Hospitality in the "New South": How Luxury Brands Are Shaping the Region's Future

There's a newly-energized drive to get beyond tired tropes

Four Seasons New orleans

Courtesy of Four Seasons New Orleans

Talk to friends about "the South," and you'll likely unearth stereotypes, presumptions, and age-old caricatures. The region is often misunderstood as a place without nuance, populated by hayseeds or unsophisticated city-dwellers oblivious to trends. Don't look for molecular gastronomy—isn't it all catfish po'boys?

While I love a catfish po'boy, this is an increasingly misguided attitude. Whether it's "the South," or "the Deep South," or the current buzz-phrase "the New South," there's no denying its diversity. Savannah, Nashville, New Orleans, and Charlotte, for example, certainly have some shared traits, but they also have very distinct characteristics and cultural landscapes.

What unites these destinations is a newly-energized drive to get beyond tired tropes, venturing past restrictive historical traditions. It's a vision that luxury travel names are helping to cultivate, and major hotel brands are investing heavily in the South. In the last six months, I have visited several high-end, contemporary hotels that have opened across Tennessee and Louisiana, and the Carolinas. They all brandish innovative design and culinary concepts that look to challenge preconceptions and shape the region's future.

JW Marriott Charlotte

Courtesy of JW Marriott Charlotte

The new JW Marriott Charlotte, for instance, stands out downtown as a beautifully-designed, high-end property. Bruce Rohr, JW Marriott's brand leader, is happy about the decision to open here. "Charlotte is a booming hub for culture and commerce in the South," he said. "It's the perfect setting for us to provide an urban retreat."

My hometown of New Orleans also welcomed two big names last year, with new Four Seasons and Virgin hotels. The Four Seasons New Orleans has been a decade in the making and opened in the towering former World Trade Center. It delivers high Four Seasons standards and a striking lobby bar with a showpiece chandelier made from 15,000 crystals. The Virgin Hotel New Orleans has a hipper, curated-vintage aesthetic, with an artisanal coffee stand in the lobby and walls of colorful art.

Though courting different demographics, the city was an attractive choice for both companies. "New Orleans is a great American city," said Cody Bertone, Virgin New Orleans general manager. "The vibe of the city is a reflection of what our brand encompasses." Mali Carow, the Four Seasons New Orleans general manager, added, "There's a vibrancy for people to explore. We want to open up destinations with culture and history for our guests."

In Savannah, Thompson leads the city's geographic expansion, opening last year in a new development outside downtown (easily accessed via a scenic riverside path). Thompson Savannah joins new sister properties in Atlanta and Austin, with Houston on the way. That hotel's general manager Matt Graham said, "Savannah is often focused on tradition. I think 'the New South' is forging a new path in a creative space. Savannah has its beautiful antebellum backdrop, but what is exciting here are the new people and ideas I see every day."

Graham cited the local arts scene as an excellent example of this divergence. "Modern art gallery Laney Contemporary helps us curate a rotating local art program at the hotel," he said. "There's also Rule of Three, Chapel and Cedar House, galleries that are spearheading a new celebration of visual arts in a city that is home to the oldest public art museum in the South."

Holston House

Courtesy of Holston House

In Nashville, new properties are opening, and historic buildings are being revived. A beautiful new W Hotel opened in a fashionable district called The Gulch last year. This year sees a refurbishment of Holston House, located in the Art Deco, 1920s-era James Robertson Hotel, one of the first hotels in Nashville. Shannon Foster, that hotel's general manager, said that the city is on a roll. "Nashville has established itself as an 'It City,' with people moving to the city in droves," she said. "Southern hospitality is a trend for a reason. Friendly faces and warm conversations are the standard."

New arrivals are in agreement. "The popularity of the South is no surprise as it's been building for years," said Carly Van Sickle, senior director of global brand marketing for W Hotels. "Southern destinations are where next-generation luxury travelers can experience local culture, driven by authentic local scenes."

This element of authenticity is a recurring theme. The music, food, and culture of the South's cities are newly valued as people focus on experiential travel. Underlying this is the perceived friendliness and openness of the locals, meaning that these experiences are ultimately more accessible. Hotels are betting that hospitality works here because people in the region want to be hospitable, be that invitations to a crawfish boil, an underground music venue, or an outsider art show. Hotels are trying to tap into these scenes because visitors value them, and they feel that locals are, by and large, welcoming to guests.

Not everyone who visits a city goes to see a band or an art gallery, but everyone needs to eat, and it's initially through culinary experiences that hotels showcase the modern South. An old refrain in the Crescent City goes something like, "New Orleans is a town with a thousand restaurants and five recipes." Things have since changed, and although jambalaya and gumbo are still ubiquitous, chefs are breaking out from their stronghold on their menus.

The Four Seasons New Orleans has a gastronomic pincer movement with beloved local chefs Donald Link and Alon Shaya helming their signature dining rooms. Their creative, "modern Southern'" approach is also touted by Alex Harrell at Virgin New Orleans, Shannon Williams at Holston House, and Oscar La Fuente at JW Marriott Charlotte.

dish at Fleeting

Courtesy of Fleeting

At Fleeting and Bar Julian in Thompson Savannah, Chef Rob Newton summed up an approach echoed in kitchens across the region. "The root of everything we do here is in Southern cuisine, but we're making it our own with global influences that bring a creative edge," he explained. Like many of the chefs listed above, Newton is a native of the South and loves celebrating his roots with a forward-looking ethos. "The culture and the recipes that define Southern cooking have always been a driving force for me, and I love showing people that there is more than one way to interpret a classic dish."

Cuisine is on the front line of how visitors interact with Southern culture, and every hotel is going to great lengths to make sure that they're on a firm footing from the first appetizer. Fresh ingredients need to be backed up by fresh ideas because there are only so many delicious catfish po'boys you can eat. The South is privy to some of the country's best seafood and produce, and kitchens are taking proud traditions to exciting new levels.

There's a saying that people are kind but not nice on the East Coast, and on the West Coast, people are nice but not kind. While it undoubtedly has its pockets of intolerance, I feel like the South is striving to be nice and kind. By connecting visitors to these local experiences, this new generation of hotels is evolving beyond the region's history with a nod to its best traditions.

Hopefully, these hotels will embrace the local culture respectfully and celebrate rather than appropriate. The culture bearers are the people attracting the visitors in the first place, and they need to be well looked after in what are sometimes very delicate financial ecosystems. If those protections are in place, these hotels that are betting on the South, and the guests that arrive to stay in them, should reap the rewards of a dynamic region.