Originally appeared in Morgantown Magazine in November, 2017
The new Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place aims to engage with a millennial demographic as well as with the community it calls home.
The sleek brick-and-glass tower with its modern silhouette and pristine landscaping perched on Morgantown’s revitalized Wharf District has become something of an icon. For parents and new WVU students, tailgaters and tourists, natives and transplants traveling on Don Knotts Boulevard, the former Waterfront Place Hotel has been a landmark symbolizing Morgantown’s growing and ever-evolving business and tourism economy.
But when the hotel’s ownership changed hands in 2014, Morgantown didn’t bat an eyelash. Transformation is common—and essential— in this university city. And with the tourist demographic shifting toward younger, more affluent travelers, the hotel had to change to stay relevant, says Jennifer Millstone, director of sales and marketing. “We wanted to capture that millennial traveler. That’s an inventive customer, a business customer. It’s a new class with a little higher expectations. They don’t just come for business, they want to do different things and have experiences.”
Walk into the hotel tonight and you’ll be greeted at the door by prompt, courteous valets—and yes, valet service is complementary, even if you’re only coming for a cocktail. The lobby is crisp and subdued with dark wood, earth tones, and plenty of natural light from windows overlooking the riverfront. If it’s busy, you might be treated to a free bourbon tasting right there. A new Starbucks beckons with the smell of coffee and pastries to your left, but to your right, a flickering fire encased in glass, cozy seating, and a rustic wooden bar are too tempting to pass up. The warm glow of backlit bourbon bottles reminds you of the hotel’s new restaurant theme and name: Bourbon Prime.
If you aren’t staying the night, you’ll want to by the time you tuck into an appetizer and drinks. We recommend their unique twist on pepperoni rolls, wood-fired pizza, or the Snakebite Chili, with chunks of prime rib, sharp cheddar cheese, and scallions served with a dollop of sour cream.
The hotel’s new look is all about comfort, convenience, and a memorable experience, one that’s both familiar and unique, from the modern rooms with high-speed internet, 55- inch flat screens that can connect to all your streaming services, floating end tables, and luxurious laminate floors, to the outlets and purse hooks under every seat in the bar area and Bluetooth-enabled exercise equipment in the fitness center, to the posh hotel salon and spa, Olexa.
General Manager Neil Buffington says the hotel’s new owners, Stonebridge Companies near Denver, decided to go with a familiar brand as a base for the hotel’s transformation. “Stonebridge Companies has a long relationship with Marriott Hotels and, when they purchased the hotel, Marriott seemed liked the perfect fit for both North Central West Virginia and the Morgantown community.” The consensus was that Marriott’s new look and feel, with great room–style lobbies, modern room designs, hyperconnectivity, and unique dining experiences fit Morgantown’s esthetic perfectly.
Although renovations of the rooms and lobby didn’t fully begin until 2016, the planning and execution of the restaurant’s evolution, what would be the heart of the hotel, began almost right away. Its new concept, bourbon-infused, would completely rewrite the look, feel, and flavor of what was once the Regatta Bar and Grille and turn the culinary experience of the restaurant into something that stands out.
“The entire menu has been a two-year process,” says Tom Hawkins, director of food and beverage. What started as a steakhouse concept quickly evolved into something more open-ended that would speak to both the business traveler and the local looking for a bite. “The original concept was going to be Bourbon Prime Steakhouse, but we worried that, with the ‘steakhouse’ title attached to the name, it would be perceived as stuffy— white tablecloths and high costs.” Now, fun appetizers, hand-crafted sandwiches, and steaks complement an extensive bourbon, scotch, and whiskey menu—all at reasonable prices.
The menu also needed to capture the millennial customer who, Hawkins says, is often concerned about not only flavor and presentation—essential when a meal can be snapped, tweeted, or posted to the world in a matter of seconds—but also where it comes from, its story and culture. To answer that need, the restaurant turned to local farms, working with small producers like J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works of Charleston, Rising Creek Bakery just over the border in Pennsylvania, and ThistleDew Farm in Proctor to supply ingredients for what Hawkins calls a menu based on “100 years of Appalachian flair.”
From blending their own bourbon in partnership with Woodford Reserve in Kentucky, the first establishment in the state to do so, to training their bartenders in the art of mixology, the new owners refused to skimp on details. That new bourbon flavor? It’s called Country Roads, of course. And the signature cocktail? Almost Heaven, a blend of Country Roads bourbon, cardamom bitters, and simple syrup, served in a smoked decanter.
Although the menu is still being refined, with a new executive chef soon to start, Hawkins says the focus on local food and seasonal items, along with bourbon infusion and the flavors of Appalachia, will remain the guiding principles. The local community, culture, and flair will remain up-front for guests to experience, too. “A key mission of each of associate, whether they are working at the front desk, Starbucks, or restaurant, is to engage the customer. We are their host. We want to ensure that their stay is memorable,” Millstone says.
Beyond the more obvious changes, one of the biggest transformations the hotel underwent was the training of the team. “Everyone worked tirelessly before the opening participating in self-paced computer training, facilitator-led webinars, and countless hours of in-person training and trial runs for the restaurant team,” Millstone says. “It was a lot of hard work, but in the end, the undertaking has been worth it. The comments we receive from guests are wonderful and very much appreciated.”
Unlike many chain hotels, she says, the newly redesigned hotel wants to be part of the community. That includes hosting community events and meetings, developing special dinners, and partnering with the WVU College of Business and Economics to bring hospitality and tourism management students in for internships and part-time jobs. This new culture is making an impact, and the largely millennial vote already seems to be in: Out of 369 full-service Marriott hotels worldwide, the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place is now ranked third for customer service. 2 Waterfront Place, 304.296.1700, marriott.com/mgwmc
written by MIKENNA PIEROTTI