One of the more interesting U.S. innovators of boutique hotels had humble origins. Atit Jariwala is today the founder and CEO of Bridgeton, a New York real estate development group managing $1 billion in assets, including hotels. But Jariwala got his first taste of the hospitality industry living in an EconoLodge motel that his parents managed in Bridgeton, Missouri.
“Like a lot of folks who live in motels, I helped my parents clean rooms and do every kind of chore you can growing up,” Jariwala said. “I was kind of born into it, and I haven’t been able to shake it.”
Even though Jariwala’s early background was in franchise hotels, he’s pivoted his career toward boutiques by creating Walker Hotels in Tribeca and Greenwich Village and Marram Montauk, in the Hamptons.
In late May, Jariwala will open his next boutique property, Dawn Ranch, in Sonoma, California. As with all his properties, his goal is to create hotels that not everyone likes.
“I hate saying this, but I kind of want a hotel that some people hate,” said Jariwala.
It may be an odd vision, but it seems to be paying off.
In 2018 Jariwala bought a run-down motel in Montauk for $32.5 million and converted it into an upscale beachfront lodge with a vibe he describes today as “barefoot luxury.” Last year, he sold the 96-key Marram Montauk to KSL Capital Partners for $78.5 million — essentially doubling the value in only five years.
“Heads in beds” was how Jariwala thought about the hotel sector from an early age. Yet developing cookie-cutter hotels after graduate school grew aggravating.
While working for a different hotel development firm, he tried to upgrade one branded property in New York with better soaps, sheets, and decor because they were charging a much higher rate.
“Instead of getting a pat on the back, the brand came back and said, ‘We need brand consistency,’” Jariwala said. “And that was like the big signal in my head that, well, that stinks.”
With Bridgeton, Jariwala is trying to impart as much influence on each hotel he creates as possible.
You won’t find TVs in the rooms because Jariwala wants guests to get outside and spend time by the water or otherwise explore Montauk.
“I’m involved in every aspect of the storytelling, the interior design, the ethos, and what kind of customers we want,” Jariwala said. “Our hotels aren’t built for every consumer.”
This, he said, is what differentiates boutique hotels from independent hotels.
“The issue with designing a hotel for 100 percent of people is that then you have what I would call an ‘independent hotel’ and not a boutique,” said Jariwala.
“An independent hotel is just basically a hotel with lipstick and no real programming or experiences,” Jariwala said.
So, while an independent hotel aims to target the entire market, a boutique hotel hypothetically doesn’t want to appeal to everyone (like, for example, guests who demand a TV in their room).
“Some people shouldn’t like the properties I design or build because even though some people don’t like it, there’s going to be some people who love it, and I’m focused on the people who love it, who will want to come back over and over again, and tell their friends who are the same type of people they may be,” said Jariwala.
At his hotels, said Jariwala, you shouldn’t feel like you’re in such an uptight environment that you’re not afraid to drop your fork. That might not click with guests who expect the type of intense service that you’d find at the St. Regis or Ritz Carlton.
“We don’t want our team members bothering guests,” Jariwala said. “You’re on vacation. I don’t want to keep asking you for your drink order or if everything is ok. Personally, when I’m on vacation, I don’t want to be bothered all the time. But when I want a towel, I want someone to be right around the corner — or the option just to grab it myself.”
A New Dawn
He bought Dawn Ranch, which is now undergoing a complete gut renovation and expansion. He’s adding a pool, spa, and additional restaurant. He also bought a second hotel across the street, Fern Grove, and is enclosing it into the property.
Just as Montauk is an escape from New York City, Dawn Ranch aims to be a respite for stressed-out San Franciscans. About a 90-minute drive from the city, the boutique rustic-meets-upscale hotel is situated in the small town of Guerneville in Sonoma County and right on the Russian River.
“Finding a great location and with great bones, yes, that leads to an independent hotel, but it doesn’t lead to a living, breathing boutique hotel,” said Jariwala. “For us to be able to have an angle and a reason why our guests want to stay there, we have to have a story to tell,” said Jariwala.
Jariwala found that angle with Dawn Ranch. The property was originally designed for loggers back in 1905 (who were there to chop down trees to help rebuild San Francisco after a major fire). Soon after, it became the place where Bay Area residents would vacation in the summer to escape the fog and cool coastal weather.
Jariwala is looking to tell a Dawn Ranch that includes outdoor recreation mixed with wellness offerings and luxury perks. He expects some guests will tube down the lazy Russian River or go wine tasting nearby.
While Jariwala must compete with splashy hotels in Napa, he’s hoping his storytelling, off-the-beaten-path vibe, and owner-imagined offerings set it apart — whether that’s art classes, live music at its own bandshell, or river dips and hikes in the nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
He’s also skipping the TVs at Dawn Ranch. “Being able to shut off WiFi would be awesome — sometimes it’s nice not to have reception — but we can’t do that because there is a trend of people working from everywhere, so we have to give guests that kind of technology,” said Jariwala. “But I can still cut TVs out.”
As for what’s next for Bridgeton?
“By the summer, we’ll be done and looking for great projects in California and the Northeast,” Jariwala said. “Boutique hotels are our focus.”
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