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Modernization : Grand Resorts Fight to Stay Young, Viable

February 23, 1988|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Robert Conte, a transplanted Californian who is the official historian of the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., views San Diego's 100-year-old Hotel Del Coronado as "the quintessential fanciful hotel."

"I would just hate to see that building go," said Conte, who has spent the past nine years chronicling the 210-year-old Greenbrier. "It's just a very unique and special place."

But 30 years ago, the Victorian-style, ocean-front Del Coronado seemed unlikely to survive long enough to celebrate the star-studded centennial bash that was held this past weekend.

When current owner M. Larry Lawrence and his wife, Jeanne, purchased the Del--as it is widely known--in 1963, "there was no electricity in many places, no water above the second floor," Lawrence said. "It was infested with termites and rats.

Like many fabled resorts, the Del had fallen into disrepair, a victim of neglect and the changing tastes of the traveling public.

The Lawrences, the hotel's sixth owners, largely restored the Del's luster during a $40-million, top-to-bottom refurbishment that included new foundations, modern plumbing and heating, new electrical wiring and an $8-million fire alarm system--a necessity because of the resort's original all-wood building.

Those renovations--and 300 modern suites that since have been added--have helped transform the Del into a hotel that generates half of its business from business travelers. That is in contrast to the days when the hotel served as an exclusive hideaway for high society.

Grand resorts that have remained viable over the years have done so largely because they have added the amenities and services that are demanded by the nation's business and convention travelers, according to Joseph Kordsmeier, a Carmel-based hotel industry consultant.

Many Resorts Faded Away

Resort operators made their first real bid for business and convention traffic shortly after World War II, according to Conte. That was when hotel executives recognized that they must have corporate guests who could afford to support the old resorts' golf courses, tennis courts, grand ballrooms, spas and restaurants.

"I often refer to these resorts as the ultimate three-martini lunch," one hotel executive quipped. "And whenever I start to hear talk about tax law reform, I flinch."

But many of the nation's exclusive resorts faded away after unsuccessfully clinging to their heritages as high-society resorts, Conte said.

"If you look back at the history of the gorgeous hotels, most were individually or family-owned and many got to the state where they coasted," Kordsmeier said. "But even the most grand are vulnerable to complacency, and even the old crowd will leave if there's a bad attitude or bad service.

"In some ways, the Greenbrier is lucky" that it was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad company (now part of Richmond, Va.-based CSX Corp.), Conte said. "There are other grand resorts that didn't have a 'white knight' willing to spend money needed to make improvements, and those places have been ghost towns ever since."

At the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island, owner Stewart Woodfill, a former desk clerk who became first general manager, then owner during a four-year span in the 1920s, "saw the handwriting on the wall shortly after the war," according to Paul Brown, vice president of marketing. "His peers said he was crazy, but Mr. Woodfill went ahead and went after the convention business."

Today, 65% of the 286-room hotel's business is group-related, and half of its guests are members of conventions or conferences.

Changed After World War II

That story line has been repeated at other resorts.

"The Broadmoor (in Colorado Springs, Colo.) started in 1918 as a very socially oriented resort," according to spokeswoman Mary Lee Heinz. "But in later years, we've run very heavily toward conventions." The Broadmoor added a convention center during the early 1980s to help meet the growing demand for meeting space.

The Greenbrier's evolution into a conference and convention resort began in 1948, when the resort reopened after being pressed into wartime service as an Army hospital.

Then, the hotel manager--anticipating a return to business as usual--poured money into the resort's leisure facilities. Consequently, the Greenbrier's first bow to business travel--a new wing filled with meeting rooms--was not made until 1954.

During the past three years, the Greenbrier has poured $20 million into a renovation that has included new electric and water lines, a 25,000-square-foot spa, and an additional wing of business conference rooms.

By last year, nearly 70% of the Greenbrier's guests were there for business meetings and conventions.

Old-line resorts and hotels are adding "the electronic doodahs that the convention guests want because all of the newer, more modern meeting resorts have the electronic doodahs," Conte said.

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