Marriage of ideas

When Dean Andrews opened Zero George hotel earlier this year with wife Lynn Easton, she took it as an opportunity to expand her event company to the Lowcountry.

In 1998, she established Easton Events in Charlottesville, Va., where she lives with Andrews.

In addition to weddings, she specializes in corporate events such as private executive retreats.

Since opening an office in Charleston, Easton has seen a greater demand for wedding services, she said.

"A lot of brides are coming here from across the Southeast, and it's a bonus that they can stay here (at Zero George) while they're in town," she said. "It seemed to make sense to have an office here to facilitate their needs."

Easton says she somewhat stumbled into event planning. She left a career in TV production with national networks such as ABC, CNN and NBC in the late 1990s. It was around the time that her friend was getting married, so she offered to help plan the wedding.

"I thought, 'I've worked in live TV, how hard could it be to plan a wedding?' " She then laughed. "Now I know."

Zero George may be one of the smallest hotels in the city - it's a collection of five historic houses at George and East Bay streets offering just 17 guest rooms - but it perhaps mirrors what Charleston's tourism appeal is all about: That sometimes, endearing places come in small packages.

Established in February by Dean Andrews and wife Lynn Easton, Zero George, one of the city's first boutique hotels, has been a springboard for the duo's new ideas about Southern hospitality. And while the small operation is certainly a break from tradition for Andrews, who has established resorts and restaurants all over the world, it's offered a chance to reconnect with a city he fell in love with nearly 30 years ago.

Andrews moved to Charleston in the mid-1980s to help establish what was then known as the Omni at Charleston Place, one of the first installments of the city's plan to revitalize the downtown area. The 440-room hotel remains the city's largest.

He was managing director of the property for 16 years. Its owners sold part of it in 1995 to Orient-Express Hotels, which still manages it. Afterward, he became director of North American operations for the company and served in other roles. In 2000, he moved to New York City to help take Orient-Express public.

He had a career establishing resorts in Central America, and revitalizing restaurants such as New York's Rainbow Room. By the end of his stint with Orient-Express in 2008, he had expanded its lodging operations fivefold, to 55 hotels.

But Andrews said he was always eager to get back to the Lowcountry, where he saw so much tourism potential.

"When I came here, it felt like all of the basics were so strong," he said. "You've got wonderful unspoiled beaches, wonderful art and architecture. This was fairly early on when you could feel that exciting energy."

He left the corporate world with an arsenal of tourism insight to pursue independent projects with Easton. The couple established their first boutique operation, Pippin Hill Farm wine vineyard in Charlottesville, Va., and decided they wanted to launch another small-scale project in Charleston.

On a visit to the city last year, a real estate agent and Andrews' friend gave them a tour of the former Maison du Pre Inn at East Bay and George streets, and the couple were struck with inspiration.

"We walked through it, and decided it was a good opportunity to come up with an adaptive reuse of it. We wanted to make it a contemporary boutique hotel and not bring it back as an inn or a (bed-and-breakfast)," Andrews said.

They bought it for $3.2 million and did extensive renovations to the property over the next nine months.

Today, the five historic buildings, some of which date back to 1805, are adjoined by a brick courtyard lined with flower beds and fountains. The main structure was originally a kitchen carriage house, a fact now highlighted by its bistro-style cafe and an instructional kitchen, where guests can take cooking classes.

Although the architecture is dripping with history, Zero George maintains a contemporary motif with simple, updated decor.

"We were definitely going for a style that felt like a modern, chic Charleston," Easton said. "I think when people travel, they're out and about, and they want to come home to something soothing."

Andrews said its boutique style reflects an emerging trend in the hospitality industry.

"The new hot and happening hotels are all independent boutique hotels. That's where the industry is going," he said. "The power of the chains is dropping off dramatically. ... Younger, affluent travelers really want to stay at a destination that reflects where they are."

He might be right, if the accolades given to Zero George are any indication. The hotel was named one of the top 60 hotels in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine in June, and it was rated the third best new hotel in the Unites States on the travel website TripAdvisor.

Andrews and Easton are riding that success wave into another project in Charleston.

The couple are partnering with Anne Bowen, owner of Stems, on a renovation of the former Eye Level Art warehouse at 103 Spring St. The property will house a 75-seat Mediterranean cafe and a courtyard for hosting events. Construction should wrap up in August.

Andrews said he's also looking at opening another small hotel, with about 70 to 80 rooms, in downtown Charleston.

Although he has headed many projects over the course of his 30-year career in tourism, Andrews' excitement about bringing his ideas to Charleston, what he calls "new Charleston," is unmistakable.

"I'm a huge believer in this city," he said. "Today, Charleston is more vibrant than it's ever been."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail