When the 80-room Fairfield Motor Inn opened in 1959 off the Post Road and the 40-room Hi-Ho Motel opened in 1955 off Exit 44 along the Merritt Parkway, they personified the highway lodgings of the Eisenhower era: functional yet homey establishments catering to the first wave of post-World War II travelers driving through a tranquil and relatively undeveloped suburban Connecticut.
The times changed, but these independently owned establishments did not keep up with the changes and for years they were widely viewed around Fairfield as dingy reminders of a bygone era, with very low occupancy rates.
In 2014, Edward Gormbley, managing partner at the Norwalk-based real estate investment firm Workforce Partners, teamed with Clayton Fowler of Spinnaker Realty to buy the properties. The Fairfield Motor Inn was acquired for $7.1 million and was renamed the Circle Inn, while the Motel Hi-Ho was bought for $4.35 million and repositioned as a boutique established called the Hotel Hi-Ho. Gormbley, a Bridgeport native who attended Fairfield Prep, had no previous experience in the lodging sector, but he saw opportunity in these down-at-the-heels properties.
“The town needs hotels,” Gormbley said. “There was a tremendous amount of demand for it. I know that being from the area, trying to find a hotel room around here is quite limiting.”
Indeed, the town of Fairfield only has two other hotels that are part of very different lodging chains: the upscale Delamar Southport and the budget-focused Best Western. But Gormbley chose to retain independent identities for his acquisitions rather than link them to an established corporate brand.
“Fairfield is a unique town and a brand doesn’t suit it well,” he said. “It has its own personality.”
However, Gormbley admitted being shocked when the renovation work began on the hotels, neither of which had seen any degree of upgrade in decades.
“Over time, real estate deteriorates, like any asset,” he said. “I remember when we opened the door to the Hi-Ho after we bought it, we were told that the mattresses hadn’t been changed since 1986. We brought in all new paints and flooring, new furniture, we rejuvenated the front desk and added technological upgrades, including Wi-Fi. It was a lot of work, but thankfully there was nothing structural or anything that we had to get inside the walls for.”
Actually, one structural element at the Hi-Ho needed fixing: the building’s large neon sign, a local landmark, which had been dark since 2010 after a bird flew into it and started a fire that short-circuited its wiring. Gormbley had the neon lights removed and replaced with LED lights, while the “Motel” was changed to “Hotel” and the smaller lettering of “Restaurant Cocktail Lounge” replaced with “Barcelona Wine Bar,” a Spanish-themed restaurant on the property.
Getting the two hotels up to speed was an odyssey of sorts for Gormbley. “When properties haven’t been upgraded for 20, 30, 40 years, there are all sorts of things that need to be touched that normally you wouldn’t think need to be touched,” he said. “Like sinks that had cracks in places where you wouldn’t think there’d be cracks. In one sink, that is not a problem. Multiply that by 120 and there a lot of problems.”
When asked for the total costs of these repairs, Gormbley cites amnesia.
“I don’t even remember at this point,” he said, with a laugh. “I’ll be candid with you: A renovation is like a work of art, and you throw away all of your drafts when you’re through and just look at the pretty picture at the end. But I’m sure that we spent more than we had hoped to in the beginning.”
As for his clientele, Gormbley noted the town’s universities always bring in a full house during commencement week, and Fairfield’s proximity to New York City helps to attract weekend travelers seeking an urban escape. While the Circle Inn has business conference space that attracts such diverse activities as a Saturday night comedy club showcase and occasional rentals from a church group and a psychic fair organizer, the hotels have not yet tapped into business travelers.
“We have some business travel, but far and away the people who come through the door are transient guests staying for some leisure reason,” he said. “We have folks who are grey-collar workers who are in doing consulting work. We thought at the beginning we’d have a lot more of those, but we just don’t.”
For the most part, the Circle Inn and Hi-Ho have received positive feedback from online review sites, and Gormbley is not concerned by the occasional sneering from one-star reviewers.
“Negative reviews are just like opinions of anyone you would meet at a cocktail party,” he said. “If 10 people have a favorable opinion and one doesn’t, there isn’t much you can do about that one.”
As for those who may want to follow in his lead and venture into the lodging sector, Gormbley’s initial advice was succinct: “Don’t!” But after a pause for a wide grin, he said, “It takes a lot of work, probably a lot more than I anticipated. A hotel business never shuts down. It is 24/7/365 and problems pop up anywhere in that timeline.”