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Touching History

Historic Hotels of America is celebrating 20 years representing some of the country’s oldest yet coolest hotels.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
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Though the hotel business seems fixated on developing new hotels, there are plenty of properties out there where being old is its greatest virtue. And Americans are also proving they have a love for everything old. Historical travel has been on the rise for years and according to The Historic/Cultural Traveler, historical places are a main attraction on nearly 60 percent of trips taken every year.

While a lot of these folks are visiting museums or historical places, many are looking to stay in hotels that were born in a bygone era. But finding them isn’t as easy as plugging in a destination online. Instead, for the last 20 years they’ve been turning to the Historic Hotels of America (www.historichotels.org) to have a taste of history.

The group is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Founded in 1989 with 32 members, the Historic Hotels of America now represents about 215 properties, each more than 50 years old. The association – now part of Preferred Hotel Group – was founded with the idea of taking hotels that were part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and marketing them to a wider audience.

“We saw an opportunity to reach the mass market through legendary and iconic properties that were still operating. These places are not a museum or boarded-up mansion, they’re actual living breathing places that represent a throwback to earlier times that people could actually experience,” said Thierry Roch, Executive Director, Historic Hotels of America (HHA). “Reaching out to the travel community was a natural extension.”

Members of Historic Hotels of America represent the heritage and development of America, said Roch. One of the earliest hotels, Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a former Carmelite Convent dating to 1651. Another, The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, dates to 1773 and was originally established as a stagecoach stop. Some more famous members include The Waldorf-Astoria, The Greenbriar, The Hotel Del Coronado and the Peabody Memphis. Hotels range in size from a 15-room country inn - The Smith House in Dahlonega, GA - to the city center Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, with 1639 rooms.

Tracey Simmons, membership services director with HHA, said many travelers are looking for something different than the traditional branded hotel stay. “We find that, as consumers get older and travel more off the beaten path, they look to find something more unique. When they are visiting many smaller towns they find these hotels can be found right off Main Street and they want to experience Americana. That’s what we are promoting,” said Simmons.

Take, for example, the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO. President Teddy Roosevelt stayed here during a hunting trip and one day returned empty-handed. According to Simmons, staff members quickly crafted a small bear and stuffed it with scraps of cloths and rags and put it on his pillow. His daughter, legend has it, called it Teddy, and one of the world’s most beloved toys was born.

Hoteliers like Jerry Jacobson, General Manager of the 130-year-old Eagle Mountain House & Golf Club in Jackson, NH, likens the association to providing a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for historic properties”.
“Not only does it help consumers understand us, but the association provides access to the GDS and a number of other marketing opportunities that rarely an individual property can acquire on its own,” said Jacobson.
But just because a hotel is historic doesn’t mean it has to be old. While some member hotels have retained their original essence with no televisions or air conditioning, most have blended modern services and amenities such as WiFi to create an Old World shell with modern functionality.

Roch said to qualify for membership, hotels must be on the National Register of Historic Places, which can be obtained through the National Park Service. The building itself doesn’t have to be on the list if the property is in an historic district. Properties also don’t have to be operating as a hotel for 50 years. Historic buildings can be converted to hotels and also qualify. Roch also noted that the association also provides developers with help with adaptive reuse strategies. “We are very methodical and very persnickety that our hotels maintain their historic integrity inside and out. We visit all hotels in advance to ensure they haven’t been gutted and all the primary architecture hasn’t been removed and destroyed to lose that sense of place,” said Roch. “These buildings have created emotional connections over generations to guests and we want a hotel to be as authentic and rehabilitated in a sensitive manner. That has helped us stand the test of time with owners and consumers.”

Since hotels need to be at least 50 years old, that means hotels opened in 1960 are about to become eligible. It’s a new direction the organization has taken in the last few years, as architectural styles of the 1950s and 1960s are vastly different than ones built generations before. “We are trying to be sure to embrace mid-century modern, the recent past,” said Simmons. “People are really thinking of the 1950s as historic now. Old is quickly becoming new again.”

Historic Hotels of America is also looking to grow the program both domestically and internationally by partnering with similar associations in Mexico and Europe. The groups hope to build a worldwide collection. “We are a young country and there are treasures around the world so we are engaging in cross alliances with each of them,” said Roch, noting that Europe has 17 organizations alone.
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