Risky hotel development turns out well for city and CEO

Source: Southcoast Business Bulletin
Richard Lafrance built his first hotel in 1989 next door to the restaurant his parents opened 34 years earlier. Still operating successfully, the Hampton Inn in Westport sits next to White’s of Westport, a now expanded restaurant and event center.
Since that time, the Lafrance Hospitality CEO has developed at least six other hotels including Hampton Inns in Fairhaven and Franklin, now under different ownership, and hotel properties in New Hampshire and Maine.
So in 2008, in the middle of a dramatic economic downturn, when Lafrance committed to building a hotel in downtown New Bedford, he understood both the risks involved and the potential rewards.
Lafrance recently sat down with the SouthCoast Business Bulletin to talk about the bold decision to build the city’s first hotel after a 40-year absence, as well as the company’s continued commitment to the SouthCoast region, and its future growth plans.
Q: The decision to build a hotel in New Bedford was quite risky. What you were thinking when you committed to the project?
A: We made the decision probably in ’08″»We had built a hotel in Fairhaven, so we knew the market very well. We knew the mayor at the time, Scott Lang, was really looking to attract a hotel. I think that we worked well with city officials at the time trying to find the best way of going about doing it.
So our decision there, it was bold, but I think the hardest part of the decision was really being able to do the project. It’s not only, do you think the project is worthwhile, but then it’s very difficult, especially back three years ago, to get financing for a hotel.
Back three to four years ago, hotels were really in a nationwide slump and lenders were really skeptical about any future development. Fortunately, we were able to go to a regional bank, Bristol County Savings Bank, which was trying to expand their reach into the New Bedford community. It was a good fit for them and they were able to do it along with the SBA. So the financial piece all came together and that allowed the work to be done.
The city was very favorable toward a hotel being built. They were…actively pushing it. We really said, ‘We’re local, we can do it. We have great access to hotel folks; we know the hotel business well. Let’s do it together.’ And they were helpful in the ways they could be helpful.
We thought then, and we realize more and more now that it’s a very diverse community at the seaport and the business activity there comes not only from the fishing industry but from the ferry industry in the summer time. But it’s also really diverse with a cultural and historic (element),”»the healthcare aspect with the presence of Southcoast Hospitals and Steward, and then with the educational presence of UMass and BCC”» It was a lot to take a piece of, which was good, as opposed to having to hang on one particular industry.
Q: Plans for a redesigned Route 18 could have a positive impact on the city’s waterfront, but construction has been disruptive to traffic flow. What are your hopes and fears for the project?
A: We’re pleased with the success of the hotel to date. It has a number of challenges and one is really access to the hotel which has been difficult. The city is trying to accommodate it as best we can, but it has been a difficult situation to get access.
It’s disruptive on some afternoons and some days. We’re certainly looking forward to it being done and I think once it’s done, as we get access from the waterfront to downtown, it really is going to be pretty thrilling.
I often go there on a Sunday morning, go to the hotel, and it’s really thrilling to see the hotel guests out and about in the city and the waterfront walking through the downtown area just kind of exploring the historic part of New Bedford. I think New Bedford is an undiscovered city. There’s a lot of potential and I think having that (Route) 18 done and accessible, hopefully with curb appeal all the way along there, will just be wonderful.
Q: Do you see more growth on the horizon for Lafrance Hospitality?
A: Our business has always been built on growth. We look to expand and a lot of that we did in the hotel business. We just recently acquired our first hotel that we haven’t built from scratch (in Milford, Mass.).
That’s the most recent, but we’ve looked at opportunities over the years”»And actually we’re getting ready now to expand our newest operation which is going to be in Westport. It will be our third Westport (restaurant) operation and it’s going to be a complement to our Bittersweet Farm restaurant over on Main Road with pizza, gourmet pizza and international cuisines”»We hope to open in June. (See page 8 for more information on Ten Cousins Brick Oven.)
I have great family and non-family managers that are very competent and we try to grow our business for opportunities for them. We enjoy doing that”»We look for opportunities where we can try to grow the business. I have my own thoughts and as the next generation comes up, you know, we’ll see what their thoughts are.
We’ve been able to be in other communities but SouthCoast is really our home. We want to have a major impact on the SouthCoast and we’re looking at other properties down the road, a lot of projects down the road. It’s too early to pinpoint where, but we’re looking to continue growing in the Southcoast.
With the hotel in Plymouth, we kind of have a good line (of properties) from Westport to New Bedford and Plymouth, so we’re looking at all of that area. We absolutely want to be down on Cape Cod at some point. So we’re looking on the SouthCoast, Cape Cod region to expand our contribution.
For more from CEO Richard Lafrance, visit www.SouthCoastBulletin.com
May 29, 2012 1:41 PM
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