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He Has The Touch With Hotels

Paul Coury

Tulsa World, August 8, 2008

By ROBERT EVATT World Staff Writer

Paul Coury contributes a lot more than just his name to his growing portfolio of hotels.

There's the usual market analysis and selective purchases and alliances undertaken by careful real estate investors. But then there's his hands-on work with the hotel's overall look, designs and marketing campaigns.

Michael Frimel, managing director of Ambassador, said he has worked for many hotel companies, and he believes Coury's approach is different from the norm.

"It's very unusual, but it's very refreshing," he said. "He's very hands-on with all his properties.

Coury's aesthetics have been a hit, as his hotels are filling up. Coury is in demand to give his personal touch to faded properties in need of a more hospitable feel.

"Whenever we do renovations, I like to do the design work myself," he said. "A good developer has to design and market their properties themselves."

Still, the Coury Collection is a relatively new wrinkle to his career. Coury founded Coury Properties Inc. in 1985 and to date has developed 30 commercial and residential developments and worked as a consultant on 30 more, he said.

His first would-be hotel project was none other than the Mayo Hotel, which he pursued from 1987 to 1991. The project fell through and is being redeveloped by San Antonio-based Presidian Cos.

But the end of Coury's involvement with the Mayo was just the beginning of his work with hotels.

"During that time, I took a consulting job with a family that owned a number of hotels," Coury said.

He was tasked with reconditioning properties in Arizona, Alaska, Florida, California and other states, reorganizing the management of some and liquidating others.

After that assignment, Catholic Charities approached Coury with a challenge — the former Ambassador Hotel.

Built in 1929 by Gen. Patrick Hurley, it thrived for decades but was abandoned by 1987. By the mid-1990s, saying it had fallen into disrepair would have been an understatement.

"There were broken windows, and there wasn't a roof per se," Coury said. "Water was getting in everywhere."

At first Coury didn't want to touch it, but then he struggled with a variety of uses such as apartments or condos. Eventually, he came to believe it would be a good fit for the budding trend of smaller boutique hotels.

Bill Reed, who helped finance the Ambassador's eventual purchase by a group including Coury, said the development was a risk, especially since the buildings surrounding it were similarly dilapidated.

"There were a lot of skeptics in the market, and there weren't any lenders looking to finance it," he said.

Still, Reed felt Coury had a vision, and that Tulsa needed more attractive hotels near downtown. Coury and his company spent $5.5 million getting the property back into shape. And as luck would have it, the surrounding buildings were purchased by various people who also fixed them up about the same time.

With that, the Ambassador was reborn.

"From day one, it was successful," Coury said.

After a time, Coury sought to repeat his success. Because of the amount of cross-business between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, he wanted to use the Ambassador's reputation to land hotel work in the state capital. He lost a bid to renovate the Skirvin hotel in Oklahoma City, then approached the owner of the Colcord, which was then a downtown office building there.

Coury gutted and rebuilt the Colcord interior at a cost of $15 million. Unfortunately, it opened as a hotel just months before the Skirvin was completed and reopened as the Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City.

"That hotel had $15 million in city funds, and city officials really pushed it," Coury said.

He said he was also overly cautious in marketing the Colcord Hotel, and didn't link it with the Ambassador. Recently he's boosted the connection in his marketing materials, and occupancy has improved.

Earlier this month, Devon Energy Corp. bought the Colcord as part of its plans to build a new headquarters in Oklahoma City. Devon officials said construction of its $750 million, 54-story building would affect operation of the hotel, and that purchasing it was the honorable thing to do.

Coury said his company will continue to manage the Colcord Hotel, and Devon's ownership will make it much easier to make improvements to the building that will link it to Devon's future headquarters, such as tunnels to the new building and the placement of mechanical systems.

"I wasn't in the market to sell, but if we were on different teams, it'll be difficult to go forward," Coury said.

This year, Coury established his first out-of-state hotel. His company now co-owns and manages the Ashton Hotel in Fort Worth, a 39-room boutique hotel. As usual, Coury began renovating the building to put in his own designs.

Matt Middren, co-owner of the Ashton and a former Tulsa resident, said his father suggested he talk to Coury. Middren was quickly impressed by his ambitious, yet honest plans.

"I like that he put the worst-case scenario out there, then did his homework."

Though the renovations won't be finished until October, occupancy at the Ashton has already increased from 70 percent to 75 percent.

His next project is the historic Price Tower in Bartlesville. After running it as the Price Tower Inn for a few years, the owners of the building brought in Coury this April for management and remodeling.

Laura Riley, director of operations at Price Tower, said they contacted Coury about managing the building because of his reputation and his work with historic hotels.

However, this particular assignment is trickier, since every alteration must have the curator's consent. As a result, Coury is making more subtle alterations.

"The upgrades to the restaurant won't change anything, and most of the changes in the rooms were along the lines of amenities," she said.

Renovations are ongoing, and are slated to be complete at the end of the year.

Another renovation project is nearing completion — an overhaul of the Ambassador. Even though he has operated the building for less than a decade, he said he wants to keep the hotels fresh.

Coury said each of his hotels has strong but different designs based on the building's location and architecture, though there are common themes. He strives to have strong signature restaurants that appeal to guests and nonguests alike, and makes sure to include top-shelf amenities such as 37-inch flatscreen HDTVs and wireless Internet access.

He's also experimenting with a new scent program that will deliver a lemon balm smell.

"When you walk into the hotels, you'll associate the scent with the Coury Collection," he said.

As far as Coury's concerned, the Coury Collection is far from complete. He said he's pursuing management and ownership deals for hotel properties in nearby states, including one that's connected to a museum.

The success of his current hotels has made the pursuit a lot easier, he said.

"I'm getting a lot of calls from people with older hotels that want my help," Coury said.