amenities are by Bliss Spa.

Starwood left the sturdy, seven-story cinderblock construction of the former Four Points by Sheraton hotel intact. It converted the structure into a modern, affordable hotel. (In October, rates start at $149.)

Starwood spent millions to rebuild and rewire the hotel, installing high-capacity fiber optics to serve customers traveling with multiple portable devices. The swimming pool was relocated to the east end of the building to make room for a terrace and indoor-outdoor fireplace off the bar/lounge area.

General contractor was Phoenix-based Linthicum, which specializes in unique design. Tucson-based subcontractors were General Air Control Corp., Comfort Systems USA, Arizona Restaurant Supply and Rick Engineering Co. Arizona-based companies were Western Millwork and Patio Pools and Spas.

Sustainability is part of the ALOFT model, Turner said. The HVAC system monitors air temperature to reduce energy waste and lighting in public areas turns on and off automatically.

The two meeting rooms available for booking total 1,800 square feet and are fitted with AV equipment, plasma televisions and free wi-fi. The two rooms can be converted into one. The hotel has 2,000 square feet of reception space.

The w xyz bar in the re:mix lounge – part of the open-space design on the ground floor – flows into the lobby, where a circular desk allows guests easy check in and out. Turner doesn’t believe that travel should be a chore. The hotel provides luggage trolleys for guests called “go carts.” The work of local artists is featured.

There is no restaurant – but re:fuel by ALOFT offers cooked-to-order breakfast daily and make-your-own cappuccinos and teas. Visitors can buy healthy snacks and beverages 24/7. The coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified. The hotel’s fitness room – re:charge – has Life Fitness equipment and is open 24 hours.

Fabric panels, pillows and art in the public spaces can easily can be changed to keep the hotel “fresh,” Turner said during a walk-through of the property.

Signage in ALOFT is written with “a bit of fun.” The hotel’s no smoking policy is advertised like this: “No butts about it. ALOFT is smoke free.” The public bathrooms are labeled WC – for water closet.

At night, the exterior is illuminated with horizontal strips of colored light.

Turner expects the hotel will draw prospective students, families and friends visiting UA students and patients at the medical center, plus sports fans coming to Tucson to enjoy football and basketball. The hotel advertises its proximity to the Tucson Convention Center, TCC Music Hall, downtown and corporate offices in the area, aiming also to attract young professionals.

ALOFT’s general manager Craig Martin, a UA business graduate, immediately positioned the hotel as a good UA neighbor and community partner. At the opening event, the hotel presented The University of Arizona Medical Center – Diamond Children’s with a $5,000 donation.

Nearby mass transit is an asset, Martin said. When the Tucson streetcar project is completed, service to Fourth Avenue, downtown, the UA campus and UAMC will be available at Speedway and Warren Avenue – a short walk south of the hotel. Martin said the city also upgraded the Sun Tran bus stop in front of the hotel to make bus service more attractive to hotel visitors.

Other ALOFT conversions have been completed at the San Francisco airport, in downtown Dallas, where a historic railroad depot was transformed into an ALOFT hotel and in Nashville in the heart of the West End music scene. More than 60 ALOFT hotels are open in 10 countries, including major cities such as Bejing, Brussels and Bogota.

Turner is a trustee of the Urban Land Institute. Before the Tucson ALOFT project, he directed the repositioning of the Hotel George V in Paris and the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. He’s also worked in Saudi Arabia for a Swiss-based hotel marketing and management company. He studied hotel science at Cornell University.

Michael Luria, chairman of the board of Visit Tucson, said the redesigned ALOFT hotel is “a tremendous addition for residents and visitors alike. It’s an exciting concept.”

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