Exclusive: FHG Taps Curio as Navy Pier’s First Hotel

CHICAGO—It’s been a long time coming.

Hotel Business has learned locally based First Hospitality Group Inc. (FHG) is bringing a Curio Collection by Hilton hotel to Chi-Town’s iconic Navy Pier, the popular destination’s first-ever hotel in its 100-year-plus history.

Set to begin construction in January, the 222-room property is slated to open in 2019 adjacent the 170,000-sq.-ft. Festival Hall exhibition space at the eastern end of the pier.

“With more than nine million visitors a year, this is an iconic site,” said FHG’s President/CEO Robert (Bob) Habeeb. ”Plus, people in Chicago live on the lakefront, so there’s always activity there. There’s all these built-in demand generators and to have the chance to be the exclusive hotel on Navy Pier just seemed like a really exciting opportunity for us.”

Habeeb estimated the closest hotel currently to the pier is the W Chicago-Lakeshore, less than a mile away, and felt the choice of the Hilton Curio Collection product was a good fit for both the FHG portfolio and the location.

“This development will be an exciting option for Chicago visitors and locals alike to have a convenient and unique place to stay, surrounded by the many local attractions of Chicago and Navy Pier. Curio Collection by Hilton is the perfect fit for our guests,” said Habeeb.

Among the many features the hotel will include are a 30,000-sq.-ft. rooftop restaurant and bar with skyline views, a first-floor restaurant, a fitness room and floor-to-ceiling windows in the guestrooms to take advantage of the views to Lake Michigan, the city and the pier itself.

“We are excited to be working with First Hospitality Group on this highly anticipated development project,” noted Bill Fortier, SVP, development, Americas, Hilton. “The Navy Pier hotel will be located in a unique and even iconic part of the city… It’s truly going to be a special hotel for the Curio Collection by Hilton brand.”

A Hot Project

FHG, which is partnering with Switzerland-based real estate company Acron on the project, snagged the plum development project after beating out some 70 firms that filed RFPs last year, jumping at the chance to make their own history at the historic pier.

Navy Pier was originally built in 1916 as a commercial pier, and in commemoration of its centennial, Navy Pier Inc., which controls the pier, did what it termed a “Centennial Vision,” a reimagining of the cultural district with virtually all aspects of the pier renovated and enhanced.

“Anybody who hasn’t been there in the last year-and-a-half probably wouldn’t recognize it,” said Habeeb. “They put a really large, iconic ferris wheel in, they added a second performing arts theater and renovated all the food offerings, adding a bunch of new restaurants.”

With all it has going, Habeeb was asked why the pier hasn’t had a hotel before.

“The pier has only been a tourist destination since the late-1980s,” said the CEO. “Previous to that, in World War II, it was a naval training station; the University Illinois Chicago used it as a campus for a while. Then former Mayor [Richard M.] Daley in the late-1980s transformed it into a tourist destination. It was very boardwalk-y… I think at some point they came to realize that it was time to ‘concept’ it and really take it upstream.”

Some Challenges

Interestingly, while taking on the development project may seem a no-brainer given all the pier’s attributes, Habeeb indicated the location itself had its challenges.

“Unfortunately, the biggest limitation in this project was the site because we literally are building on a pier. So the Curio is very long (800 ft.) and very short at only seven stories tall. That height was capped by ordinance because of the historic nature of Navy Pier. Our plans had to be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks,” said the CEO. “The neighborhood was very sensitive to maintaining the character of the pier and not having the hotel be too tall.”

The executive said Navy Pier Inc. was “very interested in continuity” when it came to the exterior design of the Curio and FHG opted for a modern, streamlined look that matched several existing glass structures that had been constructed on the pier over time.

“Pier Inc. really didn’t want to see a design that made it look patchwork,” said Habeeb.

Jackie Koo of KOO LLC, a locally based, full-service architecture, interior design and planning firm, is designing the project, and James McHugh Construction Co. is the builder.

Habeeb said one of the exciting aspects of the Curio is precisely its length, which is allowing for a wealth of pedestrian-friendly opportunities for the hotel. “We’re dedicating about a third of the space to a theme restaurant [something in line with a Hard Rock Café]; the other two-thirds we have some ideas that we’re exploring that will be complementary to the hotel,” he said.