Though it might seem like an odd thing to say about a beloved landmark with more than a hundred years as a community touchstone, Hal Smith, the Partridge Inn’s interim general manager, hopes that the last guest checking out of the iconic hotel last Sunday represented the end of an era.
“I think the hotel has shown its age,” he says. “We want to preserve the history of the hotel, but we also want to provide our guests with modern conveniences and technology.”
It’s a classic tale of going back to the future and, to accomplish that feat, the hotel is closing for the next four months as it undergoes an extensive $6 million renovation.
The goal — to make the Partridge Inn relevant again.
“One of the reasons Partridge Inn Holdings purchased the hotel was to bring the service levels back up and create the atmosphere the Partridge Inn held for a long time,” Smith says. “It’s kind of a landmark, and our main goal is to bring it back to the level it was years ago, where people would come here for lunch, they would come for dinner and they didn’t necessarily have to be guests of the hotel.”
While he’s careful not to sound too critical of the former management, it’s clear he believes the property has seen better days.
“I hate to say it this way, like the former people weren’t good, but we’ve had folks that have said, ‘Hey — it’s not the way it was. It’s gone downhill.’ We purchased it so we could bring it back to life.”
Partridge Inn Holdings finalized the purchase in August, paying $4.25 million for the 144-room hotel on Walton Way. Nine years earlier, in 2005, Walton Way Hotel paid $8.1 million for it, but defaulted on a $16 million loan in 2011.
NorthPointe Hospitality Management LLC, Smith’s company, was brought in to manage the hotel after the sale. Currently, NorthPointe is preparing the Jekyll Island Holiday Inn Resort hotel, formerly the oceanfront Comfort Inn, for a January opening. It also has properties in Albany, Georgia, and projects in Mt. Pleasant and Buckhead.
Smith says the new owner’s commitment to the property and the community is clearly evident by its willingness to close its doors during its renovation.
“We didn’t buy this to get out of it in a year or two or five,” he says. “That’s not going to happen.”
Phase One, which began after that last guest left on Sunday, involves replacing the flooring in the kitchen and restaurant, re-envisioning the hallways, painting the exterior a warmer shade of yellow, making changes to the landscaping and entrance and completely overhauling each of the 144 rooms, which will all get new furniture, new beds, 42-inch flat screen TVs and faster internet.
“Once you walk into one of the rooms, you’re going to feel like you’re in an upscale hotel that’s brand new and modern, but when you walk out into the hallway, it will be reminiscent of the historical charm of this hotel,” he says.
The second phase, which will begin after Masters, involves updating the public space, including the possibility of adding specialty retail shops to take advantage of the local population. This includes the Meigs Street courtyard, an overlooked treasure, and the former Bambu restaurant on Hickman.
“We’re toying with what we can do and how we can utilize that space but also integrate what the community needs and wants and will support,” Smith says. “It’s kind of in the thinking stage, but we definitely want to have something that’s going to help draw the community in.”
There’s also conversation about re-creating the penthouse into something that would expose more people to what is arguably the best view in the city.
Already known as a top regional destination for weddings and corporate functions, Smith says he is interested in expanding its midweek status among locals. He wants to appeal to the Summerville crowd on the Hill as well as the medical district crowd below it.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily key to survival, but it certainly helps the bottom line,” he says. “More importantly for us, it helps us establish the vision we have, which is to reintroduce ourselves to the Augusta community and bring back that love affair with the Partridge Inn. Not that that’s gone way, it’s just not as prominent as it used to be.”
Though he’s interested in becoming a branded hotel, Smith insists that becoming part of a franchise won’t mean losing its local identity or distinctiveness.
“This is a different hotel,” he says. “It’s unlike any hotel, probably in the world, and there are brand flags out there that have a high-end standard. But one thing I want to make very clear: we will always carry the Partridge Inn name.”
The ultimate goal, he says, is to make the Partridge Inn Augusta’s only four-star hotel, and he plans to build that on a foundation of service.
“We need to reinvent the culture that used to be in this hotel, and that’s a culture of service, plain and simple,” he says. “I wish I could make it more complicated, but that’s all it is. You provide service, you take care of your guests and your guests will take care of the bottom line. You worry about it in reverse, it’ll work for a minute, but not from there.”
Shortly, a liquidator will sell off the room furniture and the renovation will begin in earnest, heading toward a March 12 opening date. And given the importance of the Masters to reestablishing its position in the community, not to mention the fact that they already have an event booked for March 12, Smith says you can consider that a firm opening date. In fact, they’ve already started aggressively marketing the hotel for 2015.
He expects to start hiring key positions in January and early February, with the rest of the staff being hired toward the end of February.
“You’ve got to do it right and you’ve got to be careful,” Smith says of the new chapter he’s about to help write. “We have an opportunity to re-create this place, and that’s what we’re looking for. And I think that’s what the community is looking for.”