Craig Austin, Meredith Zingraff, and I sit around a table in The Dunhill Hotel’s recently refurbished lobby and discuss how business travel continues to recover from the dry season of COVID. The ground floor of Charlotte’s historic hotel is a pleasant space to spend an overcast weekday morning—tastefully upholstered chairs, a melodious Ella Fitzgerald tune from the speakers—until someone opens the front door, and a jetlike roar drowns out our conversation.
“Yeah,” Austin, The Dunhill’s general manager, remarks in a near-shout. “They’ve been out there for two days doing that.”
The noise comes from an industrial vacuum truck parked directly across North Tryon Street, part of the interminable Carolina Theatre renovation project. The work began in 2017 and was supposed to take two years. But construction workers have discovered one unforeseen environmental complication after another, and COVID pushed everything back. So work continues.
Over nearly a century, staff and regular guests at The Dunhill have grown accustomed to the noisy rearrangement of their environs. The 10-story, neoclassical structure at 237 N. Tryon, the former site of a Methodist church, opened in November 1929 as The Mayfair Manor, a mix of apartments and hotel rooms designed by locally renowned architect Louis Asbury. The Mayfair survived the Depression, multiple ownership changes, and commerce’s gradual desertion of uptown until it finally closed in 1981.
A $6 million redevelopment project turned the building into The Dunhill, which opened for business in 1988 as the city’s only historic hotel; it remains the lone Charlotte entry on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 272 Historic Hotels of America. The 60-room Dunhill did well enough, even in a moribund uptown. But a wave of development in the 2000s, and the events and conventions that followed, boosted business. The noise continues along with the growth—and the hospitality industry, though still dominated by so-called “big box” hotels, has begun to embrace the type of distinctive, history-laced “lodging experience” that The Dunhill has offered from the day it opened.
“It’s not a bad thing for us. We welcome all the change and even the competition. It carves out our niche even a little bit more, in the way we stand apart from a lot of the newer, shinier things,” Zingraff, a manager who’s worked at The Dunhill for a decade, says after the roar abates. “But it also brings more people to the area who are going to be interested in this style of hotel and the story we have to tell about Charlotte.”
The style is coming back around. Over the last two decades, small boutique hotels like The Dunhill have gradually grown their share of the American hotel market. They’ll likely never succeed luxury brands like Hyatt and Marriott, which usually operate in city centers, or the more affordable stalwarts like Holiday Inn Express and La Quinta Inn
& Suites, typically placed near interstate interchanges, airports, or both.
But boutique hotels are gaining ground. The commercial real estate analysis firm CoStar reported in October that the sector’s revenue grew more than 20% from 2019 to 2022. Its market share, on average, has grown by more than 5% every year since 2018, according to IBISWorld, a global industry research firm.
Business travelers value efficiency and consistency. You want essentially the same experience from the Courtyard by Marriott in Charlotte and the Courtyard by Marriott in Philadelphia or Tucson or Tacoma, especially if you’re staying for only a night or two. But the repetition has a less welcome side for frequent travelers. After a few days, the effect can be numbing. You sometimes wake up in a room that looks precisely like the last one, and it takes a while to remember where you are. Smaller hotels that highlight the history and character of their cities can induce a memorable, more personal experience.
“We consider ourselves Charlotte’s hotel. We’ve been here, we’ve kind of weathered that storm, and we’ve had people from different generations spend time with us,” says Austin, the GM since December 2019. “Everyone has a story about The Dunhill, whether they had their first date here, or they stayed here on their wedding night, or they got engaged here.
“We had a lady call us right before Christmas who said she and her husband had a staycation here 30 or 40 years ago, and now she has grown kids, and she wanted to buy each of them a gift certificate so they could have that same experience with their spouses. To be part of that is really exciting for us.”
That’s why the hotel hires staff members not just for their technical ability but their people skills, Zingraff says. The Dunhill’s success, even before boutique hotels were trendy, helped encourage boutique brands like Kimpton and Grand Bohemian to open hotels uptown in recent years, says Mohammad Jenetian, the longtime president and CEO of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance.
“It makes a difference that when you have a hotel like that, that it’s small enough that the minute you walk in, they know you by name. They know what room you like,” Jenetian says. “Little things like that, where you feel like, I’m home. I’m not just a guest over here. I’m home.”
In December 2019, The Dunhill began a renovation that was more than just a matter of replacing old stuff with new. They leaned into the “home away from home” idea with room refurbishings that tried to balance vintage elegance and practical necessity. The bulk of the hotel’s clientele consists of business travelers—that’s always been the case, aside from the months of COVID lockdown in 2020 and 2021—and the coolness factor of an antique desk tends to dissipate when, your laptop battery nearly exhausted, you spelunk beneath it to reach the wall outlet in a small, eccentrically shaped room.
Zingraff, formerly the hotel manager but with more free-floating duties since she had a son two years ago, supervised the renovation, which she says is “99% complete.” In addition to the room upgrades—they got rid of some “big, bulky armoires” that went mostly unused—the designers, CJMW Architecture in Winston-Salem, researched Louis Asbury’s professional and personal style traits and incorporated them in discreet ways.
We take the elevator to the ninth floor and Room 906. Zingraff knocks and brightly announces, “Guest services!” in case anyone’s in there. No one is. The room is cozy but bright enough even on a gray February day, with a pigeon’s-eye view of the old Main Library and McGlohon Theater, themselves under extensive renovation. The primary color is an understated light gray, reflected in the houndstooth wallpaper in the bathroom that pays tribute to Asbury’s personal wardrobe.
“You’ll see some of that in the rooms, which is subtle, but I think it’s neat, knowing that story,” Zingraff says. “It plays into the whole idea that we have to tell our story as a hotel to continue to stay relevant, and we have to tell it every few years, right? Because people will learn about us, and then a new generation of Charlotteans comes in, and they don’t really know about us. So we have to keep reintroducing ourselves to the community.”
Everything else can keep reinventing itself and churning through its cycles. The Dunhill intends to stick around.
“We’re not trying to be anyone but who we are,” Austin says. “We’ve been in this city for a long time, and we want to continue to grow that legacy of who we are. But just because there’s something newer and shinier down the street doesn’t mean we change the way we’ve always been.”
Greg Lacour is the editor.