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Christner’s boutique hotels tell stories about their communities

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Kimberly Christner began her career in hospitality at a
hotel in Newport News. Photo courtesy Cornerstone Hospitality

Kimberly Christner has become a driving force in Virginia’s boutique hotel industry, a field that combines two of her passions — restoring historic buildings and helping the economies of small communities.

Boutique hotels have evolved into a popular lodging choice for travelers seeking accommodations that accentuate a region’s history and culture.

“The development of boutique hotels is about creating an experience for guests — one they can’t get someplace else,” Christner says. “One that isn’t a cookie cutter. It has to be authentic and tell a story about the building, the community, the people.”

Christner did not plan to pursue a career in the hospitality industry 27 years ago when she became a front office manager for a Newport News hotel managed by the Williamsburg-based Beck Co. “I fell in love with it and stayed with it,” she says. During nearly two decades with Beck, Christner rose through the ranks to become CEO. In 2012, she joined colleague Craig Larson to form Cornerstone Hospitality, managing branded and boutique hotels.

The following year, they teamed with Craddock Cunningham Architectural Partners and MB Contractors to develop boutique hotels and repurpose historic properties in small communities under the name Creative Boutique Hotels.

With 400 employees, Cornerstone now operates 11 branded and boutique hotels. Next year, the Williamsburg-based company expects to become Virginia’s largest operator of boutique hotels. By 2019, Cornerstone will manage about 20 hotels, with 15 restaurant operations.

Christner’s personal passion, though, lies in transforming historic properties into boutique hotels in communities needing an economic boost. “Historic properties are part of the fabric of the community,” Christner says, adding that Cornerstone regularly gets requests to open hotels in small communities with historic downtowns. “We evaluate the market and see if we can impact them. We need it to be revenue producing, but we also want to make sure we help the community.”

In November, Cornerstone will open the $7.76 million Western Front Hotel in St. Paul, a small Southwest Virginia town in the struggling coalfields region. “Coal country needs some other developments and resources to grow and improve this community,” Christner says, noting that the hotel’s name honors St. Paul’s history as a railroad town. “It was nicknamed the Western Front during World War I because the area was seen as more dangerous than being on a battlefield, with its saloons, dance halls and bordellos.”

The 30-room hotel features rustic décor highlighting Clinch Valley’s array of outdoor activities, including canoeing, fishing, hiking, rafting, tubing and cycling. The hotel also will be home to Milton’s, a restaurant led by chef Travis Milton, a Southwest Virginia native and a James Beard Foundation nominee.

Housed in a structure built in the 1920s, the Western Front Hotel received the first $250,000 grant from Virginia’s new Tourism Growth Fund. “In small towns where there are huge risks to do these projects, grants and tax credits are the only way these projects get done,”  Christner notes.

Creativity also is key to develop boutique hotels. “The creative part is coming up with ideas for an experience that’s authentic to the building and the community,” she adds. “We’re all so busy that we’re looking for an experience in travel that’s one of a kind.”

Lynchburg’s Craddock Terry Hotel, for example, serves a complimentary continental breakfast in an old-fashioned, wooden shoeshine box, a tribute to the building’s original use as a Craddock-Terry Shoe Corp. factory.

Decorated with artifacts from the factory, the 44-room hotel was Creative Boutique Hotel’s first property. “It’s the first truly boutique hotel in Virginia,” Christner says.

Opened in 2007, the hotel has helped revitalize downtown Lynchburg. “It was a big risk, but that property is truly a good case study about what taking a risk can do for a community,” she says.  The hotel now is undergoing a $10 million expansion, adding 56 rooms, a 3,000-square-foot rooftop bar and a biergarten. The expansion is scheduled for completion in 2019.

Cornerstone Hospitality also is developing The Virginian in Lynchburg and The Weyanoke in Farmville. Both are set to open next spring. In 2019, the company will open Sessions Hotel in Bristol, Va., the John Randolph in South Boston and the Hotel Danville in Danville.

“We want to give the community something to be proud of and generate a catalyst for growth,” Christner says.

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