Rising during the past year, the new Hilton Garden Inn and Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse in Prairie Lakes are about 85 percent complete, according to Christopher Scheel, the chief operating executive for the new Sun Prairie Hilton Garden Inn.
A late August opening is anticipated, even though reservations are not being accepted on the company’s website, according to Scheel. “We’re on track for that right now, depending on weather — that’s been a little bit of a hindrance right now for us,” Scheel added.
A recent tour of the hotel showed off a state-of-the-art heating ventilation and air conditioning system that uses geothermal technology to heat and cool each room without a wall unit clunking on and blowing hot or cold air. “It’s a great savings, but even more important to the owners, is the guest experience,” Scheel said, adding that one of the owners said he would never build again with individual wall units. “It’s so much nicer and so much quieter,” Scheel added, “and the guests love it.”
No site challenges have hindered construction. “The city’s been great to work with, the developers of Prairie Lakes have been great to work with,” Scheel said. “The only challenges I’ve been aware of from a construction standpoint have been just the weather.”
Very little about the Sun Prairie Hilton Garden Inn is a “typical build,” as Scheel calls it. Chandeliers in the lobby, an “art room” off to the side of the lobby, and a geothermal heating ventilation and air conditioning system are just some of the extra touches.
“The owners, Kim and Mike Whalen, that’s something they’re intimately involved with, especially the finishes. You look up and and you can see something that’s not typical of a Hilton Garden Inn — a chandelier with mirrors all over or the large entry way. We have an art room . . . tile throughout — it’s much more of an upscale property than you’re going to find at the typical Hilton [Garden Inn],” Scheel said. “In fact, Heart of America, when they build projects, really tries to go above and beyond the brands — tries to push the brands to get outside of their box to be unique and better. So Sun Prairie’s going to be very, very happy with this product when it opens.”
The breakfast area will “have more of a Johnny’s feel to it than a typical Garden Inn,” Scheel said. Johnny’s currently has a foothold in the state with two existing locations in Eau Claire and Middleton. Kickstarting a development push by Heart of America Group — which also owns the Sun Prairie Hilton Garden Inn — is its anticipate August opening in Sun Prairie. The growing restaurant franchise has a goal of bringing five additional locations to the area during the next three years.
Johnny’s has seen proven success throughout Wisconsin and is able to provide a high level of franchisee support within the state. Target development markets include Racine, Kenosha, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Janesville and Sheboygan. The company aims to add five locations in these markets within the next three years — folding into the brand’s overall expansion efforts as it plans to award 24 total units by 2020.
A press release from the company describes Johnny’s as “paying homage to classic Rat Pack supper clubs” with decadent dishes, timeless tunes wrapped in a stylish 1940s ambiance highlighted by Johnny’s trademark Blue Bar, a dynamic social environment where conversation and handcrafted cocktails are curated by specially trained Bootleggers who want guests leaving their cell phones in their pockets.
“The blue lights above that are famous in the Johnny’s Blue Bar are in, they just don’t have them on yet,” Scheel said. Tile and booths are already in place, but one unique feature of the bar will be a outdoor covered patio with a fireplace and some elevated seating in the back.
“As you well know, people in Wisconsin like to get outside by March when it’s 40 degrees and stay there until it’s 45 in November,” Scheel said. “I think this will be widely used as far as people being able to sit outside. There will be music out there and heaters for guests if it gets a little chilly.”
A small boardroom is also available separate from the main space at Johnny’s in addition to the meeting rooms in the hotel, Scheel added.
“We are beyond excited to expand the Johnny’s brand footprint in Wisconsin,” said Mike Whalen, who is also CEO of Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse. “Through smart, strategic growth and finding the right franchisees to partner with, we know we will continue to see success and positive results in the area.”
Four decades of experience with restaurants has resulted in a large kitchen back-of-house area at Johnny’s, which will also service the hotel’s room service and catering clients. Heart of America Group began with the Machine Shed restaurants, which have grown into their own chain, and continued with Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse.
Scheel said the Hilton Garden Inn is termed a “focused service” property in the Hilton chain, but it is essentially a full service property with room service, bar, restaurant, almost 10,000 square feet of meeting space as well as function and pre-function space.
The entire building is constructed with ICF, or insulated concrete forms, and Spancrete. “It’s going to be extremely quiet, extremely energy-efficient . . . and you get a great R-value and with the geothermal, it’s really going to have a small [energy] footprint,” Scheel said.
The front desk will have a Pavilion Pantry store for sundries that guests need, but have an added potential for being selling items from local businesses, such as the Chocolatier in downtown Sun Prairie, or Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus. “Anything that’s unique to the area,” Scheel said, “we have the freedom to [sell] that . . . it’s a much broader experience than ‘grab a bag of chips because the restaurant’s closed’ so the guests should enjoy that.”
Hallman Lindsay Paints are also featured throughout the hotel, and Scheel said other local tradespeople were hired to work in the hotel. And even though he is from DeForest, Scheel said three Sun Prairie residents are already on staff — the director of sales, director of housekeeping and executive chef — all of whom worked outside of Sun Prairie before, but are now coming to Sun Prairie to work at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Most of the guest rooms and the shared spaces — such as the larger workout room and pool/spa area as well as the meeting rooms — feature floor-to-ceiling windows, which is not typical of most mid-range hotels, Scheel said. The result is more natural light, he said, and a better guest experience.
A standard room has a king or two queen beds — 64 double queens and 60 kings — Scheel said. Other room types include a suite — similar to the Embassy Suites “shotgun suite” where guests enter a seating area and bypass the bathroom and larger closet to get to the sleeping area — and one very large executive suite. The executive suite is the size of two rooms and usually something offered to a bridal party or honeymooning couple.
“I would say our company makes a conscious decision to exceed the expectation of both the franchise and the guests,” Scheel said, adding that Mike and Kim Whalen develop quality properties for Heart of America Group. “This organization builds to own [hotels] for a long time.”
The Hilton Garden Inn features three meeting rooms, with the smallest meeting room, The Cardinal Room, capable of hosting roughly 40-46 people classroom style. The largest room, known as The Grand Room, could seat approximately 260 people for a wedding reception and can be split into an A or B rooms for smaller functions. The medium sized room is The Prairie Room, which can also be subdivided.
“I just love the look,” Scheel said. “It’s just a beautiful room. People come and see it . . . they just love the space.” Soothing colors and the surrounding landscape, as well as the ability to have no outside noise, are also attractions for having meetings in the new rooms. And Scheel said having Prairie Lakes nearby — with Starbucks, unique shops like Splurge and Apple Wellness, restaurants like Monk’s and The Tipsy Cow, and large stores like Cabela’s and Costco — are going to be amenities to enhance the guest experience.
All meeting rooms have built-in, state-of-the-art audio-video equipment including Klipsch speakers, drop-down projection screens, and LCD TVs. Among the first events the new Hilton Garden Inn will host will be the Sun Prairie Education Foundation’s “Keys to the Future” event in October, Scheel said, and even baseball card shows.
As for conference business, Scheel said the hotel’s ideally sized group has fewer than 250 people in order to accommodate them. He said he believes the hotel’s niche is going to be working with groups 200-250 people in size, but could be as large as 280 classroom-style. The new hotel is already working closely with QBE Insurance of Sun Prairie and American Family Insurance just down the road in Madison to book rooms, meetings and conferences. “To have that much meeting space, and quality meeting space, it’s going to be in high demand. And we’re going to enhance that guest experience with service, food, and everything as we go forward,” Scheel said. “And that’s going to be the fun part.”