Business travelers checking in at Waltham hotels
Waltham is known as Watch City, but today a more appropriate timepiece to serve as a nickname would be the alarm clock.
That’s to wake up the more than 1,700 businesspeople who spend a typical weeknight at Waltham’s 11 hotels. The city ranks third in Greater Boston — behind Boston and Cambridge — in the number of hotel rooms it offers, according to Smith Travel Research.
The number is expected to exceed 2,000 by next year with the opening of a Residence Inn/Fairfield Suites “dual brand” hotel and a Hampton Inn.
“The location is the number one key,” said Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy, citing the city’s position astride Route 128, with easy access to the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 2.
That and low real estate prices and property taxes — compared with similarly situated communities — have made Waltham a magnet for successive waves of technological innovators, from defense contractors and pioneering computer firms to pharmaceutical giants and biotech startups.
“When one pops up, two or three more will follow,” said Bentley University economics professor Bryan Snyder.
And these firms in turn draw companies that provide support services, from marketing to hospitality. “It feeds on itself. It becomes a self-reinforcing effect,” Snyder added.
Waltham has “figured out how to balance community needs and interests with business and corporate,” said Patrick Moscaritolo, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
As with hotel rooms, Waltham ranks third behind Boston and Cambridge in commercial office space, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate information company. Waltham’s population is an estimated 63,400, ranking below fellow western suburbs Newton and Framingham.
Besides the large, glass-walled office buildings visible from Route 128, scores of companies are nestled in office parks in the hills south of the Cambridge Reservoir.
“The site of the Cambridge Reservoir has exploded over the last 15 years . . . and is still expanding,” said Bob Clement, president of the Park Lodge Hotel Group, which owns franchises for three of the city’s hotels, Marriott Courtyard, Homes Suites Inn, and Holiday Inn Express. Together, they account for 400 rooms.
Increasingly, Waltham is becoming home to many corporate headquarters, a big generator of hotel business. Since 2010, 3-D software leader Dassault Systemes, Vistaprint (now called Cimpress), and footwear makers Wolverine Worldwide and Clarks Americas Inc. have opened regional or worldwide headquarters in Waltham. Last year, homegrown Thermo Fisher Scientific moved into a new eight-story headquarters building overlooking Route 128.
One reason corporate leaders choose Waltham for their home base is that they can live near such upscale towns as Weston, Lincoln, and Lexington, said Thomas M. Dusel, chief executive of Hobbs Brook Management, which owns office properties up and down Route 128.
On weeknights, especially Monday through Wednesday, the hotels often fill up. Even though the Newton Marriott is just 6 miles south, the commute can take half an hour in the morning, Clement said. “You meet people from all over the world every day, even here in little old Waltham.”
On weekends, the hotels offer special rates to attract what the lodging industry calls the SMERF business: social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal. Within easy access of fall foliage or summer Red Sox games, the Waltham hotels offer a less expensive alternative to staying in Boston.
According to hotels.com, a midweek night at the Marriott Courtyard in March runs $289, compared with $101 for a Saturday night.
With so many visitors whipping out corporate credit cards, the hotel mecca is drawing high-end restaurants to this corner of a city, where the downtown already is known for diverse dining.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House opened its second Massachusetts restaurant in January. Other newcomers over the past few years include the Copper House Tavern, Naked Fish, the Bonefish Grill, Flank Steakhouse, and Osteria Posto.
The last time Waltham saw a spurt in hotel building was during the Internet bubble at the turn of this century, when three opened. But the origins of the town’s popularity for hotel guests go back to the opening of Route 128 in the 1950s and the emergence of the high-tech industry.
Robert G. Logan, the City Council’s vice president, credited the foresight of his predecessors back in the ’50s for running sewer and water lines out to Route 128 as an incentive for industrial and commercial growth.
Logan, who has been on the council 28 years and is on the committee that grants special permits needed by hotels, said Waltham has been able to be pro-business because the land along and west of Route 128 is separated from the residential part of the city. “You don’t have the problem of ‘We don’t want that big building in our neighborhood,’’’ Logan said.
The hotels are clustered near the office parks, but hotel developers are starting to eye the downtown area. Michael Colomba built the 30-room boutique hotel Crescent Suites by the Charles River on the south side of the city. Despite opening during the recent recession, Colomba’s hotel soon gained a fan base. “We had many months of 98 percent occupancy,” he said. Many of the guests were attending functions at area colleges or were visiting friends and family in Waltham.
Colomba, who sold the hotel nearly two years ago, now wants to build a 96-room full-service boutique hotel on Moody Street at the Charles River. It would include function rooms, a bakery, and a seafood restaurant. He said he hopes to apply for a special permit in the spring, but he is awaiting the city’s terms for providing him air rights to build a multistory parking garage above an adjacent municipal lot. If he obtains the permit by summer, Colomba said, he could finish the hotel within two years.
Meanwhile, the 190-room Residence Inn/Fairfield Suites (both Marriott brands) could be completed by the first half of 2018, according to Julie Scott, president of Colwen Hotels, the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company behind the project.
Construction of the 138-room Hampton Inn is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year, according to Callahan Construction Managers, which is building the hotel for KW Waltham LLC.
Both projects are on Second Avenue west of Route 128.
Occupancy rates at Waltham hotels have been consistently above 75 percent since the recession, according to Sebastian J. Colella, vice president of Boston-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, which works in lodging markets throughout the country and tracks performance for Greater Boston. Last year, the average daily rate per paid occupied room in Waltham was $165, he said.
Colella pointed out that Waltham’s range of hotels offers something for middle managers and high-level executives alike. In addition, its extended-stay hotels attract businesspeople here on long-term projects, and families looking for larger rooms and more amenities.
“We see continued but moderate growth in the market,” said Colella. “There’s additional potential for new office space.”
Both business and government officials expressed concern that Waltham could become a victim of its own success as the area’s transportation network plays catch-up to development.
In the short run, the city plans to upgrade and add traffic signals to improve traffic flow. In the long run, the just-released City of Waltham Traffic Master Plan calls for expanding and overhauling access to Route 128 in the stretch from Route 117 to Totten Pond Road. Funding could come from a public-private partnership.
Manish Bhatia, general manager of the Westin in Waltham, said he has staggered shifts for staff members to avoid rush hour. “Maybe that’s something we all have to do,” said Bhatia, whose hotel, at 351 rooms, is the largest in the city.
Another problem local hotels face is finding staff. For all its geographical advantages, Waltham is served only by bus and commuter rail.
Bhatia said he offers competitive pay and incentives to retain employees. He is working with area colleges, including Lasell in West Newton, which has a hospitality program. The Westin is also teaming up with Waltham High School’s culinary education program to conduct workshops at the hotel and the school.
Clement, who has been with the Park Hotel Group for 20 years, is considered the go-to guy about the Waltham market. His company is owned by the Gilbert family, which started out nearly four decades with the Chart House Inn. After several name changes and renovations — and a major expansion — the hotel is now the Holiday Inn Express.
Clement said the typical corporate customer is a 37-year-old middle manager. Over the years, he said, he’s seen a big change in guests: “People don’t want the interaction and the ‘how are you?’. They want their room. They want to be working on their laptop.”
Within a year, he added, people will be able to skip the front desk and open their rooms with a blink of their mobile phones.