How Dream Hotel Group revamped a Durham motel into the first Unscripted Hotel

Major metropolitan areas often are the locations of choice when hotel companies launch a new brand, but this summer Dream Hotel Group opened the first property in its new Unscripted Hotels lifestyle brand in downtown Durham, N.C.

The brand, Dream Hotel Group CEO Jay Stein said, was created on the road. “We were travelling across the country and it struck us that the heart of the country—or the so-called secondary market—had nothing fun to offer to travelers,” Stein said. Boutique hotels, he noted, were limited to big coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, but as demand for authenticity and local experiences grows—driven primarily by millennials—lifestyle properties are gaining ground in smaller markets. “The top 25 U.S. [metropolitan statistical areas] are just a part of what we look at,” Stein said. “It’s the culturally thriving neighborhoods that really grab our attention.”

From Motel to Boutique Hotel

The concept of “lifestyle,” Stein said, is all about a person’s surroundings: “Where you live and what you do defines your lifestyle.” To that end, the development team took steps to make sure the local community was represented in the 74-room Unscripted Durham. They partnered with local businesses to add to the food-and-beverage, artistic workshops, live music, group activities and events at the property.

The location helped: Durham was selected for the brand's debut property because the city has a personality and a rich culture, according to Stein. “The food industry is thriving. The art scene is prospering," he said. "Entrepreneurs love the dynamic environment.” Greg and Jane Hills of Austin Lawrence Partners presented Stein with their idea to adapt the former Jack Tar Motor Lodge building into a boutique property, and the Dream team decided that the concept fit their new brand’s specifications

During the multimillion-dollar redesign of the former motel, interior designer Kevin Corn collaborated with Jane Hills, who in turn brought local partners from around the region. The redesign maintained the property’s heritage, and incorporated mid-century elements to represent changing times. “The old architecture came with a unique character, artistic lettering, classic design, beautiful tiling of elevators and unique shape of ceilings with hints of stone and aluminum at the glass lines,” Stein said. “The experience is altogether a new one, but the integrity and the identity of Durham are still intact.”

The idea for the hotel, Stein said, was for guests to interact with their environment by immersing themselves in the property’s colors and designs. “We want them to indulge in different tastes—some old and some new,” he said. “We want them to get inspired by the local culture. Since we are going into hyperlocal markets, we would like to think of it as a place not just for the travelers. It is also for the locals. It is a get-together of cultures and ideas with a sense of belongingness. It is a place they can call their own.”

Now that the first Unscripted hotel is open, Dream is developing more properties in Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin) as well as the Dominican Republic and Belize. New hotels in the brand will be opening soon, Stein said.

Opening Obstacle

“The rooftop pool deck is surrounded by a third of the guestrooms, so one of our biggest challenges was figuring out how to activate the space without disrupting our guests,” Stein said. “We had to adapt our programming to accommodate preferences of both the weekend and weekday guests. Understanding what our guests wanted (and when they wanted it) was key. There was so much demand for the food and beverage on The Patio [our rooftop pool deck] that we had also to completely rethink the layout of the space to create a larger dining area and isolate more of the tables from the cocktail lounge experience. We’re learning as we go, and now that we know the demand is there, we’re looking ahead to winter, already exploring ways to reposition our all-day café to accommodate an increased volume of dining on the street level when temperatures drop.”