Tulsa commercial real estate developer and manager Paul Coury wants to establish his Coury Collection of hotels among the names of the most respected chains of boutique hotels.
In a 25-year career characterized by multiple partnerships and crossing the lines of ownership, development, management and construction, Coury took a commercial property business that started with a small center on the west side of the 21st Street bridge over the Arkansas River and turned it into a collection of about 1 million SF held by Coury Properties Inc. in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Recently he has turned his personal attention in the business to developing the Coury Collection portion of Coury Properties – boutique hotels housed in historic properties.
“This is where, for the next 5-10 years, I really want to focus,” Coury said. “and I think can be effective at it.”
The first hotel developed by Coury was Tulsa’s Hotel Ambassador, 1324 S. Main St., a 55-room boutique destination recognized by Conde Nast Traveler with a “mark of excellence” and cited on the National Register of Historic Places. After a $16 million renovation project, completed in fall 2006, the 108-room Colcord Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City became the next addition to the Coury Collection portfolio.
Last year, the Coury Collection signed on as an investor and to handle day-to-day management at the 39-room Ashton Hotel in downtown Fort Worth, and this April will take over operation of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Price Tower in Bartlesville.
Coury said he wants to continue building the Coury Collection to 15-20 hotels, targeting regional markets including Memphis, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri in addition to Oklahoma and Texas.
“I want the name, the Coury Collection, to be seen as a regional boutique property,” he said, and to be known among the operators “who are really good at this,” citing San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC and Joie de Vivre Hospitality.
“People come to know the name of the operator,” Coury said. “They know what to expect, and the operators get their own following. It is pretty exciting to think that we can create that model.”
Headed for Real Estate
Coury, who was president of Coury Properties, Inc., until the past year when he turned the title and day-to-day operations of the company over to his long-time executive vice-president, Scott Morgan, founded Coury Properties in 1985 with the purchase of the 201 Building at 201 W. Fifth St.
Coury Properties was based in the 201 building until Coury sold the property to investors Maurice Kanbar and Henry Kaufman and moved the offices into his recently acquired Executive Center I and II properties at 71st Street and Yale Avenue. Coury Properties, the Coury Collection and the company’s construction unit, Renaissance Construction, occupy 5,000 SF in Executive Center II.
A native Tulsan and a 1982 graduate of The University of Tulsa with a degree in finance, Coury started his career as a banker in management training and assistant vice presidency of commercial real estate at the Bank of Oklahoma and later as a vice president in commercial real estate for the Banks of Mid-America, home to a $100 million property loan portfolio.
Although he entered the banking industry with the intent of staying, It did not take long for Coury, who had already purchased a house at the age of 19 while attending TU, to decide his future resided in real estate.
“I thought I was going to be a banker, but once I got in there, the entrepreneurial side of me was greater than working for a company,” Coury said. “When the chance came up to buy the 201 building, I had a partner, Jack Neely, and for me that was the time I had to make a decision. If I was going to buy this asset and run it, I couldn’t stay in banking.”
“It was a pretty dynamic market then,” he said. “It was before they changed the tax laws in 1986, it was before we had the oil bust in Oklahoma, which I am not sure we ever recovered from in Tulsa. I had some high standards and thought I was either going to climb the corporate ladder in banking or become some great real estate lender.”
Coury had already dabbled in commercial real estate when, the year after he graduated from TU, he and a partner qualified for a Community Development Block Grant from the city to purchase a small business center on the west side of the Arkansas River at the 21st Street Bridge.
“I can’t remember how much it was. I think it was like $300,000,” he said.
Since then, major Tulsa projects undertaken by Coury and his team in Tulsa have included the development of the Brooktowne residential and commercial community at 46th Street and Peoria Avenue, construction of the Cottages of Maple Ridge at 22nd Street and Boston avenue, the rebirth of The Hotel Ambassador and The Tudors I & II projects across from Veterans Park at 21st Street between Boston Avenue and Main Street.
The Tudors projects arose from the suspended plan to build The Portofino, a $22 million,15-story condominium and hotel at that site.
“We worked on that for about 3-4 years and we shelved it after 9/11,” Coury said. “We had the land, and we had to decide what the alternative uses were going to be so we came up with the zero lot line residences (the Tudors).”
The Tudors projects led to the creation of subsidiary firm Renaissance Construction, headed by Paul Burgard.
And although Coury’s focus has turned to the hotel business, the niche for Coury Properties has remained office buildings and shopping centers, he said, noting Coury Properties in different partnerships owns about 10 properties comprising about 1 million SF of commercial space. The most recent additions include the five-story Executive Center I and nine-story Executive Center II buildings at 71st Street and Yale Avenue, which together total more than 186,000 SF.
Intro to Hotel Management
Coury’s introduction to the hotel business came in the late 1980s when he was part of a group that bought the historic Tulsa Mayo Hotel with the unsuccessful intent of turning it into a Hyatt property.
“We worked on the Mayo Hotel for 4-5 years,” he said, before economic conditions brought the project to a halt.
But the experience introduced him to the restrictions of hotel management under a branded name.
“You had to have Hyatt design it, and it had to be certain sizes. They put the design package in, and they managed it and they had control of your budget,” he said. “You agreed basically that they submitted a budget, and whatever they wanted was theirs. If it didn’t make enough money, you fed the deal.”
Coury views the unsuccessful attempt to revive the Mayo as a business lesson he has applied to his own stable of hotels.
Before Coury and his investors were approached with the opportunity to revive the Hotel Ambassador, he had been doing some consulting work with a family liquidating and repositioning golf courses and hotels in “really good locations” around the country.
“In my opinion it was the evolution of boutiques about that time, the early mid-90s,” Coury said. “Although this individual’s properties weren’t boutiques, they were the forerunners of what a boutique would become. Back then there were some independently operated hotels and I liked that. I didn’t like the thought of having to pay franchise fees and overheads to a flag, or to have someone tell me, ‘You have to follow our standards.’”
Although the decision to open the Hotel Ambassador as a boutique “has been fantastic – the Ambassador has been really a good asset,” Coury said if he had to credit one thing that “really helped position this,” it was the decision to bring in the Chalkboard restaurant.
“The Chalkboard had this incredible reputation. It was almost lore. I had this notion that if I could bring the Chalkboard back, it would be big, Coury said.
He said he was able to convince then Chalkboard owner John Phillips to return from California and reopen the restaurant in the Hotel Ambassador.
“That put us on the map instantly with the old Chalkboard crowd, which was the right crowd,” he said. “Honestly, I think that was the tipping point for this property was bringing the Chalkboard back.”
The Chalkboard is now owned and operated by Ayhan and Tammy Ozaras.
Building the Business
Other factors that have been key to the operation of his hotels are location and clientele, Coury said.
“All four of the hotels are located in the downtown markets,” he said. “The business traveler makes up 60 percent of our demand, so they are very critical. The next most important thing is developing the social market, for the weddings and the special occasions.”
The opportunity to take over management of the Price Tower opens more opportunities, Coury said.
“The Price Tower, being a Frank Lloyd Wright asset is incredible,” he said. “Financially it is a small property, its 20-some-odd rooms and there are some things we need to do there to bring the standards up to where they should be.”
“That is exciting and people know it,” he said. “You can go anyway and people say, ‘Oh yeah, that is the only high-rise he ever built.’ It’s very good. It will be win-win for both of us.”
Coury said the reputation of the Coury Collection is what brought the Price Tower deal together and will continue to produce opportunities.
“Someone had told them about us,” Coury said. “I just met with someone today from Arkansas – they heard about us. We are really starting to see that now, particularly in our region. There is really not anyone around here doing boutique hotels.”
By turning over most day-to-day operation of Coury Properties, Coury is able to free more of his time to pursue development of the Coury Collection.
“That’s the goal anyway, to not be as hands on,” he said. “This is definitely my focus. I like to do a lot of my own design and can be very involved in that. I like to work on the standards of the hotels. I am pretty observant, so I see what people want. The interesting thing about that, as a developer I always tell people that a good developer is able to take what he sees somewhere and then apply it to the market that he is in, wherever that is.” ?