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The lap of luxury? High-end travel having huge ‘moment’ in Savannah, Georgia

Adam Van Brimmer | (TNS) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

SAVANNAH, Ga. — For years, the face of travel in this antebellum town tended to be sun-kissed pink and slightly sweaty, peering from the open-air window of a fully loaded tourist trolley.

Not anymore.

The luxury traveler is an increasing presence in Savannah, and the more discerning visitors are spurring rapid expansion of high-end hotels. The fourth such property to open in the last six years began operations last month, and two more luxury offerings, including a Ritz-Carlton, are in development.

Demand is high: the occupancy rate for Savannah’s luxury hotels topped 77% in 2023, higher than the upscale, mid-price, economy and even budget segments. The average rate was $265.71, and revenue per available room, a key industry metric, eclipsed $200.

Room rates at the city’s three premier properties — the J.W. Marriott Plant Riverside District, the Perry Lane Hotel and the Hotel Bardo, with a combined 700-plus rooms — often top $400 a night.

According to Michael Owens, a longtime hotelier who now heads an industry advocacy group, the Savannah Tourism Leadership Council, Savannah is “having a moment” with the luxury traveler — but one that’s built to last.

“The success reflects a concerted effort by the industry leaders in this town to seek the guest who buys by the bottle instead of by the glass,” Owens said. “We’ve arrived.”

Game-changing properties

Savannah has rapidly evolved as a visitor destination over the last three decades.

The Hotel Bardo in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia
The Hotel Bardo is located in a 19th-century mansion in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia. The hotel, which just opened in February 2024, is the latest example of luxury accommodations in the city. (Left Lane/Hotel Bardo/TNS)

The city’s historic district often doubles as a movie set and a now 70-year-long historic preservation movement has brought notoriety. Add in a well-executed marketing strategy over the last two decades and the city’s tourism appeal has never been higher. According to an annual visitation study, Savannah attracted about 10 million overnight visitors last year, nearly double the volume from the pre-Great Recession years.

But until 15 years ago, luxury travelers made up a small percentage of those come-and-stay visitors. Prior to the Great Recession, those tourists had to choose between a well-appointed bed-and-breakfast or historic inn such as the Marshall House, or a suite at the Westin, Marriott, Hyatt Regency or Hilton.

Many decided instead to treat Savannah as a day trip during a visit to nearby Charleston or Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, two well-established luxury travel markets. Not until the 2009 opening of the Avia, a 150-room hotel on Ellis Square now known as the Andaz, did Savannah boast a large-scale, high-end property on par with what could be found up the coast.

“The Avia got more of those luxury travelers to stay the night here,” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the local convention and visitors bureau. “Once it started happening, the others followed.”

The J.W. Marriott Plant Riverside District and the Perry Lane Hotel, another Marriott luxury property, were the “game-changers” for Savannah, Marinelli said.

Plant Riverside is a $400 million redevelopment of a century-old electricity-generating facility located along the Savannah River. The property opened in 2020 and is as much a natural history museum as a hotel, complete with a 135-foot-long, chrome-plated dinosaur skeleton that hangs from the lobby’s roof.

The Perry Lane, meanwhile, is tastefully elegant and has elevated expectations for service levels. Upon its 2018 opening, the hotel’s staff-to-guest ratio was the lowest in the city and included a butler on each floor. Conde Nast named the Perry Lane to its 2019 “Best New Hotels in the World” list, and TripAdvisor ranked it “Best Hotel in the U.S.” in 2023.

The courtyard of the Hotel Bardo
The courtyard of the Hotel Bardo includes an expansive seating area for guests to relax in. The hotel, which opened in February 2024, is the latest example of luxury accommodations in Savannah, Georgia. (Left Lane/Hotel Bardo/TNS)

The Perry Lane sold in 2021, but the original operators saw tremendous potential for luxury travel business in Savannah. The group, Left Lane, is behind the Hotel Bardo and is developing another high-end property in a historic building located on Johnson Square in downtown.

“We always believed in the depths of the luxury market here,” said Pritpal Singh, Left Lane’s chief operating officer and the firm’s frontman in Savannah. “At first, we went with anecdotal data, with gut feel, at the Perry Lane. Running that hotel for three years gave us hard data, and by the time we’d sold, we’d fallen in love with this city. We know we can do more here.”

Richard Kessler, a hotel business legend and the owner at Plant Riverside, feels likewise, albeit for different reasons. He grew up in the Savannah area and it was during his formative professional years with another local hotelier, Cecil Day of Days Inn fame, that he says he recognized the potential for luxury travel in Savannah.

He opened what is considered Savannah’s first large high-end hotel, the Mulberry Inn on Bay Street, in 1982. At the time, downtown Savannah’s renaissance was in its infancy — the transformation of River Street from rundown to respectable happened in the late 1970s — and the Mulberry remained an outlier.

Kessler left Days Inn in 1984 and started his own company, best known for the Grand Bohemian line of hotels. He didn’t invest heavily in Savannah again until 2005, when he opened The Mansion at Forsyth Park, the property recently redeveloped by Singh and Left Lane as the Hotel Bardo.

He added the 75-room Grand Bohemian Savannah Riverfront in 2009 – a hotel fondly known as a “rooftop nightclub with rooms beneath it — and started work on Plant Riverside a few years later.

“People with money can go anywhere, and there are a lot of places to go in this world for luxury,” Kessler said. “What we’re see in Savannah now is a destination that is stepping up to the line to offer quality in many areas.”

The lobby of the J.W. Marriott Plant Riverside District
The lobby of the J.W. Marriott Plant Riverside District includes a chrome-plated dinosaur skeleton and other natural history artifacts. The $400 million project opened in 2020. (The Kessler Collection/TNS)

The luxury hotel boom and the steady demand for rooms have resulted in other properties in Savannah elevating their guest experiences, particularly those located downtown that carry the international name brands. The Marriott Savannah Riverfront, the Hyatt Regency and the DeSoto Hotel, long a Hilton property until going independent in 2017, have undergone extensive renovations in the last decade.

But the biggest difference, say industry leaders Marinelli and Owens, is in the quality of the workforce. The Perry Lane set a new standard for guest service, leading rival properties to embrace more extensive training programs. And because the hotel industry is transient by nature, many top-level employees at the luxury hotels have been lured away to other spots in town and have brought their expertise — and expectations — with them.

“Labor is the key ingredient,” Owens said. “So many of the leaders in this industry started at the very bottom, washing dishes or cleaning rooms. They’re used to competition, and that’s what success is all about.”

Boosted by Bardo?

The Hotel Bardo seeks to once again redefine Savannah luxury travel.

The property is unique. Built in the late 1800s across Drayton Street from Savannah’s famed Forsyth Park, the Romanesque Revival-style mansion was originally a personal residence for one of Savannah’s most successful Reconstruction-era businessman, Lewis Kayton.

Left Lane bought the property for $52.5 million in 2022 and spent more than a year renovating it into what Singh calls an “urban resort” and wellness retreat, with a spa, fitness center and expansive pool deck. The Bardo received a “Leading Hotels of the World” designation upon its opening, and speculation is it could become Savannah’s first five-star hotel.

According to Singh, the Bardo brings experiences found in other luxury markets but missing in Savannah, such as a club for local residents that allows access to the hotel’s wellness offerings. This environment enhances the visitor experience because it encourages mingling with Savannahians on the property.

“The one responsibility we have is to not allow gravity to set in — you can’t take your foot off the gas when you’re doing something new and innovative,” Singh said. “We have to propel ourselves and the rest of this market in the direction of providing better experiences for the luxury traveler.”

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©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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