Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Keepers are INN!

The Keepers Are Inn

These accidental hoteliers are finding challenges and successes with hotels they didn’t expect to own. Here are their stories.

Monday, May 21, 2012
Jeff Heilman
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Blue Door Inn room keys CREDIT Jeff Heilman
Blue Door Inn room keys CREDIT Jeff Heilman

If you have ever entertained the idea of becoming a hotelier, then the spark that makes it happen may be just a car ride away—with fate sharing the wheel.

In the case of Alan Stenberg and Daniel DeSimone, it was the latter’s customary weekend spin in the countryside about an hour north of Manhattan that struck the match. DeSimone, then a prominent orthopedic surgeon, and Stenberg, then running his own public relations firm, shared a passion for buying and restoring properties. Also inveterate travelers, they lodged like kings around the globe, seeking out palaces like Brown’s Hotel in London, Hotel Imperial in Vienna and the Wheatleigh in Lenox, Ma. Along the way, they became keenly attuned to the art of decorating and running a luxury hotel—but never did they contemplate becoming hoteliers themselves.

That all changed when DeSimone returned from that weekend drive, back in 2006. “He declared that he had found a dilapidated mansion for sale—and that we had to have it,” Stenberg says. The ruined pile was Glenmere, built in 1911 for Robert Goelet IV, scion of a New York society family connected to the founding of Chemical Bank. Goelet invested part of his massive inheritance in commissioning the leading architects of the day, Carrère & Hastings (of New York Public Library fame, among other triumphs) to build his 35-room hilltop fantasy in Chester, N.Y. Resembling a Tuscan villa, the Renaissance Revival mansion originally sat on 3,000 acres and featured gardens from Beatrix Farrand, America’s first female landscape architect.

Like so many of its Gilded Age peers, Glenmere slid into inexorable decline after Goelet sold the property in 1940. “In terms of fixer-uppers, this was our biggest challenge ever,” DeSimone says. Already leaning in a new direction at the time by taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, he persuaded his partner that they should buy Glenmere. Together, they committed to turning Glenmere into a grand country-house hotel. 

It took a legion of builders and craftsmen three and a half years to realize the couple’s vision (and not insubstantial investment), but Stenberg and DeSimone are now full-time custodians of a singular lodging and hospitality experience. Opened in January 2010, their 18-room Glenmere Mansion was inducted into Relais & Châteaux that same year—a rare distinction, bestowed on only a handful of hotels in the 58-year history of the hospitality industry’s Fortune 500. Sparing no expense, their revival of this authentically Tuscan treasure is palatial throughout, including the otherworldly tribute gardens and outdoor pool behind the house. And the accolades keep coming, including for the newly opened spa, where the ancient art of hammam is practiced to a most heavenly degree. 

How is proprietorship treating the couple? Stenberg jokingly calls Glenmere the product of a midlife crisis. “Purchasing a Maserati would have been so much easier,” he says laughing. “Seriously, though, we just pitched ourselves into this, relying on what we had learned from our travels and in line with what we would expect ourselves from a hotel.” Still, they went in illusion-free, and while infrequently, must deal with the headaches facing all hoteliers, from difficult guests to kinks in the plumbing. “Coming to terms with bottom-line realities was another learning curve,” DeSimone says. “As an elite property at a high price point, we naturally have exclusive appeal, but there must be balance and flexibility to keep business flowing.”

Kismet also had the steering wheel in “driving” Damien Wood and Andrew Hindman to become innkeepers.  Jarred awake early one morning in 2004 by the heavy metal music blasting from their absent neighbor’s alarm clock, the couple took one look at the beckoningly perfect skies over San Francisco and decided to take a drive. “To escape the noise and led also by a website advertising B&Bs for sale that Andrew had seen, we headed north for Mendocino,” says Wood, who had just left his job as concierge at the Four Seasons San Francisco.

Once a rough-and-tumble sawmill center, Mendocino fell into post-logging decline from the 1930’s on, until Bay Area artists and innkeepers began revitalizing the bluff-top village in the 1960’s.  These pioneers, who got the entire village listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, effected a remarkable transformation of the Victorian-era treasure. Now as enchanting an escape as they come, Mendocino and its innkeeping legacy worked its magic on Wood and Hindman. After driving lazily about and exploring the local coves and headlands, the couple descended upon the local realtor’s office to inquire about the Packard House, a B&B for sale.

“Inspired by our passion for design, great hospitality and amazing destinations, we were considering innkeeping as a possible way to create and run something together,” relates Wood. “The Packard was already under contract,” says Hindman, then a senior executive in the biotech field and now president and CEO of a biotech firm. “Very interested in the property, though, we took the realtor out for lunch to talk things over.”   

After much discussion and plenty of wine, the couple made a "kick out clause" offer on the Packard House; 72 hours later it was theirs. Since then, they have acquired two additional properties in Mendocino, the J.D. House and the rave-reviewed Blue Door Inn, opened last year.

Collectively known as the Blue Door Group, the classy, recently remodeled trio embodies the couple’s sophisticated service and design aesthetics. “Our vision was based on creating places we would want to stay ourselves, and would be as comfortable as our own home,” explains Wood, whose blue-chip experience also includes concierge page at the Peninsula Beverly Hills and bellman at both L'Ermitage and the Beverly Hills Hotel. “For one thing, our service, as I learned from my own five-star, five-diamond training, had to be all about taking perfect care of the customer.”

The couple was also crystal clear about differentiating their properties through décor and design. “Say ‘B&B’ to many people and they automatically think Grandma’s house or have a negative connotation,” continues Wood. “From our breakfasts (exceptional) to our linens and products (Kiehl’s!) to our furnishings and artwork (stylish, modern, refreshing), we wanted to change the perception of what a B&B could be.”

Wood has some cautionary words about getting into the “dynamic” business of hospitality.  “If you are unable to handle changes and think constantly on the fly, you will never last,” he says. “Also, be prepared to be head of every department, from housekeeping to engineering, and be ready for a 24/7 job—there’s no disconnecting from a hotel, even when you are away.”

Also, don’t skimp. “If you want to wow people, penny wise is definitely pound foolish,” Wood says. “We could save plenty by procuring our items from a hotel supply company, but people will notice—and that matters. And do hire good help. Yes, it cuts into the profit, but go it alone and you’ll go insane.”  

Still want to be an innkeeper? Above all, says Wood, relax. “It’s your baby,” he says. “You are in charge, and you call the shots.” And if the pull is there, do it. As Hindman says, “There’s no time like the present.” 

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