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Historic hotels try to compete in shaky economy

This Jan. 26, 2004 file photo shows the 150-year-old Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, in Dixville Notch, N.H., where the first-in-the-nation presidential primary ballot has been cast for 50 years. Historic hotels are facing more competitive pressure, continually trying to engage in new marketing campaigns to attract customers.
This Jan. 26, 2004 file photo shows the 150-year-old Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, in Dixville Notch, N.H., where the first-in-the-nation presidential primary ballot has been cast for 50 years. Historic hotels are facing more competitive pressure, continually trying to engage in new marketing campaigns to attract customers.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The signature green and white china is packed, the Adirondack chairs are stored away and the corridor lights are dimmed.

The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in the forests of northern New Hampshire — a remote destination nestled in a mountain pass for lovers of the great outdoors, fine dining and turn-of-the-century elegance — is closed for now. How long is anyone's guess.

The nearly 150-year-old hotel in Dixville Notch is known for its Ballot Room, where residents of the tiny community are the first to cast their votes for president at midnight on New Hampshire's primary day and on the nation's Election Day. Put up for sale in July 2010, it is awaiting the right suitor. It closed on Sept. 14.

"It's a sparkle in our life," said Bruno Ponterio, 80, a retired school principal from Rye Brook, N.Y. He and his wife, Joann, spent their honeymoon at the resort during the summer of 1959, impressed by the views, the service, and the cuisine. They have returned through the years with their children, including their 50th anniversary two years ago.

The Tillotson family, whose patriarch ran a rubber factory and is credited with inventing the latex balloon, has owned the resort since 1954. Before he died in 2001 at age 102, Neil Tillotson specified that the resort and other assets be sold or given away and the proceeds given to charities. But the hotel has been operating at a loss for years, and the money has been coming out of the assets of a family trust.

The resort, with its mix of Victorian and Alpine village architectural influences, can accommodate up to 400 guests. They can dine on sweep-around verandas with views of a circular flower garden, swimming pool, Lake Gloriette, and the notch.

The resort's board of directors is looking for a new owner who can modernize the property — there have been some renovations, but not a major overhaul since a new wing was added in the early 1900s — and preserve its past, a balance that many hotels of a certain age and stature are working to maintain.

Historic hotels around the country are facing more competitive pressure these days, continually trying to engage in new marketing campaigns to attract customers, said Thierry Roch, executive director of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"They're in the same boat as all other hotels, they're struggling to find business during a time when companies are cutting back on corporate travel, group business is reduced," Roch said. "But the advantage is there is more awareness in the market for historic hotels. They've got a name, they've got a reputation, they've got the word of mouth."

Some historic hotels are continuing to perform very well in this economy, Roch said. Others seeing reduced occupancies have looked to reinvest in their hotels, improving the roof or heating, ventilation and air conditioning, for example, to make them more attractive to future customers.

At The Balsams, where hallways showcase old photos and anecdotes — including a spoon in a picture frame about a guilt-ridden woman who returned the utensil many years after honeymooning there — there's been talk about putting in a new roof, insulation and windows. While occupancy rates have been good, one concern is improving energy efficiency. The hotel runs on steam heat generated by a biomass plant that was used in past years to run Neil Tillotson's nearby factory.

"That's our biggest cost other than our labor, and so it's tough to compete as a hotel, it's tough to make the bottom line work, when your energy costs are so high," said Jeff McIver, The Balsams' president and general manager. "That's one of the factors of why we're not profitable, and to fix that is a major undertaking."

He said directors of the family-based trust fund that owns the resort have been studying alternative fuel sources, such as geothermal technology.

Another historic hotel, the Mountain View Grand in New Hampshire's White Mountains, was built in 1865, fell into disrepair and closed during the 1980s but reopened in 2002 after a multimillion-dollar rebirth. One of the additions was a wind turbine operation that provides all of the hotel's electricity. It does save money and managers believe it is a good way to be more environmentally sustainable, said Gene Ehlert, marketing manager.

Historic hotel owners have long recognized the need to pair modern conveniences with a sense of returning to an earlier era.

"They wanted all the amenities; they wanted all the bells and whistles," said Cathy Bedor, who was in a partnership that owned New Hampshire's Mount Washington Hotel for 15 years before selling it to a company in 2006. "But they wanted to have the flavor of stepping back in time, and that was exactly what we tried to do."

The Mount Washington was built in 1902. When Bedor and the other partners bought the hotel at auction in 1991, they worked to restore it to its original luster by studying the carpeting in antique postcards, reading old newspaper accounts that described the guestrooms, and stripping layers of paint on the brass chandeliers to show them as they were back in the early 1900s.

Bedor, who runs the Mount Washington Cog Railway, a train that climbs to the top of the Northeast's highest peak, said the Bretton Woods hotel had a lot of interest because it was the site of an historic conference in 1944 that laid the groundwork for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

"If it hadn't been for that, I'm not sure that there would have been such a hue and cry when there was discussion about maybe tearing the property down because certainly, it's much more expensive to keep it operating than if you were to start from scratch," Bedor said.

The Ponterios, who have spent weeklong summer vacations at The Balsams for 35 years, love the caring, attentive staff and the sophisticated dining room and gourmet meals. They like swimming and paddle-boating — or doing nothing at all.

"I'm not unhappy that there's no TV in the room," Ponterio said. "You'd think that you'd miss it, but you don't." Guests are encouraged to take a book home with them from libraries in the guestrooms and bring one back when they return.

The Balsams offered a Grand Adventure Plan for the summer starting at $209 per person, based on double occupancy and including meals, golf, boating, and other activities. Its winter plan including meals and skiing started at $199 per person.

One luxury resort dating back to 1778, The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., furloughed about 650 workers in 2009 amid a sharp decline in business and sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to stay afloat. The former gathering place for presidents and site of an underground Cold War nuclear bunker for Congress re-emerged with new owner Jim Justice. He introduced a PGA tournament, built a casino and steakhouse, and added new touches to old traditions — such as the "Greenbrier Waltz" and other musical performances by staff in period dress — to accompany afternoon teas. Revenue and occupancy rates are on their way back up, said Lynn Swann, director of public relations.

The Greenbrier offers a variety of seasonal and holiday packages. Its two-night Discover Package featuring outdoor activities starts at $369 per night based on double occupancy.

At the Jekyll Island Club Hotel in Georgia, managing partner Kevin Runner said lower occupancy has caused revenues to be about 15 to 20 percent below normal over the last few years. Part of the challenge is that the hotel, built in the 1880s and renovated 25 years ago, is in a state park that's been under renovations for at least a year. A new convention center, shops and other hotels are planned at the island.

"We aren't experiencing downturn year after year," Runner said. "We went down to a certain wall and then we just kind of stayed there and hovered around that same level the last couple of years."

Depending on the building and room, the Jekyll's base rates through Nov. 26 range from $189 in a single room to $439 for the Presidential suite.

In New Hampshire, the Ponterios hope to be able to book another summer vacation at The Balsams next year, sitting by their favorite spot alongside the pool. They realize a new owner may renovate the place — but they like the Old World charm as is.

As Mrs. Ponterio told her husband: "The one place I see where you relax and you're not concerned about anything is when you go to The Balsams."