Denver rides airport hotel trend, builds $580M Westin

Chicago O'Hare International Airport has one, and so does Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Orlando International Airport. There are also two at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, while Frankfurt Airport has three.

Now, Denver has one of its own — an airport with an on-site hotel, that is. The 519-room Westin at Denver International Airport is open for business, with the city now joining the ranks of travel hubs that can send travelers to their destinations, or put them up for the night in style.

The city- and county-owned airport spent at least $580 million to build the hotel (Denver owns it, while Westin manages it), an adjacent public plaza and a commuter rail station that will begin operation in April. It's part of a trend of cities that are looking to make airports less transitory.

The swooping, sleek Gensler-designed Westin is adjacent to the city's iconic tented main terminal, which sits 25 miles from the city center. The hotel walls are all glass, and the top-story pool and fitness center offer views of the Rocky Mountains. There's public art inside and out, a conference center, and welcoming places to eat or have a drink. At some point, an airport security checkpoint with 20 lanes will open in the building.

'Economic powerhouse'

While the Denver Westin will certainly offer a convenient landing spot for business and leisure travelers, airport and city officials are confident it will be much more than that. In fact, they're banking on it.

These new amenities "are the first steps toward leveraging [the airport] as an economic powerhouse that will create tens of thousands of new jobs and bring more business opportunity to Metro Denver," Mayor Michael B. Hancock said at last week's ribbon-cutting for the hotel's opening.

Cities across the nation are moving to take advantage of the movement to transform airports into makeshift resorts. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $4 billion plan announced earlier this year for LaGuardia Airport contains an option to create a hotel.

Cuomo also announced that the empty Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport would be transformed into the $250 million TWA Flight Center Hotel.

Denver International Airport Westin Hotel
Source: Denver International Airport
Denver International Airport Westin Hotel

Hancock told CNBC that when he joins airport officials at international marketing events "we hear that international passengers expect a quality hotel and a train connection to downtown" at the airport. "Having these things helps us compete as an airport and as a city on an international scale," he said.

There's another upside to having this high-profile hotel on airport property.

"Right out of the box this is going to generate money for us — nonaeronautical revenue. We estimate a million to 2 million a year starting next year," said the airport's CEO, Kim Day. "That helps keep the costs to air carriers low and incentivizes them to add more flights."

A hotel (and a train station) were included in the original plans for the airport, which opened in 1995. But, over the years, attempts at getting the hotel project going were repeatedly thwarted. First, it was the downturn in air traffic after 9/11. Later, it was the economic recession, Day told CNBC.

While he's looking forward to spending a night at what he describes as "one of the most interesting-looking hotels I've seen in a long time," business travel expert Joe Brancatelli keeps wondering why it took the airport so long to make the hotel happen.

"Does Denver airport need a quality hotel? Of course it does," said Brancatelli. "Will this one change the competitive balance of airports around the country? Absolutely not. The big win here that an important airport with a relatively large number of international flights finally has a hotel."

— Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.