Meet the Husband-and-Wife Team Behind Philly’s Coolest Hotels
With a love of tech, Airbnb and high design, Chad and Courtney Ludeman are reinventing the Philly hotel.
On the first week of January in downtown Cape May, the only signs of life are seagulls and construction crews. Workers swarm the windows of Uncle Bill’s Pancake House and the colonnades of Congress Hall. Four out of six cars parked on Jackson Street, home to hotels like the Caroll Villa and Virginia, are Ford pickups branded with phone numbers for landscapers, plumbers and painters. Even in Cape May, which draws visitors year-round, this is one of the slowest weeks of the year. For Chad Ludeman, it’s crawling.
He knew — and was advised — that things down here move on Shore Time. “I set a very slow pace for this project, twice as slow as Philly,” says Chad, 39. He glances to the right, making eye contact with his $1.8 million bugaboo, a plywood-clad chrysalis halfway through transformation from dilapidated flophouse to luxury-lite
Lokal Hotel — the fourth hospitality project from Chad and his business partner and wife, Courtney Ludeman, 40. “When I told the schedule to everyone here, from the attorney to the architect, they all said it was really aggressive. Now I’m seeing why.”
Chad pushes through an opening in the chain-link fence into what will become the hotel’s lushly landscaped backyard. He points out where the lounger-lined pool will be, the wood-fired pizza oven. Later tonight, he’ll head to a zoning hearing to determine whether he’ll have to pave his planned paradise and put up a parking lot. “Just like in Philly, everything is about parking here,” he says. “They’re having us do extra parking for on-site staff that doesn’t exist.”
Like the Ludemans’ other Lokal properties, Lokal Cape May will run on “invisible service.” There’s no front desk, no room service, and no one to make your bed each day. Everything happens behind the scenes, assisted by in-room, preprogrammed iPads through which guests can order delivery meals, access the hotel guidebook, and, if necessary, contact members of the staff, who are off-site. In terms of a math equation, the Lokal model = the spaciousness and style of a great Airbnb + the amenities of an upscale hotel (fluffy towels, steal-able Duross & Langel toiletries) – tedious IRL interactions with strangers. (If you’re feeling sentimental about technology robbing us of human contact, please see the check-in line at the Borgata.) This isn’t just a boutique thing. The hotel industry writ large is moving in this direction through a mix of robotics, biometrics, and communication technology. These efforts range from business as usual, like checking in via a hotel app, to more futuristic, like the bilingual robot that delivers luggage and turkey clubs at the Sheraton San Gabriel Valley.
Located on the beach block of Stockton Place, Lokal will be one of several new Cape May sleeps this summer. The cottages at Cape Resorts’ beautiful Beach Plum Farm will see their first full season. The Boarding House, a DAS Architects renovation of an old motel, just opened with a vintage surf motif and a pet-friendly policy. La Mer Beachfront Inn has 21 new rooms atop its renovated restaurant. To put it another way: “The Victorian themes and lace-doily tablecloths of the B&B movement no longer cut it,” says Jack Wright, publisher of Exit Zero magazine and general man-about-town.
“When we started this project,” says Chad, “we were meeting people who loved Cape May but didn’t love where they stayed — and also people who had never heard of Cape May.” That can be a head-scratcher if you’re from a family that sojourns each summer to Brigantine or Margate or the Crest, but “down the Shore” can be an abstract concept for new Philadelphians who’ve moved here from other parts of the country and world.
Nearly 20 years ago, Chad was one of them. “I grew up in Alabama and my grandparents were in Florida, so my impression of the beach is white sand and the Gulf,” he says. After he moved to Philly, a friend took him to Ocean City, where “the sand was brown, and it was 100 yards to the water. That’s not a beach.” Still, Chad and Courtney began going to Cape May for their anniversary every June, staying longer each year until “we really fell in love with it.”
Back on Stockton Street, Chad looks up at the under-construction facade. Four sets of French doors line the front like great glass teeth. Eventually, they’ll open onto a grand front porch in the Cape May tradition. Because downtown Cape May is designated a historic district, the city won’t issue permits for full demolition. In Lokal’s case, the existing 5,000-square-foot property takes up less than half the 13,000-square-foot lot. Chad and Courtney could have put on more floors or built additions. Instead, Chad says, “We decided to limit the density, to give the town the parking they wanted and maintain the existing scale.” The wind swirls across the steely ocean and up the street, and Chad’s eyebrows retreat into his wool beanie. “We’ve got to rush to get open before summer,” he says. “If we open in the fall, it’s so much income to give up.”
Tourism in Philly is on a seven-year upswing. In 2017, the city saw 43.8 million North American visitors and nearly 650,000 overseas visitors, and Center City hotels averaged a 90 percent occupancy rate on Saturday nights. “The numbers are one of the reasons we’re seeing another hotel renaissance in Philadelphia, with more than 2,000 rooms coming online in the next 12 to 18 months,” reports Jeff Guaracino, president and CEO of VisitPhilly. Five new properties are opening this year, the splashiest of which is the new Four Seasons at the top of Comcast Technology Center, with four more debuts slated for 2020, including the long-in-the-works W and the new Live casino-hotel in South Philly.
This is great news, considering that our hotel stock has long lagged behind that of cities of comparable size, but we’re still lacking when it comes to independent and boutique properties on the vanguard of design, technology and, frankly, coolness. The suites above Wm. Mulherin & Sons in Fishtown were the first to deliver that style, but the Lokal brand is Philly’s best chance for bringing us into the modern hotel era. Given the Ludemans’ strategic neighborhood locations and invisible-service model, Guaracino notes, “They created a new category for the industry.”
Chad and Courtney didn’t intend to. In addition to Alabama, Chad grew up in South Carolina and upstate New York. Courtney was born in Levittown but spent most of her life in Homer City, a two-bit town in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. They met in college outside Pittsburgh, married, and moved to Philly in 2001. Courtney worked at the stock exchange, then as a realtor. Chad was an efficiency expert at Metrologic Instruments — “The guy,” Courtney laughs, “who would time people in the assembly line to be like, ‘It’s faster if your pen is here vs. here.’”
Chad was about to go for his MBA when he realized he wanted out of corporate America. “I bought literally 200 books on starting a business,” he says, and became engrossed in the topic of green building. At the time, applying green tech to residential real estate was seen as something for the mega-rich. “He thought there was a way to do it affordably on a smaller scale; you just had to do it efficiently,” Courtney says. “He started a blog about it, and that’s when he was like, ‘I want to do this.’” Chad quit his job, and he and Courtney launched Postgreen Homes.
Two weeks later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.
It was not an auspicious time to get into real estate, but the slow start gave them time to develop a strong niche: energy-efficient starter homes that emphasized smart design over square footage. They spent their life savings on two lots in East Kensington, built two homes, and moved into one. “We don’t come from wealthy families, and we didn’t have a network of investors,” Courtney says. “We had to do it all ourselves.”
Two Postgreen homes led to four led to six led to, after a decade, about 75 spread through Kensington, Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Francisville. “For 10 years, I took every single meeting, no matter what it was or who would ask,” says Chad. It was an effective, human-scale strategy for selling homes and connecting with investors. “I would meet people for coffee for half an hour or an hour during the day. Then we put our kids to bed, and what I called my second shift would start at eight and sometimes go till two — on a Tuesday.”
The couple were eventually ready to shift into a lower gear; their sons, Teague, now nine, and Ryker, seven, were getting older. They’re avid travelers with persnickety tastes, and hospitality interested them, too. “Anytime we rented a vacation house or an Airbnb, we were taking notes on what we would do differently,” Chad says. “We had this weird idea: What if we did an apartment-style hotel for people who like to travel the way we do?”
The brand mission for Lokal began to emerge: hands-off service, high design, tech integration, connection to place, space for a family. They bought and renovated a rotted four-story building on North 3rd Street in Old City and hired another husband-and-wife duo, Tara Mangini and Percy Bright of Jersey Ice Cream Co., to outfit six studios in royal blue cabinetry, butterscotch leather seating, brass-plated hardware, and frosted-glass room dividers made from reclaimed factory windows. “All through Postgreen, we worked with small, local architects, and we’re doing the same thing with designers for Lokal,” Chad says. “It’s nice to help a growing team get to the next level.” Each hotel has a different designer. Fishtown was the first interior design project for Tattoo Studio and branding agency True Hand Society. Kate Rohrer, whose portfolio at Rohe Creative includes Cheu Fishtown and Bud & Marilyn’s, is doing Cape May.
The amenities found in Lokal rooms can be divided into three categories: logistical (full kitchens, washer/dryers), technological (AppleTVs, Sonos Soundbars) and artisanal (Rival Bros. coffee, drink carts curated by Art in the Age). Together, it’s a perfect storm of convenience and millennial cred. Lindsey Tramuta, a native Philadelphian who lives in Paris, is one of the Ludemans’ ideal millennial customers. She stayed at Lokal Old City shortly after it opened in April 2017 when she was in town promoting her book, The New Paris. When deciding where to stay, “This was the one concept that spoke to me,” she says. “I’m spoiled for choices in Paris, but even here, we don’t have anything exactly like the Lokal. It feels like it could fit in in Berlin or Amsterdam or another hip city.”
Propelled by word of mouth and an active social media presence, the hotel took off, and Chad and Courtney had proof-of-concept. In the following nine months, they acquired two condemned rowhomes on North Front Street in Fishtown for the second Lokal; turned a ramshackle cabin in the southwest Jersey woods into the Dwell-porn hideaway Lokal A-Frame; bought the real estate for Lokal Cape May; and transitioned Postgreen Homes into a consulting business. If this schedule sounds counterintuitive to a plan for a lower-stress lifestyle, it was, but the family got a major readjustment when they relocated from Fishtown to the Shore permanently last June. “One day,” Chad says, “Teague was like, ‘Hey, we’re always happier when we’re in Cape May. Why don’t we just live here?’”
They bought an old farmhouse in Cold Springs, a historic area on the north side of the Cape May Canal, and, true to form, began making improvements. They replaced a third of the lawn with a native perennial meadow. They painted ZERO across the side of the existing shed, a tribute to Cape May’s Parkway exit, and hung a basketball net over the O. They restored a 1992 Bronco, which will be available for Lokal Cape May guests to rent this summer. Teague and Ryker — apples fallen not far from the tree — remodeled 90 percent of their own bedroom.
“I’m probably going to get something in my coffee — don’t judge me,” Courtney says. The barista at Tommy’s Folly, the mint-chip-colored cafe at Congress Hall, pours a slug of Bailey’s into a cup of La Colombe and hands it to her. It’s a late-February morning, six weeks after the site-plan hearing. Everything has gone well, the final permits are arriving the following day, and Courtney and Chad are headed out of town for their first vacation without the kids in a year.
She settles into an oversize brown sofa in the lobby. “It’s stressful to work with your partner,” she acknowledges, “but I said to Chad the other day, I feel like if we were in Philly, we’d be fighting way more. Moving to the Shore has improved our quality of life. If we’re having a bad day, we can just take a break and go for a walk or sit outside or take the kids to the beach.”
“It sounds like you’re making a case for moving to the suburbs,” Chad says, appearing in the lobby. He’s just come from the hotel, where the general contractor is overseeing the carpenters putting up the decks. Framing is done, and the electric and plumbing are roughed in. Over the next months, showers will be tiled, flowers planted, board games loaded into a lobby credenza, beach kits assembled with wagons and Lokal-branded Yeti coolers, all in time for the first guests in June.
“It’s a very difficult and maybe not necessarily logical business mode — that we’re building very small, very expensively furnished and designed places that don’t have a cash cow in food and beverage,” says Chad, not to mention the other amenities hotels rely on for ancillary profits. “But it’s working, and there’s enough profit there for what we need to do and what our investors want.” Lokal occupancy rates in Old City are 80 percent, just above the overall average rate for Center City hotels (79.6 percent), and a staggering 98 percent at the A-Frame. As in any business, success foments pressure to expand, accelerate, franchise. “But that could hurt the brand. We really don’t want to do a 50-unit place. It won’t feel the same.”
“I’d like to get Cape May open and just make sure we know what we’re doing,” Courtney says, eyeing Chad. “He’s supposed to be taking a sabbatical starting in June.”
“I’m supposed to not buy anything for a year.”
Does Courtney think he’ll stick to that plan? “I don’t.” She laughs and takes a sip of her coffee. “But he’s not a signer on the checking account.”
I wonder if she saw Chad’s Instagram Stories from nearby Reeds Beach yesterday. On a video of him cruising down a long wooded driveway was the caption: “Vacation home shopping for @stay_lokal today.”
Published as “Get A Room!” in the May 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.