CULVER CITY, CA—When Alex Kirkwood was 14 years old, he created a business plan that said that by the time he was 30, he would be working at a major Hollywood studio and have major holdings in real estate.
It turns out he was pretty accurate—when he reached 30, he owned a hotel and a vacation-rental property, and was just about to leave his job as a marketing executive at 20th Century Fox.
Now, with the debut of his fifth property—Hideaway Santa Barbara—this month, he is launching his own brand, the Kirkwood Collection, as founder/president. “When you are at a place like Fox, your role is typically very specific,” said Kirkwood, noting that while there is a lot of opportunity for growth, he felt his skills were better served elsewhere. “You can really do well, but I was building a hotel and buying real estate on the side while running three campaigns, and I said, ‘I am pretty good at this over here; it may be a good direction to go.’”
Kirkwood’s first endeavor into real estate came with a vacation rental in Rancho Mirage, CA. The next property, the first hotel in what would become the Kirkwood Collection, was The Palm Springs Hotel, which he purchased in 2013. “This was a joint venture with another family, but they are my real estate mentors, so I sourced the deal, they helped me put the whole development together, and we’ve co-operated for years now,” he said. “That was the first one that I took the reins on.”
He said that, at the time, no one wanted to invest in Palm Springs—or boutique properties. “The only successful hotel was the Ace, and then we came in, sealed the deal on [our] asset and renovated it for about 24 months, and then opened it,” he said. “We have been a top 10 TripAdvisor hotel in that market for five years now, which we are proud to say. That whet my appetite.”
He continued, “Five years ago, lenders wouldn’t lend to boutiques. It wasn’t an attractive idea. But the performance of boutiques has really escalated in the last few years… People want a true, local, more-inspired experience, and that is the niche we are trying to fill.”
Since the first two properties, the company has added the Garden Street Inn in San Luis Obispo, CA, and the Blue Sands Inn in Santa Barbara. “It has kind of been my jam taking these little boutique hotels that most larger developers wouldn’t even look at and making them really perform and compete with the best in the market,” he said. “I really focused on going after a killer location in a market that is already pretty saturated, so typically the neighborhoods and the areas I am looking at, you wouldn’t have much opportunity for new-builds. I like to renovate existing hotels. Hideaway was a bed and breakfast prior, and we have taken it up a notch with more of a boutique hotel vibe with complimentary breakfast, but we are really trying to shy away from that B&B feel.”
While all of the properties are part of the same collection, there is no brand standard in terms of design. “We are not trying to stamp our specific design aesthetic on a property,” said Kirkwood. “They are all local to what the market is asking for—whatever the property deems to be worthy. Palm Springs is very mid-century modern, so the hotel there is appropriately mid-century modern. Hideaway is very California craft and coastal whimsy. Garden Street Inn is 1800s Victorian, so we are planning our renovation up there, but it is going to be very loyal to those roots in a very modernized way.”
With all properties in the collection in California, Kirkwood is building what he calls a hotel wine trail. “Now that we have four hotels and one vacation rental, and we have a couple more in the pipeline, we are building this hotel wine trail from Palm Springs up to the Central Coast, with plans to expand to Napa and down to Southern California like Laguna Beach and La Jolla,” he said. “We are avoiding anything the primary markets at this time—it is a pretty crowded space.”
The wine trail has attracted the international traveler. “We have a lot of international guests who fly over and they bounce from property to property,” he said. “We see an opportunity to create a trail because a lot of our international guests like to start in either San Diego or in Northern California, and they travel up or down. My vision for the next five years is really expanding that California trail.”
Of course, Kirkwood could have chosen to have his properties become part of a larger brands’ soft collections, but “historically, we outperform their metrics, so when I am looking at an opportunity like that, I don’t see the point—I have to pay an additional cost for lesser performance,” he said. “That is when our banker said, ‘Alex, you need to take this thing to the next level and create your brand.’” HB