by Bekah Porter
CEDAR RAPIDS – Lee Belfield’s big idea hit him smack in the middle of a meeting.
“I sat there for about 15 minutes before I worked up the courage to say anything,” he said.
As officials with Kirkwood Community College discussed how to best create a hotel management program, Mr. Belfield leaned forward and posed the question that has since brought the institution national recognition.
“I asked, ‘Why don’t we build our own hotel?’” he said. “The idea caught on.”
That was six years ago. Now Mr. Belfield is seeing his dream operate as a reality.
On Monday, July 26, The Hotel at Kirkwood Center opened its doors to the public.
In a mere seven days, the facility at 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW had welcomed about 100 guests into the rooms and suites that range in price from about $90 on weekends to about $125 on weekdays.
“We’ve had a great response,” said Mr. Belfield, who serves as the hotel’s general manager.
Part of the overwhelming support has come from the building’s appearance.
“It’s hip, urban and trendy,” he said. “Those have been our focus words from the beginning.”
Guests first walk into an expansive, eye-catching lobby.
The modern color palate incorporates zebra print, stark whites, bright reds, rich golds, vivid greens and polished metal and glass fixtures.
“(This kind of hotel, decorated as it is) is not typical for this market, but people seem to really enjoy it,” Mr. Belfield said. “Our intent was to construct a building that shows where the industry is heading instead of where it is now.”
OPN Architects designed the hotel, and Mr. Belfield said the Cedar Rapids firm gave the college “exactly what (it) wanted and more.”
Guests are greeted at the door by a bellhop, and from there, they can explore the main floor’s numerous features, including a board room set up for 12 people, a conference room with state-of the art audio and visual equipment, a lobby bar, restaurant, nearly a dozen custom-made chandeliers and a denatured ethanol fireplace.
Guests then enter the elevator and ride up toward the 71 rooms and suites. Queen standard rooms sprawl across 375 square feet and feature marble flooring in the bathrooms. Queen deluxe rooms have an additional 50 square feet of space.
Each guest room in the hotel offers extra features, including a doorbell that the staff must ring before offering cleaning services. Instead of putting out a Do Not Disturb sign, guests can push a button that lights up the doorbell and alerts staff they want to be left alone. Each room also features an energy-management system that is activated by key entry and maintained by a motion sensor. When guests are not in the room, the lights turn off and the temperature is moderated.
The $30 million facility offers more than just comfort and impressive design features.
“Essentially, this hotel is a laboratory,” Mr. Belfield said.
The idea for the hotel came as the college was working to create a hotel management program for students interested in the field. The hotel helps them achieve practical experience and hands-on training.
“(Students) will be running the hotel right alongside the professionals,” Mr. Belfield said. “They will be involved in every facet of the operation.”
Services offered by students range from valet parking, in-house laundry services, housekeeping, bellmen and more, and each aspect of the hotel works to provide a better educational experience. For example, the hotel’s restaurant, Class Act Restaurant, was designed to hold about 85 people who can enjoy a meal in a variety of seating options, including traditional tables, booths, banquettes, tall tables and more.
“Each of these requires that you place the plates in a different way or that you serve a bit differently,” Mr. Belfield said.
Additionally, a patio space will provide outdoor seating for 50 to eat, and servers will use handheld devices to take orders and print bills.
“That’s something you see a lot of in Europe, but you don’t see a lot in the United States,” Mr. Belfield said. “It’s another good learning opportunity for the students.”
The bar also provides a teaching experience many schools forego.
“Students will get to learn bartending, and I don’t know anywhere that teaches that, other than at a regular bar,” Mr. Belfield said.
But beyond the practical experience, students benefit from state-of-the-art facilities.
Because the hotel is adjacent to what was formerly known as the Kirkwood Center for Continuing Education, students can help cater to weddings or business events held in the 7,500-square-foot ballroom, which is the third largest in Cedar Rapids.
They also get to enjoy the five classrooms, three laboratories, a research center and 104-seat auditorium. These laboratories are equipped with state-of-the art culinary equipment, including downward facing cameras that capture the instructors’ activities and displays his or her actions on several large televisions above the students’ workspaces.
“(The teaching kitchens) are as good as it gets in 2010,” Mr. Belfield said. “As of today, this is world-class, and I really do mean world-class. There is nothing that even compares (to the setup we have here.)”
As many as 30 students will contribute to the total number of staff, which rounds out at about 100. With only 71 rooms, the staff-to-guest ration more than exceeds the 1-to-1 ratio that classifies a hotel as first class.
Additionally, the college now can boast of having one of only seven college-ran hotels in North America. Of those, five exist at four-year universities. Only one other community college oversees its own lodging facility.
Ready for the future
Students will arrive in about two weeks to start helping run the hotel.
In the meantime, the hotel will operate with the professional staff and will continue to welcome guests.
Additionally, workers continue to put finishing touches on the facility. While the rooms are complete, the outdoor areas — specifically the patio, formal garden and different landscaping projects – have encountered delay due to steady rains.
“We still have a few finishing touches,” Mr. Belfield said.
While he admits to being excited about the hotel’s overall appearance, he said he most anticipates the impact the facility will have on students’ futures.
“This is really going to be something important for Kirkwood,” he said. CBJ