BENTONVILLE, Ark. — On a windy, gray day in November, a bus pulls up outside the 21c Museum Hotel, and a group gets off, sorts luggage and trundles into the unorthodox lobby alongside a "family" made from found clothing.
These aren't typical business travelers but art enthusiasts on an excursion to the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which drew 1 million visitors in its first 21 months.
Such tours have drawn a number of people to Northwest Arkansas, and the hotel fits right into their package tour, with eclectic pieces on display from the collection of hotel founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson of Louisville.
Lexington is scheduled to get a 21c Museum Hotel sometime in the next year, and it probably will become a significant addition to the cultural, as well as economic, landscape downtown.
A visit to the Arkansas version gives a glimpse of what a museum hotel does for a small town.
Like the 21c hotels in Louisville and Cincinnati, the 104-room Bentonville version is upscale and boutique, but the amenities are hardly the only drawing card.
"We are a museum first, who happens to have a hotel inside," said hotel general manager Emmanuel Gardinier. "Our front desk doesn't look like a typical front desk. Our lobbies don't look like lobbies. We really want to give a different experience to the people who come because it is important for them to have something new, something different."
Gardinier said some of the art pieces at 21c are permanent; other exhibits change once or twice a year so there is always something different to see. The current exhibit on Cuba, which features the clothing family, will be swapped out sometime this winter.
"We want to be a center of culture and art," Gardinier said. "We're one of the few museums in the world where you can go to a bar and grab a drink and enjoy the art. Maybe enjoy the art a little more because of it."
Many people do just stroll in and have a good look around. To engage community involvement, the hotel has free guided tours in the evenings and events such as Yoga With the Art on Saturdays.
Event spaces also double as galleries; imagine booking a meeting into a space with bright plastic animal heads on the walls peering down, as if they were watching your PowerPoint presentation.
"Art is what drives us," Gardinier said. "Our typical guests are very eclectic. We have businessmen, young professionals, older people, museum tours, we have families. ... We cater to every size and shape of guest. And the fact we are open 24/7 for free is a big draw for local people. ... It's a very different way to experience the art, as well. We try to make it much more approachable."
The hotel restaurant, The Hive, is also working to establish itself on the culinary scene, with local produce and meats — served under more animal art, this time made of recycled materials, such as the moose built of blue jeans and shoes.
All the 21c hotels have penguins as their mascots, with each city's outpost a different color. In Bentonville, the penguins are green, and they pop up in surprising places, such as next to your dinner table or in the elevator.
"We really make it fun," Gardinier said. "It is a very different approach to art."
That whimsy extends to the hotel space. In rooms, door stops are plaster roller skates, and accent pillows depict animals from Wilson and Brown's Kentucky farm, Gardinier said.
In the hotel's gym, hovering over the traditional exercise equipment is the sculpture Fat Bat, a version of Batman who hasn't done a sit-up in years.
It might seem like a given that an art-themed hotel would be a hit in a town with a major new American art museum.
But Gardinier said his team had to work against several factors: Traditional business travelers, drawn to Bentonville by Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters, are weekday visitors and want to stay in hotels where they can maximize reward points; as an independent hotel, not part of a chain, 21c doesn't offer those points.
"The market was very challenging," he said. "Funny enough, now we're a destination. The local hotels see their lowest occupancy on weekends. That's our highest occupancy."
Just off Bentonville's renovated courthouse square, the hotel has helped to increase foot traffic to nearby restaurants and shops.
Lindsay Roberson, owner of Blue Moon Market on Main Street, said her shop, which sells clothing, jewelry and home décor, is heavily dependent on tourist trade.
"We definitely are a tourist town now, since Crystal Bridges and the hotel opened," Roberson said. "The biggest thing has been Crystal Bridges. But the hotel has brought more people to stay downtown. Before we didn't have any place for people to stay. ... People want to see the (original Sam Walton) Five & Dime, 21c and Crystal Bridges."
The Bentonville 21c Museum Hotel, which opened in early 2013, was the first boutique hotel in the market, he said.
But it has quickly built a reputation for comfort. Gardinier said 21c advertised ahead of the annual Bike, Blues and BBQ motorcycle rally in September in nearby Fayetteville. But instead of attracting bikers, it got lots of Fayetteville residents looking for a weekend getaway.
"Next year we'll know," he said, "and we'll target the locals."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.