Overseeing a hotel that occupies a heritage or listed building yields special challenges – from the architectural to the operational - but it also delivers the opportunity to capture a truly unique selling point and the chance to really lock in guest interest.
One such historic hotel, complete with a fascinating and star-studded back-story, is the Biltmore in Miami’s ritzy suburb of Coral Gables.
The 1920s hotel enjoys National Historic Landmark status: a designation awarded by the US government in recognition of outstanding heritage. It welcomed such illustrious guests as Judy Garland, gangster Al Capone and President Franklin D. Roosevelt – who even had a temporary White House office installed – before hosting aquatic galas and a World War II hospital.
Managing maintenance and leveraging heritage
Features include a pool with Renaissance-style sculpture, and hosts of vaulted ceilings, marble columns and ornate gardens. But being custodians of all that entails heightened responsibility.
“The chief challenge is maintenance,” explains Managing Director, Matthias Kammerer. “Many aspects of the building’s interior and all of its exterior require upkeep in accordance with strict guidelines.”
As travellers continue to seek experiences tapping into a destination’s history, the Biltmore leverages its culture. “Every Sunday we offer complimentary building tours narrated by docents of the Miami Dade Heritage Trust, an organisation we have partnered with in order to record and share the history of the Biltmore.” This product, Kammerer says, gives the hotel “a unique opportunity to engage with visitors”.
The pros and cons of idiosyncrasy
In Buckinghamshire, UK, The Langley hotel’s recent opening concluded a multi-year restoration of a Grade II listed Palladian hunting lodge. In-between the preservation of original Venetian fireplaces, mantels, mosaic floors and Regency-era bookcases, the building’s idiosyncrasies complicated standard hotel practices.
“Turning such a historic property into a luxury hotel presented a one-off set of challenges,” recounts General Manager David Harris. “For example, our kitchen is located beneath the restaurant within cellars, so we have had to adapt the ways in which we prepare and present food.” Bedrooms also range wildly in size and amenity (eg bathtubs), he reveals, and thus defy straightforward categorisation.
Yet, Harris says, the ancient structure also brought opportunity. One decision involved how to incorporate an adjacent building – previously a stables and brewery. The result is that bedrooms in this ‘block’ afford a more rustic, country style compared to those of the main house.
Front-of-house staff as narrators
Not only does each guest room at The Langley contain a copy of a tome detailing the lodge’s history, but all hotel staff “are brimming with stories from the estate’s past,” according to Harris.
That approach is echoed at Ashford Castle, an Irish fortress dating to 1228 and now a luxury hotel. Particularly crucial are the presence of longstanding employees fully clued-up on Ashford’s legacy. “No-one is prouder of Ashford than staff who have worked within its walls for years – some for more than four decades,” verifies General Manager, Niall Rochford. “Each has a story to share, be it of their childhood in nearby towns or anecdotes about an antique item of furniture. I believe that it’s these passionate people who keep guests coming back time and again.”
Rochford thinks of guest-stays as a “storytelling journey. From the owning Guinness family to Oscar Wilde, who was born on the estate, there is so much history to hear". Supporting that, and further boosting the visitor experience, is a dedicated museum.
Proximity to a UNESCO site
If your hotel or rental home isn’t a historic building, it may well be near one. That’s the case for Drissia&Othman, an apartment in Carcassonne, southern France, only a couple of kilometres from the city’s medieval fortress, La Cité. For its owners, also called Drissia and Othman, proximity to this UNESCO-protected citadel is “a major asset”.
Equally crucial, they say, is standing out from the self-catering crowd. “Guests are generally very curious, asking specific and personalised questions about La Cité," reveals Drissia.
"During the reception process, we always explain what we think are the best ways for individual guests to discover Carcassonne. We also add practical aspects by detailing local specialties and events, and by providing a tourist guide and map pre-marked with places, shops and parking. This gives our guests the feeling of being guided around.”
The recurring theme is clear: to truly benefit from a historic base or proximity to a heritage site, hoteliers and hosts must exploit such geography – be that adapting to the building, steeping staff in its story or going the extra mile for curious guests.
- Due to strict guidelines and codes, the maintenance of heritage buildings can be challenging
- Historic buildings’ idiosyncrasies can cause operational challenges and complicate room categorisation – but they can also allow for creative offerings
- Hotels inside historic buildings have a unique opportunity to engage with visitors via guided tours or the provision of specialist books
- Guest-facing staff expert in a heritage property can encourage guests to rebook; this is especially true of veteran employees
- For self-catering homes located near historic sights, it’s possible to stand out from the crowd by providing bespoke advice, maps and literature about the attraction