True Partnerships Key to AC Hotel Asheville's Local Authenticity
How to be a good neighbor in a new market.
Asheville, North Carolina, is no longer a hidden treasure tucked away among the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Rated the number-one U.S. travel destination by Lonely Planet in 2017, Asheville’s artistic and artisan vibe has been nurtured and cultivated for decades by the city’s residents, and now the rest of the country has caught on to this unique locale.
But rapid growth and an influx of tourists also raises concern among citizens trying to preserve the authenticity of Asheville’s culture, especially downtown. A movement called UnChain Asheville arose to keep chain businesses out of the area, with the goal of locally owned stores continuing to operate without being pushed out by higher rents and chain competition.
AC Hotel Asheville—a Marriott brand—opened downtown in August, 2017, amidst the UnChain Asheville movement. Even though the nine-story, new-build hotel is owned and managed by McKibbon Hospitality, a familiar name to locals with five properties in Asheville, those at AC Asheville knew they needed to integrate into the community to prove they weren’t planting a disconnected, 132-room building at the corner of Broadway and College Street.
“When we were in the pre-opening process, we brainstormed ways to make this hotel as much UnChain Asheville as possible,” says Sales and Catering Manager Allison Schmidt. “We also knew meeting groups coming here would want to experience Asheville but might not have time to get out while they’re in town. So we partnered with multiple Asheville-based brewers, distillers, and food companies as a way to bring our neighbors into the hotel, not just as products, but as partners.”
Those local businesses are featured throughout the hotel’s menus, including the lobby-located AC Store and the ninth-floor rooftop restaurant, bar, and live music venue called Capella on 9, which was listed in U.S. News & World Report’s “50 Top Rooftop Bars Around the World” in April.
For visiting groups, meeting breaks are where the spotlight shines on the artisanal endeavors of Asheville’s F&B community. The breaks can be standalone, such as a 2 p.m. respite from presentations or a 5 p.m. reception concluding the day’s meetings, or they can be part of an education session where brewers and distillers visit the property to host tastings and detail the finer points of their products for attendees.
“The great part about the seminars is people actually interact with staff from the breweries and distilleries in Asheville,” says F&B Director Brandon Maynard. “It proves we go beyond beverage service to provide an immersive experience for clients, and it endorses our local businesses as having something special that can’t be found elsewhere. Those relationships come back when we have charity events or quarterly promotions at the hotel, and those vendors often donate a few bottles or cases of their products. So, it’s one hand washing the other, so to speak, and it helps us become part of the tight-knit community here.”
The average group size at AC Asheville is between 50 and 60, with a maximum around 120. Approximately 25% of those groups opt for locally focused beverage breaks, which can include beer from Asheville’s Highland Brewing Company, Hi-Wire Brewing, and Wicked Weed Brewing, among others. Distilled spirits come from Troy & Sons, Apothecary Beverage Company, and Climax, which is made at Asheville Distilling Company.
Groups incorporating Asheville’s artisanal snacks can choose from Poppy Popcorn, The Gourmet Chip Company, Annie’s Bakery, Roots Hummus, and Sunshine Sammies ice cream sandwiches, with those items also available in the AC Store. In addition to packaged treats, ingredients for the charcuterie board reception menu come from Asheville’s American Pig, and grass-fed beef on the Ranchero group lunch menu comes from nearby Hickory Nut Gap Farm.
“There’s a lot of cross-utilization of ingredients on our group menus. Just because something isn’t a trademarked package item, doesn’t mean it came from outside the Asheville area. We’re working with local vendors whenever we can,” Maynard says.
Asheville’s distillery scene continues to grow, but the city is already established as one of the country’s craft beer capitals. According to a 2016 web story on Forbes, Asheville has the third-highest number of microbreweries per capita (100,000 people) in the nation, after Portland, Maine, and Boulder, Colorado. The Asheville daily newspaper, Asheville Citizen-Times noted last year that the city has 26 craft breweries for a population of just over 89,000 people. Tapping into that abundance of beer, AC Asheville carries more than 20 local labels—most from the city, the rest from the area around it. Combined, Asheville and its surrounding mountain region are home to approximately 60 breweries.
“I visit those breweries and I know their stories, so I can tell a client, ‘Here are the breweries where I hang out, and these are my favorite beers.’ It really adds a personal touch when we’re selling the beer breaks to clients,” Schmidt says.
Maynard adds the beer breaks are often presented “in a glass window trough where we display the beers front and center, so guests can ask our bartenders to describe each label and flavor profile.”
Since starting the beer breaks last year, Schmidt has noticed more groups requesting styles of beer—like IPA, stout, or porter—so those preferences are matched accordingly with local labels that brew them. Overall, the effort put into partnering with Asheville’s artisans has paid off not just for the hotel, but for those businesses as well, giving them a wider audience for their products.
“When UnChain Asheville found out a Marriott-branded hotel was being built in the middle of downtown, they weren’t happy,” remembers Schmidt. “But we’ve shown we’re a good neighbor by truly embracing the city. We live here, we love it, and it was our duty to celebrate the unique F&B that Asheville offers, and showcase it to all the groups and travelers coming into our community through our hotel.”
AC Hotel Asheville crafts custom cocktails for groups.
Offering groups local libations is a core component of meeting breaks at AC Hotel Asheville in Asheville, North Carolina, (see main story) and beyond breaks, regional spirits are conjured up for signature cocktails reflecting a company’s logo and ethos.
“If a group is buying out our meeting space, they’re essentially taking over half the hotel,” says Allison Schmidt, sales and catering manager at AC Asheville. “The attendees are staying here, hanging out in our bar, restaurant, lobby, and other areas, so what we’ve done for a few groups now is create craft cocktails exclusively for those businesses, using liquor from Asheville’s distilleries.
“For example, we had Meritor here, which makes auto parts for military and commercial trucks and vehicles, and their company logo is a red bull, along with the tagline, ‘Run with the Bull’. So one of our bartenders combined an Asheville gin with a few other ingredients to make a signature red cocktail just for Meritor, and we created special signage and menus for that drink, so while they were here the entire week they could enjoy their company’s cocktail anytime. It was something that encompassed their logo and Asheville’s craft spirits, so it reminded them why they were here for their meetings, and also where they were during that time.”—MC