All photos by Kelly Marshall unless otherwise noted.
I had never been to Portland, but I’d heard and read a lot about it.
It’s a proud city. It’s proud of its (weird) people, it’s proud of its beer and wine, and it’s proud of its commitment to natural and eco-friendly initiatives, like city-to-trail access, public transportation, and bike lanes. And it wants to stay that way. More than once I heard a local express his or her concern that the city was becoming an extension of Northern California.
So it was with this knowledge that I refrained from telling people I met where I was staying. I wasn’t sure how they would react when I told them I was bunking up in one of the city’s newest luxury hotels, and perhaps its most luxurious riverfront hotel, the Kimpton RiverPlace. I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed of treating myself, but given all the down-to-earth, grassroots things I had heard about the city, it felt
weird wrong to be staying at a branded property.
A lot of my hesitation stemmed from the fact that the RiverPlace was a really nice hotel, and I just didn’t know how the casual, beer drinking and beard wearing locals would take it. It’s called “RiverPlace,” but to see it from the outside, especially from across the river in East Portland, made me think it should change its name to “RiverPalace.” With its rotunda roof and riverfront wrap-around porch, it sits upon a small hill like a large mansion adjacent to a local park. In my room was a wood-burning fireplace, views of the Hawthorne Bridge, and the signature Kimpton bath robes.
Photo by Scott Laird
Everything changed when I stopped worrying about what locals out there would think and started understanding how locals inside the hotel were making the RiverPlace what it is: a luxury hotel that really doesn’t stray far from the local vibe. Take Tim, for example, the down-to-earth guy who runs the Flyfish Friday program. Or one of the other employees who wears “Local Beer Expert,” “Hiking Trail Expert,” or “Vegetarian Restaurant Expert” on their nametags. Or the fact that there’s free beer, free whiskey, and free bikes offered to guests every day. Luxurious? Sure. Tangible? You bet.
Of all the major hotel chains in America, Kimpton – not unlike the city of Portland – has shown the ability to remain “cool” even as it has grown. My experience at RiverPlace drove home a few very important things for me about the Kimpton brand, things I think it does well that allows it to feel boutique-ish and local despite its national reach.
The first is that most of its properties are designed using characteristics of the host city. A classic example is at the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia, where you’ll find murals of the Liberty Bell gracing the walls of the room. Here in Portland at the RiverPlace, it’s made to feel like a mountain lodge. This approach gives the larger brand a small feel and allows guests to soak in wherever they are. Contrast this to other national brand hotels in the same price point, where I could spin you around in your room and you wouldn’t know if you were in Carolina or California.
The second thing I respect about Kimpton is that its top amenities are practical: Complimentary happy hours at night featuring local beer and wine, free lobby coffee in the morning, and free bikes. The RiverPlace even offered a free glass of whiskey as a nightcap. Hotels used to be a place where travelers met one another. Now, they are places where people bunker down in their rooms worrying about where to charge their devices and how to order room service. Free beer and wine encourage people to socialize and I look forward to it when I stay at a Kimpton. People are out of their rooms and enjoying the common space of the hotel and interacting with employees (locals) and I think that’s a great thing.
The final attribute is that Kimpton encourages its people to be people. Each employee at the RiverPlace has a personal specialization on their nametag, which is a small-but-big thing. It encourages guests to ask questions. I found myself in several conversations simply by reading the name tag and specialization aloud. These sparked interactions are the key to local connection and it’s a practice I wish all hotels did.
Is luxury a defining quality of Portland? Probably not yet. But if more hotels follow Kimpton’s lead, the road to get there might not be too long.