Origin espouses indy spirit with new collection

DENVER—The Origin Hotel Collection is not only offering its guests a new travel experience, but its own employees a chance to travel.

“We see a need in the marketplace for a product that you can strip away the pretense and is just a travelers’ hotel—a very informal and comfortable hotel—in a space that is reachable,” said Walker Thrash, partner in the Thrash Group, which operates the collection. “We don’t consider this a luxury; we try and stay away from the term upscale or upper-scale hotel.”

And that probably goes back to the reason the collection was created in the first place. “We got a little frustrated with the standard operating system for hotels on a personnel level,” he said. “I was frustrated with the hierarchical top-down management. It seemed at odds with the idea of building culture and building the guest experience.”

The idea for Origin came about three years ago. “We have some branded and independent products, and we were looking at a handful of sites and trying to come up with what independent hotel boutique product we wanted to present,” said Thrash.

Then the Red Rocks Amphitheatre issued an RFP for a hotel at the site. “We were chosen to be the developer…for an official boutique hotel for the amphitheater,” he said. “All of that coincided with the feel and vibe of a hotel we wanted to create in an independent platform. The amphitheater gave us the perfect place to launch it from.”

The 124-room, pet-friendly Origin Red Rocks opened in August in Golden, CO, and showcases a rotating selection of memorabilia from Red Rocks Amphitheatre’s collection, including posters, instruments and t-shirts.

“It took a little bit of head-scratching to figure out what a property looks and feels like that is so closely associated with the Red Rocks Amphitheatre,” said Thrash. “We were very careful not to get too theme-y with the product.”

While development was happening, Thrash was also looking at a development in Lexington, KY. “We came to the consensus that we wanted to do the exact same product there,” he said. “That is where Origin Hotel Collection was born.”

A core goal of the collection is for each independent property to be truly independent, according to Thrash. “As far as its physical appearance, as far as its design, we definitely don’t want to fall into having a typical box for the hotel,” he said. “I think that is what they have in common. They are all designed to be a very individual place. Lexington looks nothing like Red Rocks.”

In addition to Red Rocks and Lexington, the company has two more properties in the works in Raleigh, NC, and Westminster, CO, and will be announcing a fifth location soon. “Our goal right now is a collection of 10, where we can really keep this with an independent feel,” he said. “But for markets, we have been quick to say our geographic location is in the U.S. Each market has its own individual experiences. To us, it is about the quality of the development we can create in a particular place.”

While Thrash wanted to be different for guests of Origin, he also wanted to be different for employees.

“When we were working on the very first Origin hotel, I remember sitting at the table and all of us figuring out the actual rules we have to follow, and what rules we just follow because this is what everybody else does,” he said. “When we looked at incentive programs [for employees], it is tough for the hotel to base something on just goals and objectives, with the various jobs that are at a hotel. We said, ‘What if we simplify this and instead of an incentive program, we just create a program that everybody just inherently working at the hotel is able to enjoy?’”

From that thought, the Origin Travel program was created. “We effectively incent people to go travel,” said Thrash. “We pay them as part of the wage. In some way, it is just a thank you for coming to work here. On a yearly basis at least once, we want you to get out and travel and accommodate that.”

When employees travel, they are asked to come back to the hotel and share their experiences with their co-workers. “The purpose for that is so our mission statements don’t just live on paper,” he said. “There is a very visceral, real reaction between ownership and employees at the hotel, and I think the travel program is an obvious one to say, ‘Hey, we actually do care about investing in the people who work at our hotels.’”

He continued, “I think it is the easiest way to create culture—to have something that happens naturally when people start sharing their experiences. That is what the hotel is about. We train the team to share their experiences with guests, so why not do that internally? It just seemed like a natural system. Let’s put a travel program in place. It keeps us open-minded, brings in things from outside, gives us something to talk about and, ultimately, it is about our own tribes here and our experiences with each other. We really believe that it creates better guest experiences for those coming to the hotel.”

While only one Origin property is currently open, Thrash worked with its management group, Schulte Hospitality Group, to offer its employees discounted rates at the hotels Schulte manages. “With Schulte helping out with that platform, hotels are available for them to stay at rates that you simply couldn’t do in a retail market in these larger, urban destinations where it is getting expensive to stay downtown,” said Thrash.

“We really do believe that it is hard not to be open-minded when you are traveling,” he said. “At its most basic level, you are glad to experience something new. Origin is built on this platform that your experience is our story. That is our aim. If you come and stay at an Origin hotel, maybe we get you a piece of knowledge, or a nudge in one direction to experience something you wouldn’t have experienced had you not stayed with us, or you would not have known about in this local place that we are—and to do that from an employee or team level, if they are out experiencing, they are also gaining experience. Some of that travel is right at that local level as well—it is restaurants, it is places they enjoy going out in the evening. It is a favorite hike or a bike ride. We want them to share not just the travel program we are investing in.”

Beyond the travel program, Thrash is also working with employees on a philanthropy program called Origin Gives. Each property will donate $10,000 to local charities/organizations per year chosen at the property level. Some $5,000 goes toward one charity the team chooses together. Origin Red Rocks’ first organization is GoFarm, a local food share company on a mission to increase supply and access to affordable, fresh and healthy food in Colorado. The other $5,000 goes toward individual requests made by team members (up to $250 each) for a charity/organization of their choosing. HB

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