Cover Story

Suite Life

Hotel Northampton’s New Owners Bring Global Appeal to a National Landmark
June 25, 2007

June 25, 2007

When they arrived at the Hotel Northampton as members of the management team assembled by new owners in 1992, Mansour Ghalibaf and Tony Murkett quickly found that the King Street landmark was not as hospitable as they would have hoped. Now the hotel’s owners themselves, the partners, who helped write an inspiring and still-ongoing turnaround story at the 80-year-old facility, have plans to give this local icon some worldwide appeal.

When Tony Murkett, one of the owners of Hotel Northampton, arrived in the U.S. via Great Britain earlier this month, co-owner Mansour Ghalibaf had some news for him.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry, but we’re completely booked — we’ll have to find somewhere else for you to stay,’” said Murkett, who picked up his bags and drove down Route 9 to Hadley, where he checked into the recently opened Courtyard Marriott.

“But that’s good news,” Murkett added quickly. “I think any hotel owner would be just as overjoyed as I was to be booked out of his own place.”

Murkett and Ghalibaf, who collectively bring more than 60 years of experience to their new venture, purchased the 80-year-old landmark for $11.8 million on Oct. 23, 2006. Earlier this month, they held a gala to celebrate the purchase, and to thank their many colleagues, employees, and friends.

But they were also commemorating an already-long history with the hotel, having served as its senior management team for 15 years prior to taking ownership. During that time, the two men played integral roles in rescuing the hotel from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, restoring its historic beauty, and revamping its suite of services to attract the most discerning guests.

As its owners, they are not wont to rest on their laurels, however. There are plenty of plans brewing for the building, which is listed on the Historic Hotels of America roster, and as such, has some considerable cache both locally and nationally.

One of the most pressing orders of business, the partners say, will be to preserve that reputation, and make it even stronger worldwide.

Up Ahead in the Distance

Work to that end began for Ghalibaf and Murkett in the early 1990s. The hotel was purchased from David, Neil, and Steven Rostoff, by Norwegian hospitality mogul Egil Braathen, now in his nineties, who at one time owned a vast array of properties in locations around the globe. At the time, the hotel was in dire financial straits — Steven and David Rostoff were later sentenced to jail after being found guilty of fraud.

Murkett, a hotelier with more than 35 years of experience who was once one of the U.K.’s youngest hotel managers, at the posh Grovener House in London at age 33, said Braathen, a mentor, asked him to look after the property for him.

“He had a huge empire around the world,” said Murkett, “and is a great friend. I felt confident about the opportunity.”

Braathen actually bought Hotel Northampton sight unseen, and oversaw its operation from afar, entrusting Murkett, who served as a liaison between Europe and the States, and Ghalibaf, who first signed on as general manager in 1990 under the Rostoffs’ management, with the details.

Ghalibaf has been a hospitality professional for 28 years, the bulk of that time spent in Boston, in a number of positions within Sheraton and Hilton hotels.

“I started in the front office, and have worked in almost every position since then — food service, housekeeping, accounting, and management,” he said. “Because I gained knowledge in so many departments, I eventually became a sort of trouble-shooter, or internal auditor.”

When he first arrived at Hotel Northampton as its comptroller Ghalibaf had to validate that reputation rather quickly. He said the historic establishment was in Chapter 11, but also had a number of organizational and infrastructure problems. When he took on the position, one of his first tasks was to actually turn on a cobwebbed computer that would track the hotel’s progress — and its budget.

“The place was in disrepair,” he said. “I was hired to essentially create a better management system; in many ways, it was still being run as a sort of mom-and-pop shop. We did everything we could to get it out of bankruptcy — we put things in place to create projections and goals, track finances, and improve the service and care of our clients. We also began renovations at that time.”

Murkett and Ghalibaf, who was soon promoted to general manager, remained Braathen’s trusted advisors, pulling the Hotel Northampton out of the red and also making gradual, yet constant, improvements and repairs to nearly every aspect of the property. Since 1992, the renovations have totaled more than $7 million.

Improvements have included the addition of six new luxury suites on the Gothic Street side of the property dubbed Gothic Gardens, a renovation and redesign of the hotel’s ballroom, and upgrades to both rooms and facilities, including the exterior of the building, its food service area, and Wiggins Tavern, its onsite restaurant.

Curbside appeal was improved, and fencing around the perimeter of the building — for security as well as a better definition of the property — was also added.
“Together, we changed the rules a bit regarding the way the hotel was run,” said Murkett, “and in the process, we developed a rather nice friendship. We’ve been two chaps in it together from day one.”

A Shimmering Light

When Braathen decided to sell the property, he gave Murkett and Ghalibaf right of first refusal, and the two chose to finish what that had started — the preservation of an historic site — but also begin their own small empire.

“My personal plan for this property is to keep the quality consistent and to improve as much as we can,” said Ghalibaf, who noted the deal was financed by Florence Savings Bank. “Taking over its ownership was a very comfortable arrangement; we have a good relationship with the previous owner, and that relationship was very important to the well-being of the hotel. I’m happy to say we’ve done better every year than the last since 1992.”

Ghalibaf continues to oversee day-to-day operations, keeping a close eye on everything from guest relations to ongoing renovations. When he spoke with BusinessWest, he had just finished helping the maintenance staff hang a framed photo of the Dalai Lama, a recent guest, who joins the ranks of famous visitors to the hotel including John F. Kennedy, Bob Dylan, and king of Saudi Arabia.

Attention to detail has led to some prosperous business niches for the hotel, including the banquet sector. Today, the hotel hosts about 100 weddings a year, as well as a large number of corporate events.

“One of the reasons we are very popular for weddings is simply because when the bride leaves the ballroom for the lobby, she doesn’t come face-to-face with another bride,” said Ghalibaf. “And nearly every prestigious company in the Valley has used us for their hospitality needs — the ambiance and the quality we strive to maintain has no match, especially because of its historic nature.”

But that’s not to say there isn’t room for further improvements or changes to the current business model.

“We’d like to add an additional 50 or 60 rooms,” Ghalibaf said, “and if the opportunity to do so presents itself in the future, that will definitely happen.”

Murkett concurred. “At the top of our minds is expansion,” he said, noting that in years past, there have been negotiations to acquire the gas station adjacent to the property with the goal of constructing either additional rooms, a parking garage, or perhaps both.

Those talks fell through, but Murkett said the plans are not dead on the vine.

“We are still minded to do that — we have 108 rooms at the moment and one ballroom, and we’d like to put ourselves in the convention market fairly and squarely,” he said. “To do so, we need more guest rooms and larger ballroom space.”

In addition, renovations both large and small are an everyday reality at the property, and both partners said they see no signs of slowing in that regard.

“We have a constant refurbishment program that never seems to stop, but that has kept us well ahead of the game,” said Murkett. “We’re currently thinking of a new bedroom and bathroom project, and we’re also concentrating our efforts around food and presentation. Our chef (Robert Tessier) is very entrepreneurial, and we let him be so, because that’s how that department flourishes.”

Ghalibaf added that Wiggins Tavern is also slated to receive a slightly new identity.

“There are some plans to reorganize and make the tavern even more of a presence,” he said, “and that’s an example of expanding on good business — it’s doing very well.”

Murkett, who maintains a post at the Sloan Club in London’s upscale section of Chelsea, visits Hotel Northampton six to eight times a year, and, as he’s found out, doesn’t always have a bed waiting for him. That’s a trend he’d like to see continue.

“We’ve seen it rise from a hotel on its knees in the early 1990s,” he said, “so in our minds, anything is possible, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t go even higher.

“We have an incredible following locally,” he added. “I’m always amazed by how the hotel touches lives. Because of that, we do well as a leisure hotel, and the local community serves as our cornerstones —supporting us, but also lending the flavor that makes us special.”

While optimism abounds, the partners face a number of challenges as they work to expand and continually improve the hotel. Across the hospitality sector, staffing is a pervasive issue, and as the landmark continues to raise its profile, its employees must reflect that same standard of excellence.

“Recruitment is a challenge, as is finding and keeping good people,” said Murkett. “There is a huge demand for service people in this part of America, and there’s a great demand for good people everywhere. It’s one aspect of this business we need to remain mindful of, because it ensures that we’re always competitive — it’s easy to become complacent when business has been good to us over the years.”

Awareness of what other establishments are offering is another part of maintaining that competitive edge, he said, and remaining aware of the wants and needs of various consumer sectors — leisure travelers, but also business and family-stay guests — is a key element of a successful hospitality venture. It ensures that rooms are well-appointed for a variety of clients, and, in turn, that they are easily booked.

Ghalibaf said the partners’ acceptance that their work to improve and promote the hotel will never truly be done is one reason why they have succeeded.

“It all comes down to working continuously within a business plan,” he said, “one that results in clients who are loyal.”

What a Lovely Place

And Murkett, who found no room at his own inn this month, agrees that it’s a wonderful life.

“I love it,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to manage some beautiful properties, and this hotel is one.”

He continues to believe so even from the outside, walking away from Hotel Northampton with his suitcase in hand — happy to let others enjoy the comfort and character that took 15 years to create, and is still in the making.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]