Chattanooga Choo Choo gets on track with new hotel brand

Life House Hotels brings tech-focused management to hotel room revamp

Jon Kinsey and Ann Gray talk about preserving the Chattanooga Choo Choo Terminal Station for the future. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Chattanooga's historic Choo Choo hotel is getting on track with a Silicon Valley-backed hotel management company as it prepares for the biggest revamp of its hotel rooms since the hotel opened in 1972.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo and Terminal Station, which developed nearly a half century ago from the former Southern Railway passenger station on Chattanooga's Southside, has hired the New York-based Life House Hotels to manage and transform the existing 132-room hotel and its collection of luxury Pullman Train Cars.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, who led an investment group that bought the then bankrupt Choo Choo hotel complex in 1989, said Life House will develop plans to revamp the remaining hotel rooms at the Choo Choo into more of a boutique hotel and will bring the company's tech expertise to booking, pricing, staffing and operating the Choo Choo.

Life House Hotels, which began nearly three years ago and is already managing 13 other boutique hotels across the country, will take over management of the Choo Choo in mid March once a new computerized locking system is installed in each of the hotel rooms, Kinsey said.

photo Cornerstone will take over and help restore and preserve the historic dome in the entrance to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. / Contributed photo

"Life House delivers economic results like no one else because of their technology in driving more people to book through its own web sites and its expertise in offering what guests want in unique environments like what is emerging here on the Southside," he said.

A major revamp of the hotel rooms is expected to begin this fall, which Kinsey said "is one of the last steps in our transformation" of the Choo Choo over the past decade.

At its peak, the Choo Choo had 360 rooms and a major convention complex, but the complex has since converted a majority of those rooms to apartments and other facilities, including 500 apartment units and more restaurants, retail shops, bars and other businesses.

The property houses two music venues and a museum holding the world's largest private guitar collection, Songbirds, the iconic comedy club The Comedy Catch and the STIR and Frothy Monkey restaurants. Later this year, the Choo Choo will add Nic and Norman's, the creation of Greg Nicotero and Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead.

"The final piece of redevelopment for the property is the hotel, and we had to make sure our efforts aligned with the numerous tenants that we have curated, the walkable and active Southside neighborhood and the desires of current and future guests," said Adam Kinsey, president of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. "We have given a lot of thought on the right partner and as we discovered, met with and saw first-hand what Life House has been able to produce in such a quick timeline since their launch, we knew we had found the right folks to bring a new boutique hotel experience to Chattanooga."

Life House was founded in 2017 by luxury boutique hotel veterans and has created a new operational model for lifestyle boutique hotels. The company has attracted investments from travel-tech investors, Thayer Ventures, with participation from Tiger Global, JLL Spark, and Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary's Sound Ventures, among others.

Bryan Dunn, head of growth for Life House, said the Choo Choo will be its first property in the Southeast outside of the five boutique hotels it operates in Miami and will be the biggest property for the company to manage so far.

After the revamp, hotel room rates at the Choo Choo which now range from about $130 to $200 a night may edge higher. But Adam Kinsey said "we want to keep the Choo Choo affordable and a part of the great Southside community."

Dunn said Life House has developed technologies to streamline and improve back office functions so workers and managers spend more time engaged in the hospitality part of the hotel.

photo The lobby and front desk area of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which is inside the historic Terminal Station. (Valerie Schremp Hahn/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

"We're in the boutique, independent hotel part of the market and we're not running cookie-cutter hotel brands," Dunn said. "All of our hotels are unique and you feel like you are experiencing something local within the different neighborhoods where we operate."

Dunn said the company is looking at ways to capture both the Southside entertainment appeal of the neighborhood and the nostalgic railroad appeal of the Choo Choo, which still operates 20 rail cars similar to what guests would stay in on long railroad trips.

The 26-acre former rail station where the Choo Choo developed was to be demolished in 1970 once passenger rail service to Chattanooga ended. Developer B. Allen Casey acquired the property and used his Hilton hotel franchise to build a major hotel and convention complex at the railroad station.

Casey later converted the hotel to the Holiday Inn brand before filing for bankruptcy. Kinsey bought the hotel in 1989 and for most of the past decade has operated the hotel with the Historic Hotels of America.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.

photo Cornerstone will take over and help restore and preserve the historic dome in the entrance to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. / Contributed photo