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At Home with the Idea

Candlewood Suites Takes Aim at the Extended-stay Market
Ray Desai

Ray Desai was looking for an established, well-respected hotel brand to bring to his property on Riverdale Street in West Springfield — and found one in Candlewood Suites.

“Consider us home.”

That’s the marketing pitch used by the Candlewood Suites chain of hotels, and Ray Desai believes that phrase sums up perfectly what his latest entrepreneurial venture provides. Specifically, a home away from home for those who are going to be on the road — or out of their own home — for an extended period.

This constituency includes consultants, contract nurses, construction managers on out-of-town assignments, doctors recently hired by area hospitals, executives settling into new jobs before they settle into the area, and people remodeling their houses or condos. Each of these groups is represented on the current guest list at the 71-room Candlewood Suites facility that Desai constructed on the site of the former Roadway Inn he owned for several years on Riverdale Street in West Springfield.

An immigrant from Gujarat, India, Desai segued into the hospitality business following a stint working for the Conn. Department of Health as a chemist. He cut his teeth in the hotel business working beside his brother, who came to the U.S. about a decade before Desai did and eventually came to own a string of hotels in the Northeast.

Desai started with the Roadway Inn, originally an independent operation known as the Knoll Motel, and later acquired the Econo Lodge on Elm Street in West Springfield. He wanted a new, more modern venture for the Roadway property, however, and waited patiently for the right franchise opportunity, one that would give him a somewhat unique niche in the region’s highly competitive hospitality sector.

He found one in Candlewood Suites, which be believes is the leader in the so-called extended-stay category within the hotel sector, status achieved through a sharp focus on replicating ‘home’ in every way possible, from a pool and fully equipped gym to flat-screen televisions, kitchens with full sets of appliances, and a gazebo and barbecue grill outside.

“It’s home for people who can’t be at home,” said Desai, who invested $6.5 million in the venture, which he expects will not be his last in this region. He told BusinessWest that he is looking at several sites in Western Mass., and will likely add to his portfolio in the years ahead.

For now, though most of his concentration is focused on Candlewood, and gaining a large share of the expanding extended-stay market in the Pioneer Valley.

Staying Power

It is Wednesday, and the ‘cupboard’ is, well, almost bare — but not for long.

That’s the name of a small grocery store, for lack of a better term, located just off the front lobby that is a feature at all Candlewood Suites facilities. Stocked with items ranging from ice cream bars to microwavable dinners to bagels, the cupboard is a popular stop for those on extended stays who don’t want to travel to area restaurants, and also for those who choose the hotel for a weekend stay while visiting Six Flags or any of the region’s other tourist attractions.

There were many such guests that week, which explained why the cupboard needed to be restocked, said Susan Daley, the facility’s general manager, adding that the store is one of many amenities that has helped the hotel get off to a fast start since it opened last Christmas.

Winter is a relatively slow period in the local hotel industry, she explained, but a good time to open a new facility because it gives staff an opportunity to work out any kinks and fine-tune efforts in the broad realm of customer service. This is important, she said, because a hotel’s ability to approximate ‘home’ comes not only with amenities and a look — but also with a feel.

“And here, people do feel that they are at home,” she explained. “They feel comfortable, and because many are here for extended stays, they almost become family.

“You come to know everyone by their first names because you see them every day; you don’t get that experience at other hotels.”

These were the tangibles and intangibles that appealed to Desai as he was looking for a brand he could bring to the Roadway Inn site. This was a quest complicated by the fact that most major chains are well-represented in the area, and most of the familiar names in the industry already have sites on Riverdale Street.

One brand that hadn’t penetrated the market was Candlewood Suites, a member of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, which also includes Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts, Hotel Indigo, and Staybridge Suites. There are now more than 100 Candlewood Suites locations across the country, including three in Massachusetts (the others are in Braintree and Burlington), and two in Connecticut — in Meriden and a recently opened facility near Bradley International Airport.

Thorough research and market analysis provided Desai with the supporting evidence needed to convince the International Hotels Group that there was, indeed, room for another extended-stay facility in the Greater Springfield area — there are already several in the region. That research concluded that the Valley’s many colleges, hospitals, and other major employers would provide an adequate base for room occupancy. Meanwhile, the region’s strong tourism base and location off major highways would provide additional support.

The Roadway Inn was razed in late 2005, with construction of the Candlewood Suites, which would take roughly a year to complete, started soon thereafter.
Desai said the chain has strict standards with regard to room size and amenities — which he met — but he also built in several features that would not be considered standard equipment. These include the pool and Jacuzzi, located in the basement, which have become popular with both families and health-conscious professionals alike, said Daley.

Another non-standard feature is the gazebo, complete with a gas grill, which has become a popular option for cooking, eating, and relaxing during the summer months.

Sixteen of the 71 rooms are larger, two-room suites, popular with those staying several weeks or months, while the rest are comprised of one larger room. All rooms come complete with a full kitchen, the aforementioned flat-screen TV, DVD player, Internet access, and other features.

To date, business has been steady and improving, said Daley, with occupancy rates near 60% on weekdays and higher on weekends, especially since Six Flags opened. To build on that solid start, the management team, which also includes sales director Tina Lenke, is working to build relationships with area companies that make use of extended-stay facilities, while also building awareness of a brand that is well-known in other parts of the country, but not necessarily in the Pioneer Valley.

“Experienced travelers know that name, and some look for it wherever they go — they want to stay at a Candlewood,” said Daley. “Our job is to make acquaintances with those who don’t know the name.”

Checking Out

As she offered a tour of the facilities, Daley stopped at one of the suites. Among the items she pointed out was a laundry basket placed at the bottom of the closet.
Each room comes with one, and the laundry facilities in the basement are offered free of charge. It’s a small but rather unique service within the industry, Daley said, noting that at most hotels, guests are scrambling to find quarters.

“It’s just another way we try to make feel comfortable, like they’re at home,” she said. “This isn’t really home …. but it’s close.”

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