Ascend Collection

Ever since the term “boutique hotel” first reared its head sometime in the early 1980s to define several small, quirky and appealing hotels clustered around Manhattan, this concept of intimate, luxurious accommodations where guests enjoy unmatched contentment and tranquility has left New York and reached all parts of the world.

Originally, boutique hotels were extremely distinctive properties operated by individuals offering personalized service to guests who wanted a blend of the coziness of a bed-and-breakfast, with all the amenities routinely offered by large hotels. The problem with boutique hotels is that despite their homey touches and service, they generally cater to upscale, affluent guests. A stay in a boutique hotel usually means that guests are more concerned with comfort and luxury than with cost—and boutique hotel operators have done little to dispel the notion that such clientele is their bread and butter.

Enter the Ascend Collection—a network of luxury membership hotels launched last year by Choice Hotels. Ascend goes the extra mile in providing its customers with authentic local experiences while at the same time, delivering first-class personal service and lavishness to guests seeking an extraordinary travel experience without straining most budgets.

In addition to offering plush accommodations, Ascend’s member hotels are independently owned but must comply with a rigorous set of standards in order to be led under the velvet rope that will gain them admittance to the Ascend marque. Some of the criteria include being a one-of-a-kind hotel heavy on local identity, and that it be recognized for its amenities and service.

With 23 hotels (an additional four will join the collection in the near future) throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Ascend Collection members fall into three separate categories: Historic, Boutique and Unique.

According to Stacy Ragland, Ascend’s v.p. of operations at the company’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, “Ascend is a membership program for choice hotels and we only select savvy, sophisticated operators based on their high service and standards.”

Ragland adds that one of Ascend Collection’s requirements stipulates that member hotels cost no less than $125 per night while offering amenities lacking in larger hotels.

When presented with the fact that a recent CNN Business report announced that hotel registration in the U.S. has nosedived a dramatic 50 percent in the last two quarters and that today’s troubled economy may not be the most ideal environment in which boutique hotels will flourish, Ragland replies: “I don’t think that [the economic downswing] will have much impact on Ascend. I am confident that the boutique market will hold its own.” The success of Ascend, aided by the fact that it’s backed by the considerable muscle of Choice Hotels—one of the largest and most successful hospitality franchises with more than 10 easily recognized brands of hotels and motels throughout the world—backs Ragland’s claim.

The three hotels in Ascend’s Historic category, for example, are steeped in tradition and are long on comfort. Although far removed from some of the most popular destinations, the hotels are veritable landmarks in cities where money goes a long way. According to Ragland, in order to become members of Ascend, the Historic hotels must be at least 50 years old and be recognized by their property names.

For example, the imposing Hotel Utica in Utica, N.Y., is a marvelous 1912 Beaux Arts-style building that combines Greek and Roman architecture with Renaissance ideas. Its majestic crystal chandeliers and mahogany paneling in the lobby will awe guests, who have included Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, Mickey Mantle and Mae West. Restoration of this American beauty took more than two years at a cost of more than $13 million. Every detail from its heyday—from the crystal chandeliers in the ballroom to the pillars that line its banquet room—has been meticulously restored. Its modern conveniences go far beyond expectations. Prices range from approximately $130 dbl for a standard room, to about $180 for a mini-suite.

Equally impressive Ascend Collection Historic hotels include the Bothwell in Sedalia, MO, and the O’Brien in San Antonio, TX. Both are sure to delight travelers who wish to sample the past. The 39-room O’Brien is in the heart of old San Antonio, steps from the city’s famous River Walk. The Bothwell, meanwhile, opened its doors in 1927 and instantly became the center of social and business activity of this central Missouri city. It has retained its architectural ambiance and luxury to this day. The place is an anachronistic treasure.