Raising the hotel bar in the U.P.

The first clue that The Vault Hotel in downtown Houghton is not your typical hotel in the Upper Peninsula – or perhaps even in Michigan – comes as you step into the contemporary, elegant lobby: There is no registration desk. 

Instead, a replica of teller stations line one wall, with a computer and a phone (to contact on-duty hotel staff) readily available in the vestibules.

"If you booked online, most of the registration is taken care of. We wanted to simplify the process,” says Jennifer Julien, who, along with her husband, Jonathan, own the boutique hotel. “It’s not a large lobby and we wanted to make it more welcoming. If you’re sitting there having coffee, you’re not listening to a desk agent check someone in. Registration is behind the scenes.”

Like the seamless check-in, the couple has replicated design and service amenities they’ve enjoyed in their travels. The Vault, as the name implies, is housed in a former bank building with a sizable vault. The Houghton National Bank built the Romanesque-style structure in 1889. The Juliens are only the third owners of the building. 

“What we really wanted to give people was an experience,” Jennifer says, noting she and her husband are hands-on and actively involved in the operations of the three-story hotel. “As developers, my husband and I have spent a lot of time traveling internationally.  We’ve incorporated European and other design features we liked in other places.”

The idea of no registration desk came from a hotel in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Other borrowed ideas include wet bars in each room (extra space to make coffee), French presses, 24-hour coffee service in the lobby and locally sourced coffee. The bathrooms are modeled after European counterparts, with tankless toilets. All storage space in the rooms is exposed, no drawers or closets to leave things behind. 

In the lobby, a pantry is stocked with complimentary snacks, water, and soda – inspired by a hotel in Idaho. “It just makes all the difference,” she says. “You don’t feel like you’re being nickeled and dimed once you enter the property, especially for water.  We felt it was really important to provide for our guests. There are not a lot of transactions once you arrive.” 

Breakfast, as much as possible, is catered from local businesses. The Four Seasons Tea Room next door makes quiches, and the Keweenaw Coffee Works in nearby Calumet makes the muffins, croissants and other baked goods. 

The 17-room Vault opened in 2019, after 11 months of renovation, a complete gutting and remodel, Jennifer says. “Every wall is brand new other than the structural bricks that give the hotel a historic feel. Even they needed some work, washing and tuck pointing.”  

The Houghton couple, owners of Braveworks, a team of developers and owners and operators of unique brands, seized the opportunity to purchase the bank building when it became available a few years ago. The building’s historic elements and its downtown location appealed to them as they sought to create a hotel brand. 

“Banks are so elaborate and have such cool histories. Banks had money to spend on making their buildings stand out,” she says. “We knew we wanted property downtown. The bank also had its own parking, which was important for a downtown business. We wanted to offer something very walkable and help lift up our downtown.”

The building's restoration and opening as an upscale hotel has had an impact on downtown Houghton, serving as a catalyst for "Main Street" businesses along Shelden Avenue, says Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. 

"(The Vault) celebrates the history of the building and attracts visitors to our downtown helping local businesses thrive," he says. "Since the Vault’s opening, we’ve seen several businesses start up along that block that offer new experiences to visitors and locals.

"We've had visitors come here specifically to stay in this hotel," he adds. "Then they discover the area’s amenities, history, and communities. It’s introduced a new traveler segment to Houghton."

The couple's inspiration to create a hotel brand came from their experience operating their home as an Airbnb during the early years of the short-term homestays. They were overwhelmed by the amount of interest in renting their home and kept hearing from guests about the lack of hotel options in the region and the Upper Peninsula. 

“We didn’t want a franchise hotel in an historic building,” Jennifer says. “At the time, franchise hotels were very cookie cutter; it’s a little bit different now – they’ve branched into more boutique properties. We knew we could do this without being a franchise and we could put a lot of details into the experience that would make something very special.

“We thought this concept would work for us in this community,” she adds.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, says that while boutique hotels have been a growing segment of the industry in recent years, "one doesn't immediately think of Michigan's Upper Peninsula as the location to open an upscale boutique hotel with world-class amenities.

"I think that is a testament to just how talented its owners, Jennifer and Jon Julien, (are). "They've been fostering a unique experience in Houghton, Michigan, a worthy destination from anywhere in the United States," he says. 

Demand from travelers for boutique hotel experiences has increased exponentially, says Jenifer Neptune, chief visionary office and co-founder of the Michigan-based Boutique Hotel Professionals, a luxury hospitality management company specializing in boutique, independent and soft brands. In the past, it was not common to see boutique hotels in the U.P., much less throughout the United States. 

"Even the larger hotel chains, such as Hilton and Wyndham, are answering this desire for boutique style hotels with their own soft brands, like Curio and Trademark, that seek to replicate the unique experience of boutique hotels," she says. Travelers, she adds, are seeking boutique hotels for their one-of-a-kind character and authentic experience.

"Boutique hotels offer a truly unique experience coupled with extraordinary, personalized service levels. These properties make you remember the story well after the stay," she says. "Travelers add them to their bucket list of hotels to experience. The Vault is a perfect example of a quintessential boutique hotel."

In the building’s transformation into a hotel, many original bank elements were reused, including teller windows, bank boxes, and even a vault. 

Each floor exudes a unique style. The first floor is old money, exemplified by gilded details and jewel tones of emerald and ruby. The first level also contains a suite with the original vault, now used as a sitting room. Guests can sip drinks in the chamber, big enough to accommodate chairs, a bar table, a coffee table, and a chess set. 

The second level showcases new money, the decor boasts modern sleek lines of geometric patterns, sleek lighting schemes that illuminate historic photographs, and exposed brick. The windows on the second and third floors feature upholstered window benches, perfect spots to enjoy street views. The third floor – found money – offers a moody contrast in colors, patterns and punchy graphics.

Many rooms have free-standing tubs, fireplaces and views of the lake. A state-of-the-art HVAC system keeps every nook and cranny temperature balanced.

Two years after opening the hotel, the couple added a new amenity, a bar in the building’s boiler room and basement vault. 

The speakeasy-style Counting Room is open only to hotel guests and community members who buy memberships. The bar accommodates just 25 people and cocktails are made by serious, passionate mixologists. Original architectural elements, including the sandstone walls, have been preserved. Refurbished antiques, ornately framed art and a reconstructed 1800s bank teller booth are part of the decor. 

“Our idea here was to keep the experience private,” Jennifer says. “It’s a more intimate setting.”

The success of The Vault has inspired the couple to pursue a similar project in Marquette, where they have purchased the historic State Savings Bank on South Front Street. The five-story structure – topped by a clock tower – was built in 1892 and will be redeveloped as the Marquette Vault boutique hotel, with commercial space, residential units and a 200-space public parking facility. Construction is expected to begin in the fall.

“It’s going to be a very unique experience for downtown Marquette,” she says. “That’s the intent of this brand. We try to create a special experience. We want the staff to know the name of every guest and assist them during their stay. We want them to feel at home.”

The Vault Hotel is located at 600 Shelden Ave., Houghton. (906) 481-1100.
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