Blake Fleetwood may check into a historic hotel by himself, but
he’s rarely alone. The New York travel agent conjures as his
companions the ghosts of long-ago guests: Frank Capra writing “It’s
a Wonderful Life” at La Quinta in Palm Springs; President Kennedy
trysting at the Carlyle in New York City; Charles Lindbergh
relaxing at the Hay-Adams in Washington, D.C.
Fleetwood an agent with Planetarium American Express in New York
City often steers clients to historic hotels, and he’s hardly
alone. With many travelers turned off by the numbing similarity of
so-called “beige hotels,” savvy agents are turning to these grand
dames of the lodging industry to provide clients with an experience
they will remember for a lifetime.
“What we’re finding is that travelers are getting tired of the
same-old, same-old. They’re really looking to broaden their
experiences,” said Mary Billingsley, director of communications at
Historic Hotels of America, a nonprofit membership and marketing
organization that is part of the Washington, D.C.-based National
Trust for Historic Preservation.
At the Menger Hotel in downtown San Antonio, Texas, clients
sidle up to the bar where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders in
1898. Fans of Dorothy Parker can sleep in the Algonquin Hotel room
where the New York writer lived during the 1920s. The 1906 Golden
Gate Hotel, Las Vegas’ oldest, offers guests the room where a
grieving Clark Gable holed up after wife Carole Lombard died in a
1942 airplane crash.
Based in Washington, D.C., Historic Hotels of America started in
1989 with 32 properties. Membership has soared to 208 dues-paying
hotels, with a total 34,014 rooms. The oldest is Hotel El Convento,
built in 1651 as a Carmelite convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The
youngsters many located in the West generally date to the early
part of the 20th century, though a hotel as young as 50 may be
eligible for membership.
“Our hotels range from two to five diamonds, in all different
price points, which is great for the traveler and the travel
agent,” explained Shirley Talbert, director of marketing and
distribution for Historic Hotels.
Rates at member hotels range from $79 a night for a room at New
Hampshire’s Eagle Mountain House to $12,500 a night for the
ultra-luxurious penthouse suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, used
by Secretary of State Edward Stettinius when the United Nations
charter was drafted at the Nob Hill landmark in 1945.
With hundreds if not thousands of historic hotels across the
country, total heads-in-beds numbers are hard to come by. But
anecdotal evidence indicates that this niche market is hot and
“I’m seeing an increase in people who are interested in staying
out of your basic Hilton and Hyatt, where you could be any place in
the world,” said Teri Trettin of the Travel Center in Tacoma,
Wash., whose favorites include the 1861 Jacksonville Inn in
Since Sept. 11, the U.S. tourism industry has experienced a
surge of interest in cultural and heritage travel, noted Allen Kay,
director of communications for the Travel Industry Association of
“We did consumer surveys after Sept. 11, and we found that
Americans wanted to be closer to family, but they also wanted to be
closer to their cultural and heritage institutions,” Kay
For travelers weary of the homogenization of America’s cities,
“authentic experiences are an important factor and motivator” for
travel decisions, according to the TIA’s forthcoming “Outlook for
Travel and Tourism 2006.”
Historic properties may be old, but they are not frozen in time.
Internet access and business centers are not uncommon. Many of the
old gals have undergone costly renovations to match the amenities
and services offered by newer properties. The Ojai Valley Inn and
Spa, a circa-1920s red-roofed adobe north of Los Angeles, underwent
a $90 million renovation and now offers a spa menu and mini-courses
in painting, journaling and gardening.
Some properties observe traditions that would seem forced at a
big-box hotel. Complementary wine and sherry are set out each
afternoon in the sumptuous parlor at the Gilded Age-era Wentworth
Mansion in Charleston, S.C.
“It’s very popular with the guests. There’s usually a fire
going, and people chat and get to know each other,” said Linn
Lesesne, director of public relations and group sales at Charming
Inns, which includes three historic hotels in its portfolio of five
Still, many travelers equate old with uncomfortable and
inconvenient. Moreover, travel can be a disorienting experience
that causes many people to yearn for the familiarity of a
chain-brand property, said Fleetwood.
Other clients are willing to step out of their comfort zone they
just need a little push.
“I always find that if they try this kind of thing once, they’re
definite believers,” said Trettin.
Agent Susan Tanzman, of Martin’s Travel and Tours in Los
Angeles, reports good luck pairing mass-market clients with these
niche-market properties, even those with quirky idiosyncrasies.
Tanzman said clients giddily report back to her about claw-foot
bathtubs and four-poster beds so high you have to climb a
“Traveling is an experience and when you make the room part of
that experience, people just love it,” she said.
Location is often a selling point for historic hotels. Guests at
the oceanfront Georgian Hotel, an art deco landmark in Santa
Monica, Calif., can sit on the veranda in the evening and watch the
lights twinkle on the Santa Monica pier.
Travel agents who book rooms in Historic Hotels properties (GDS
code HE) support the National Trust, which works to save America’s
historic places. Sadly, many classic hotels did not survive. The
Madison-Lennon in Detroit was 104 years old when it was demolished
in 2005. The Mapes Hotel, built in 1947, met the same fate in
Far luckier is the Wentworth by the Sea in New Hampshire, the
first hotel on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list
of 11 Most-Endangered Places. A coalition of preservationists,
community supporters and friends intervened to save this elegant
hotel from the wrecking ball, and today she welcomes guests from
her bluff-top perch.
French Lick Springs Resort & Spa (Indiana)
8670 West State Road 56
French Lick, Indiana 47432
800 457 4042
The River Street Inn
124 E. Bay Street
Savannah, GA 31401
1200 Anastasia Avenue
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Mohonk Mountain House
1000 Mountain Rest Road
New Paltz, NY 12561
The Williamsburg Inn
136 E. Francis St.
Williamsburg, VA 23185
Phone: (757) 220-7978
The Park Central Hotel
640 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139
The Old Tavern
92 Main Street
Grafton, VT 05146
Royal Palms Resort and Spa
5200 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
6771 North Palm Ave.
Fresno, CA 93704
Hotel Del Coronado
1500 Orange Avenue
Coronado, CA 92118
330 East Main Street
Aspen, CO 81611
1600 17th Street
Denver, CO 80202
950 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Hotel St. Francis
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
Sante Fe, NM 87501
La Quinta Resort and Club
49-499 Eisenhower Drive
La Quinta, CA 92253