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On a sunny November morning at the White Swan Motel on West Colfax Avenue, owner Lauren Coleman spots a guest in the parking lot and greets her with a warm smile and two simple questions: “How’s it going? Did you sleep OK last night?”
Coleman—owner of the shoppable-Airbnb concept the Sursy—originally set out to transform the once-neglected, 81-year-old motel into her next hospitality venture. The plan was to demolish the run-down structure and build a 30-room luxury hotel with a whiskey bar and a greenhouse. Room rates would hover near $400 a night, and if guests liked the nightstands, bed linens, or wall art in their rooms, they could purchase them through a to-be-developed app or at an on-site retail shop.
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Then, after Coleman had spent years making financial preparations, obtaining zoning approval from Jefferson County, and drafting building plans, the pandemic hit. “I lost all of my funding and investors. Banks were overwhelmed with taking care of existing businesses,” she explains. Despite this setback, she forged ahead. “Luckily, I’m really stubborn. I knew I wanted this property, for better or for worse.”
Coleman decided to temporarily pivot her business concept: Instead of overhauling the property and catering to a luxury clientele, she would open 18 rooms at the existing motel to people experiencing homelessness (via a county-funded housing-assistance program that provides hotel/motel stays to individuals in need).
But first, the guest rooms needed a lot of work. “There was really old, gross carpet; there were needles everywhere, blood stains on the mattresses; some rooms didn’t have running water or electricity,” Coleman says of the motel’s condition when she finally purchased it last August. Now outfitted with fresh paint, donated mattresses, clean linens, and secondhand furnishings—a style Coleman calls “thrift-store fabulous”—the accommodations are, she says, “clean and safe.”
Throughout the arduous process, Coleman has uncovered a passion for pursuing humanitarian work and providing lodging for those at both ends of the financial spectrum. “My original vision will come to life on this property, but now the ‘Yes, and…’ is that I also want to buy a homeless shelter that our luxury hospitality concept funds,” she says.
Because to Coleman, everyone is deserving of a warm smile and a good night’s sleep. “This isn’t the Marriott; we don’t have room service,” she says. “But it’s still hospitality. We’re going to make sure guests get settled into their rooms and we’re going to offer them fresh towels. It’s not rocket science; it’s just treating people like real humans.”