It’s A Long Story: Historic hotels gain new appreciation among travelers, brands

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‘Keepers of History’

Historic Hotels of America’s prized members are landmark properties with stories to show and tell

Georgian Terrace in midtown Atlanta is a member of Historic Hotels of America. The first 10-story building was built in 1911 and the 19-story tower was added in 1989 in a $10 million restoration. The landmark hotel has fascinating stories to tell, a required feature to become a member of Historic Hotels of America, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Hotel developers and investors seeking new ideas might do well to remember to history.

More travelers today want an immersive experience not just in the places they visit but in the hotels in which they stay. And they’re willing to pay more for it.

Historic hotels often give guests what they crave – a sense of place, a connection to something meaningful, a story to tell, a time to remember.

Historic hotels also give owners and operators what they desire – a significant return on investment.

CBRE Hotels America’s Research reports that the more than 300 hotels that are members of Historic Hotels of America generate greater occupancy and command higher rate than their contemporary counterparts.

Historic Hotels of America is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Lawrence Horwitz, executive director of Historic Hotels of America in Washington, D.C., said the National Trust established the organization in 1989 “to increase recognition and celebration of historic hotels and also to create an awareness among hotel owners” that iconic and legendary hotels are “the keepers of history.”

Although many member hotels can trace their roots back 200 years or more, many others are carved out of landmark structures that did not begin life as a hotel.

Historic hotels are popular across a wide range of travelers. But they can especially win the hearts and minds of millennials. A study by the National Trust shows the vast majority of the demographic appreciate historic preservation and more than half value the authentic experience a creatively preserved landmark can offer.

“More chains and brands today seek historic hotels, they seek out developers who are converting buildings into historic hotels and that’s a major, major change.” Lawrence Horwitz, executive director, Historic Hotels of America

Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the trust, said the study backs up the organization’s belief that young adults prefer to live, work and play in cities with historic buildings. Revitalization and preservation of neighborhoods is being driven in large part by the younger residents who treasure culture and character.

Travelers across all age demographics choose to stay in historic hotels because they feel like they’re part of something meaningful, important and endearing, according to research by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Horwitz said such deep respect for historic properties was not always a hot trend.

The Historic Hotels of America’s task is to market and expand awareness of the hotels.

In the beginning, the organization had 35 charter members, all independent.

The properties were valuable landmarks for many reasons. Besides their one-of-a-kind architecture and design, these are the places where American history was made.

They’re where presidents slept and heads of state negotiated peace and trade pacts. They’re where popular musicians got their start; where culinary delights were created and grew into household names; where the famous danced, drank and dined.

Historic Hotels of America continues to grow. It has more than 300 hotels. Last year, it added 27 hotels as members. Sixteen of those are included in the National Register of Historic Places and four are designated as National Historic Landmarks or are in districts that have that distinction.

CBRE Hotels Americas Research charted the 2017 business performance of upper upscale and luxury historic hotels, showing historic hotels generate higher ADR than contemporary hotels in the same price segments.

Historic Business

CBRE Hotels Americas Research each year presents business metrics for Historic Hotels of America.

In January, the analyst said the business outlook for the properties this year and next is positive, with RevPAR growth averaging 1.45 percent. Most of the RevPAR growth is fueled by rate increases.

Historic hotels, even those that are not part of Historic Hotels of America, had an ADR of $278. That’s nearly 17 percent higher than ADR for contemporary hotels.

Average annual occupancy will remain more than eight points higher than contemporary hotels.

CBRE Hotels Americas Research charted the 2017 business performance of upper upscale and luxury historic hotels, showing historic hotels generate higher gross operating profit than contemporary hotels in the same price segments.

CBRE Hotels Americas Research said in a statement that Historic Hotels of America helps consumers differentiate the authentic historic hotel from a property that’s merely old.

It’s an important distinction to make, Horwitz said.

“The difference between an historic hotel versus an old hotel is the historic hotel is definitely worth saving because you’re saving not only the building you’re saving the story.”

An older hotel is a hotel in an old building that may have been around for a long time but it does not have a story to tell.

The public garden at Grand Hotel along Mobile Bay in Point Clear, Alabama.

Flagged History

About 30 of Historic Hotels of America’s member properties are licensed brand franchises. Soft brand collections, a relatively new concept, also have signed many of the hotels.

Used to be, the landmark properties valued their independence and the hotel chains actually avoided doing business with an historic hotel. But it’s different now as franchisers are eager to connect with the hotels’ uniqueness and market under the name that guests have known for years.

“More chains and brands today seek historic hotels, they seek out developers who are converting buildings into historic hotels and that’s a major, major change,” Horwitz said.

“They’re realizing they can be tied to a legendary hotel that does far better in a market than a brand new build commodity chain hotel.”

Many of the branded historic properties also join Historic Hotels of America. Franchisers’ goal is to drive business to a branded hotel while Historic Hotels of America’s marketing programs “increase the ability for the customer to recognize which are the true, authentic historic hotels,” Horwitz said.

An example of the co-branding is the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. Once a Marriott Hotel, the Grand Hotel is now part of the company’s Autograph Collection, which allows the resort to flourish with its own unique identity.

The 170-year-old resort tranquilly exists 12 miles east of the City of Mobile. The bay wraps around two thirds of the resort and the small town of Fairhope claims the neighboring land.

Guests have been returning to Grand Hotel for generations. Often, they gather around the fireplace in the lobby to hear tales of yesterday told by hotel staff.

The sprawling resort has restaurants, a pool, tennis courts, two golf courses and a spa. It is wrapping up a two-and-a-half year, multi-million-dollar renovation that sales and marketing director Kevin Hellmich said is the most extensive renovation he’s ever been a part of.

Though it’s added modern amenities and conveniences to accommodate guest needs and expectations, the Grand Hotel has maintained its historical and architectural integrity as well as its traditions, which bring guests back over and over.

Historic Competition

Georgian Terrace is a 19-story property that towers over midtown Atlanta. It’s among the most treasured landmarks in the city, sitting across the street from the 90-year-old Fox Theater.

Georgian Terrace opened in 1911 as a residential hotel. It had 10 stories.

One claim to fame is the world premiere of the movie “Gone with the Wind” was celebrated in the hotel’s grand ballroom. Joining Margaret Mitchell, the novel’s author, were movie stars Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.

In the 1970s, Atlanta underwent a redevelopment frenzy and many buildings were sacrificed for modern structures and highways. The Fox Theater was saved from demolition when residents rallied in the 1970s to finance its restoration.

But in 1981, the Georgian Terrace closed. Plans to raze the building were halted when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Sotherly Hotels owns the property and Chesapeake Hospitality manages it.

The lobby of Georgian Terrace in midtown Atlanta, Georgia.

Guido Piccinni is managing director of the property. A native of southern Italy, his hospitality background is in food and beverage. He started at Georgian Terrace as director of F&B.

Although the hotel has historic caché, it competes with hundreds of other hotels, restaurants and bars in midtown. Piccinni said modern cuisine helps set the establishment apart.

About 60 percent of the diners and those who visit the bar are from outside the hotel.

“We have to compete with the trends,” Piccinni said. “We have to offer modern cuisine; to give guests what they want, what they’re looking for.”

Piccinni spends a lot of time visiting and learning what nearby restaurants are doing to attract business. He pays attention to restaurants in hotels as well as stand-alone establishments.

Like many historic hotels, Georgian Terrace attracts guests of all ages. About half of its clientele are transient. It hosts business travelers and has a healthy group business. It has a lot of return guests. Many of those are under the age of 30. “We capture everybody because we offer a great experience,” Piccinni said.

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