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‘Historic Hotels’ Status Offers Marketing Oomph to its Western Mass. Landmarks
Norma Probst

Norma Probst, director of sales and marketing at Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, said HHA helps brand historic hotels as a group.

From vintage furnishings to modern-day amenities, the region’s historic hotels have much to offer travelers from around the world. However, one thing that’s long been lacking for these mostly privately-owned, single-location establishments has been the marketing machines that power the Hiltons, Westins, and Marriotts of the nation — and by telling their members’ stories, Historic Hotels of America is looking to change that.

The Porches Inn at MassMoCA in North Adams was recently named one of the world’s “coolest hotels” by Condé Nast Traveller, among other honors. It earned the distinction for its wide range of amenities and whimsical style, which includes complimentary breakfast delivered in a vintage lunch pail.

Down the road in Lenox, the Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club recently garnered AAA’s Four Diamond rating for the sixth consecutive year and continues to hone its reputation as one of the best golf resorts in the country.

The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge has welcomed travelers for more than two centuries, and is now making a new name for itself as a champion of sustainable agriculture in the Berkshires.

And Hotel Northampton in Hampshire County, with its newly renovated rooms and grand ballroom, is positioning itself as the area’s premier spot for luxury accommodations.

Each establishment has its own claims to fame that make it a unique destination in Western Mass. At first glance, the hotels have little in common. But they share one common theme: all are members of the Historic Hotels of America, a national organization that serves historic hotels and the travelers who love them, and, as such, affords a unique set of benefits that calls attention to the properties’ individuality, while at the same time binding them together as part of a whole.

Mary Billingsley, director of public relations for Historic Hotels of America, or HHA, explained that the group is a program of the National Trust of Historic Hotels for Preservation, which was formed in 1989 as a means of reaching out to the traveling public.

“We had certain people in mind,” she said. “Those who may not consider themselves preservationists, but appreciate history, and the experience of staying in a hotel that has a past, a tradition, and a sense of place in its community.”

The organization started with 32 charter members, and today, that number has risen to 213, spread across the contiguous United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Porches, the Red Lion, Hotel Northampton, and Cranwell are the region’s only HHA hotels, and four of 15 in the Commonwealth. Others include the Boston Park Plaza and Towers, Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod, and the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem.

Billingsley said that to be considered for inclusion, a hotel must be included on the National Register of Historic Places and housed in a building that is at least 50 years old, though many establishments in the network are new uses of older properties, including former apartment buildings, mills, and private homes.

“There is a wide range of properties that have been converted into hotels, from cotton warehouses to bottling plants,” she said, adding that HHA is not a luxury organization; while each property has its own unique draws, HHA hotels fall within a number of price points and welcome all types of travelers. “We’re defined by history, and that’s something we let consumers know,” she said.

The Best of the West

Billingsley noted that the four hotels within Western Mass. are a good representation of HHA’s overall mission and identity as a travel organization.

“Western Mass. as a destination is so desirable,” she said, “and these four hotels showcase the diversity of our group. The Red Lion Inn is so picturesque; Cranwell is an internationally-known resort; Porches is an adapted-use of a property dating back to the 1890s; and Hotel Northampton has a more modern flair.”

Still, Billingsley explained that while the strengths HHA hotels possess — a strong sense of history, a rich collection of stories, and often a unique set of amenities that blend the intrigue of the past with the creature comforts of today — can also be a weakness for such destinations. While these features set them apart from modern-day hotels, she said, they can also isolate them. Most historic hotels are privately owned, and as such don’t have the same marketing strength as larger, corporate-owned outfits.

Addressing this has become the primary goal of HHA; it’s a member-driven marketing association, collecting dues from participating hotels and, in turn, promoting them as part of a group with increasing prestige.

The representatives from the HHA hotels of Western Mass. who spoke with BusinessWest returned frequently to the topic of branding, and how HHA has provided a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of creating a collective identity for a varied set of properties.

Michael Kolesar, director of sales and marketing for Hotel Northampton, took his post at the local landmark just this year, after a long career working within corporate-owned hotels. He said HHA does the work that smaller outfits often cannot, forging an identity for privately owned destinations.

“It’s a wonderful marketing tool, utilizing history, that markets individual properties through a lot of great programs that create brand association,” he said. “They allow us to work with what we have at our own pace, and we gain exposure outside of the local market — something that, as a privately owned establishment, is not easy for us to do.”

Carol Bosco Baumann, director of Communications and Marketing for the Red Lion Inn and the Porches Inn, said the Red Lion, first opened in 1773 to serve as a stagecoach stop, is one of HHA’s charter members, and Porches is still viewed as a relatively new member, having joined in the past decade. From both points of view, Baumann said she’s seen firsthand the growth within the organization.

“The HHA helps establish us as a brand by allowing us to be a part of an umbrella organization,” she said. “It’s an interesting position to be in, having two properties that scream individuality be part of the same brand.

“But it’s all about preservation and historic standards that alone are a benefit,” Baumann continued, “and the HHA publicity efforts only help us more. People understand that when they plan a trip to an HHA hotel, they’re going to feel a genuine sense of place. More than anything else, history provides that.”

Norma Probst, director of Sales and Marketing for the Cranwell Resort and a member of HHA’s national sales committee, said that she anticipates that the organization will only continue to flourish, aiding its member properties all the more.

“Cultural travel is one of the largest-growing segments of the industry,” she said, “and the HHA is doing very well as an organization because of the efforts it has undertaken with regard to public relations. Those have fostered a very willing, active membership base that understands the importance of promoting HHA as well as themselves; I see it becoming more well-known as a group in the future.”

At Any Rate

The various programs sponsored by HHA are developed to be pliable, so member hotels can develop promotions that make sense for them, while at the same time taking advantage of HHA’s international publicity. Members can choose whether or not to participate in a given program, and if they choose to sign on, can do so at virtually any level.

Currently, for instance, the Western Mass. HHA properties are gearing up for the ‘Fall Back in Time’ program, which will offer special rates and packages coinciding with the new, later time change on Nov. 4 (clocks are turned back one hour a week later this year, due to the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005). Sponsored by American Express, the program offers an extra draw for AmEx users, awarding a complimentary one-year membership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation when a trip is booked.

More than 75 packages have been developed by participating hotels across the country, ranging from special rates that reflect the year an establishment was built, to more elaborate promotions.

Kolesar said he’s currently developing a program for Hotel Northampton that will likely include a discounted rate or added-value component, and Cranwell is offering a second-night rate of $18.94 when one night is booked, celebrating the year the Sloane family, the resort’s second owners, built the Gilded-Age Wyndhurst Mansion on the property. Probst said quite a few rooms have already been reserved through that promotion.

Similarly, Baumann has developed ‘Fall Back’ promotions for both the Red Lion and Porches; the former will offer an overnight package including a country breakfast in bed and a commemorative gift for $177.30, while the latter will afford guests with a one-night stay with breakfast for two and a $20 gift certificate to the inn’s eclectic gift shop, all for $189, signifying the 1890s, when the Porches property was first built. Baumann said she tries to participate in HHA programs whenever possible, as they help to boost occupancy during slower times.

“The perception is that the Berkshires are a place for summer travel,” she said, “when in fact there is beauty and things to do year-round.”

Essentially, the affiliation with HHA, and its regularly released press materials and seasonal promotions, allows inns like the Red Lion and Porches to tout their amenities and special events continuously, and Baumann said this also helps translate the reality that not all historic hotels are Spartan in their accommodations. Rather, many have a large cadre of modern draws that, without regular, brisk marketing, can fall under the radar.

In addition to its lunch-pail breakfast service and claw-foot tubs, Porches, for instance, offers an outdoor heated pool, a hot tub, a bonfire pit surrounded by 10,000 different varieties of native plants, rain water shower heads, and outdoor adventure packages such as geocaching trips.

Probst said the HHA’s marketing assistance has been particularly beneficial in promoting the Cranwell’s 35,000-square-foot, $7.5 million spa, which blends well with its historic mansions.

“Promoting the spa through packages allows us to maintain an identity,” she said, “while still translating that we have the modern amenities travelers today are seeking.

“There are a lot of economies of scale one doesn’t have when connected to a large hotel,” she added, “but we’ve been marketing our spa packages rigorously through HHA, and since we began, we have yet to drop below 50% occupancy in the winter.”

Tell Me a Tale

Other benefits of HHA include reservation services, which allow both individuals and groups to book stays though the organization and its Web site, and a comprehensive, annually updated directory. All of the HHA hotels are also listed on the group’s Web site, historichotels.org, which is geared toward consumers with pages detailing various types of trips, from golf outings to spa retreats to business meetings.

The backbone of nearly all of HHA’s marketing programs, however, is story-telling, as it speaks to the personality that distinguishes historic hotels from their modern-day counterparts.

These can be small anecdotes regarding a visit from a celebrity, or a recipe that originated in an establishment’s kitchen, and also grand yarns, detailing how one guest house weathered prohibition, or how another played a part during WWII. The Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif., another HHA member, often touts its distinction as the backdrop for the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot.

“We try to think about different topics in different areas and have our hotels share their stories,” said Billingsley. “We’ll cover everything from presidents’ visits to ghost stories to recipes and housekeeping tips. We’ve found looking to the past has been very helpful.”

Of all topics, ghost stories tend to draw particular interest. “We promote those on a yearly basis, and we’re on our 14th year,” said Billingsley. “People really like them, and hotels definitely have stories to tell.”

Kolesar noted that, while Hotel Northampton has yet to identify any spectral visitors, it benefits by promoting the stories of Wiggins Tavern, built in 1796 in New Hampshire and moved to the hotel in 1936 as part of a surge in Colonial-revival architecture and design, and by touting its long list of celebrity guests, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton.

“A lot of people have skeletons in the closet, so to speak, but we really don’t,” he said, looking momentarily crestfallen. “That’s just one example of promoting history on a lighter note, though. We cater more to ‘star-gazers’ who care about who’s been here among the living.”

Travel tips have been another big win for HHA. Periodically, the organization will zero in on a particular topic — how to travel healthier, for instance, or a selection of team-building exercises for corporate travelers — and ask member hotels to contribute an idea.

“There’s great interest, and it allows us to put together fresh stories more frequently,” said Billingsley, adding that the topic doesn’t have to be complicated to generate interest. “Our housekeeping tips release was successful because I think people know how hard housekeepers work, and that the tips they’d have to offer would be real — things people could do themselves that weren’t difficult challenges. One woman, we heard, hung our press release up in her broom closet.”

Check Us Out

It’s a comprehensive marketing model that continues to gain momentum, assisting the historic hotels of the country as they, in turn, bolster the organization.

As for those establishments in the region taking their historical significance to a new level, Probst, standing halfway between Cranwell’s opulent mansion-cum-lobby and its contemporary spa and fitness center, perhaps said it best.

“We’re fortunate to be in Western Mass.,” she said. “It’s a fantastic destination that many people love. But to be placed on a national stage makes a world of difference.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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