Camas Hotel gets new owner, new vision

Brendan Lee is tapping into young, tech-savvy guests for historic downtown inn

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Guests carry their bags into the Camas Hotel on a sunny August afternoon.

Want to know how a business is resonating with the under-40 crowd? Just check its Instagram account.

In the weeks before Brendan Lee took over as owner of the Camas Hotel, the historic downtown Camas inn’s Instagram account was garnering around 10 “likes” per post, with no more than two comments.

On Aug. 27, Lee posted a photo of a woman and her dog relaxing at the Camas Hotel.

“Do you know somebody out there in the world who hasn’t stayed with us before, but would love it? @ tag them and tell us (what) they’d love about Camas and we will choose somebody this week for a night’s stay on us!” Lee wrote beneath the photo.

Within a few days, that post had earned the 32-year-old Camas Hotel owner 171 “likes” and 45 comments. What’s more, Lee said, opening the post’s data details, that one photo reached nearly 2,000 people who had never seen the Camas Hotel account.

“I’m already making little changes,” Lee told the Post-Record on Aug. 29, just one week after he purchased the boutique hotel, located in the heart of downtown Camas at 405 N.E. Fourth Ave., from former owners Terri and Dave Sauer. “Social media is such an important part of this business. Especially Instagram. That’s what younger people — people who are traveling and spending more money — use. Most younger people, even those in their 30s, have never had a Facebook (account). They use Instagram.”

At 32, Lee is technically one of those “younger people,” but he has the business experience and acumen of a much older man.

When he was 21 years old, Lee took $20,000 to South Korea and started a clothing line geared toward K-pop (Korean pop) music fans. He gained a K-pop fan following and learned the importance of marketing his business on social media sites. Three years later, a Chinese company purchased his clothing line, and Lee moved back to the Pacific Northwest.

Although he lived for a brief time in Los Angeles as a child, Lee spent most of his formative years in the Seattle area. At 23, he decided to invest the money from his clothing line sale in a Seattle-area motel.

“I went into that business having to learn about motel (ownership) on my own,” Lee said.

Five years later, Lee sold the motel and moved on to a bigger investment — a Best Western franchise in northern Washington.

When he decided to sell the franchise hotel in February, Lee realized he would have to invest his profits in another business within six months or risk being heavily taxed.

He liked being in the lodging business, but this time, he said, he had his eye on buying a boutique hotel.

The Camas Hotel was the third boutique inn Lee found, and he closed the deal with the Sauers about 30 minutes before his “1031 exchange” deadline. Had the deal gone through 31 minutes later, Lee said, he would have owned the hotel and still had to pay costly capital gains taxes.

“I was so nervous,” he said, laughing at the memory of the day everyone signed the sales agreement. “But I love it here. It seems like people here really like to help each other.”

That sense of community appeals to Lee, who comes from a tight-knit family of restaurateurs.

“I’m more of a humble person,” the new Camas Hotel owner said. “I donate a lot of my money. My fiance — we’re getting married next year — is very Christian and she donates about 10 percent of her income to charity.”

Lee also appreciates being part of a religious network, and said he will soon join a Camas-area church.

“I’ve thought about maybe joining the church that is down here. They seem very involved with the community,” Lee said, referring to Journey Church, a frequent participant in the Downtown Camas Association’s holiday and First Friday events, which is located just a few blocks away from the Camas Hotel.

Although he is still getting settled in his new home and at his new business, Lee is already filled with ideas for the hotel.

“I’ve been getting ideas from other boutique hotels … seeing what they do, what works,” Lee said, showing a photo of a southern California hotel that has used mural artists to create “Instagramable” murals on its outside walls to attract younger travelers.

Lee said he loves that idea and can visualize something similar on the blank walls of the Camas Hotel, if he could get city approval. He’s already strengthening the hotel’s partnership with its existing restaurant, Tommy O’s, and said he loves that the hotel’s former owners created strong bonds with other downtown Camas businesses.

“You can’t grow if the other businesses (around you) aren’t growing,” Lee said.

To strengthen his hotel’s social media presence, Lee is already reaching out to “influencers” who come with a built-in following from their Instagram and Twitter sites. In fact, the post that earned the Camas Hotel nearly 200 “likes” in August was shot by an Instagram photographer who has nearly 24,000 followers of her own.

“I’m making changes, but some things will be the same,” Lee said. One example is the fact that, while he plans to bring his longtime general manager, Chris Lee, to Camas to help him run the hotel, Lee also plans to keep the hotel’s existing assistant manager and other staffers.

Folks may even see the new owner working the front desk every now and then.

“I’ve been so busy, but I want to get out there and start meeting people in Camas,” Lee said.

The historic Camas Hotel, built in the early 1900s, boasts 24 rooms, a manager’s apartment and two retail spaces. Currently, Tommy O’s and Allure Boutique are leasing those spaces.

In 2016, the Sauers purchased the hotel for $2.31 million from Karen and Tom Hall, who had owned the property since 2008 at that point and had invested about $800,000 into the hotel.

Prior to the Halls, Thomas Dean and Patricia Wallace had owned the hotel for more than 35 years.

The Downtown Camas Association hosted a celebration at Salud Wine Bar on Sept. 5 to thank the Sauers for their contributions to the downtown Camas business district over the past three years.