From walking tours to paintball, high-end properties offer new experiences and cost-friendly packagesMay 28, 2010 6:00 AM
by Maya Payne Smart
Photos courtesy individual hotels
Multimillion dollar makeovers. Changes in key personnel. Competitively priced packages.
These are some of the ways Virginia’s historic, high-end resorts continue to draw guests. While business travel is rebounding slowly, if at all, during these corporate penny-pinching times, some properties are seeing an uptick in leisure travel as consumers take advantage of new package deals.
At Keswick Hall near Charlottesville, corporate bookings are lagging this year. Yet, the pace of inquiries jumped in the first quarter, and leisure travel is up 10 percent from the year before. Notably, business and vacation travelers are waiting longer to book. The booking window for meetings, once six to 12 months before the event, now is only one to three months. And leisure travelers are booking just three to five days before arrival, compared with a month in advance in previous years.
“Travelers are very rate-conscious and often wait to the last minute to see if properties will drop rates a few days prior if not fully booked,” says Matthias Smith, Keswick Hall’s general manager. Even when low room-only rates (from $225) were offered, travelers still favored booking a package with breakfast or dinner inclusions over the room only.
Other properties such as The Homestead and the Tides Inn report increased demand for corporate meetings and leisure travel this year but say leisure is growing at a much faster clip.
The Homestead: new traditions
The Homestead is 249 years old, and many families return to the Allegheny Mountain resort year after year to play its championship golf courses, enjoy afternoon tea in the Great Hall or curl up in a rocker on the front porch. But these days the storied, 480-room resort has shed some of its traditional reserve to reveal a more youthful personality.
It’s sprucing up — $4 million will be spent to renovate 157 rooms and three meeting areas — and the marketing slant on its website is “3,000 acres of fun.” Leisure travel demand is up significantly for 2010, say hotel officials, while the meetings business improves at a slower pace.
Upon arrival at this national historic landmark in Hot Springs, guests can choose from more than 35 outdoor and indoor activities. They run the gamut from falconry and fly-fishing to mineral spring mud wraps and Nintendo Wii adventures. “It’s kind of like a cruise ship on land,” says Peter Faraone, who took over as vice president and general manager in March. “Park and everything is just at your back door.”
New summer activities include paintball and an all-terrain vehicle track. Paintball games take place twice daily at the resort’s wooded or speedball courses. Guests looking for more excitement can take ATVs out for a spin on a 2.3-mile track recently carved out of The Homestead’s ski mountain.
The new offerings come without price hikes. To compete during the recent economic downturn, The Homestead held pricing steady and began offering special packages. For instance, its “unlimited activities package,” starting at $295 per night for two people, covers lodging and as many outdoors activities as guests can handle in a day. “The package has been our key to finding the sweet spot of what customers are looking for in their vacations,” Faraone says.
Keswick Hall: making natural history
Keswick Hall is located just five miles from Thomas Jefferson’s famous Monticello. Yet, the 600-acre, 48-room estate — ranked by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the world’s best places to stay — is a player in its own right. “The property has a story of its own that it wants to tell,” Smith says.
So the resort has begun hosting tours to introduce visitors to the history of the area and buildings. Originally built as a private home in 1912, the property changed hands when Sir Bernard Ashley, husband of designer Laura Ashley, bought it in 1990 and sold it to Orient-Express Hotels in 1999. “In the Bernard Ashley days, it was known as very formal, and a bit intimidating. We look now to share its grandeur in a more easygoing and approachable manner,” Smith says.
It all starts with the greeting. “People lead such busy lives that they need to be able to unwind quickly and feel welcomed and catered to right away to take that edge off,” she explains.
Once guests are acclimated, there’s golf, a spa, pools and tennis courts along with new natural attractions. Keswick’s wooded trail system offers 8 miles of nature and bicycle paths. Its vegetable garden, located near the hotel’s kitchen, provides fresh food for the chef’s creations and a culinary education for visitors. Keswick is now growing more mixed greens and adding several different heirloom and newer tomato varieties.
Its wine operation is expanding, too. The resort’s sommelier and staff already produce custom-crushed Chardonnay using grapes from other vineyards. Soon it will plant its first vines and build a Virginia-themed wine cellar. “We’ve seen with the economy change that people want value in physical amenities, products and service,” Smith says. “So we’ve challenged the team to create experiences that guests wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
These experiences don’t come cheap. Prices range from $395/night for a 350-square-foot hall guest room to $970/night for master suites.
The Tides Inn: new guest packages
Return visitors to the Tides Inn will notice that rocking chairs now adorn all the terraces and outdoor areas at the 106-room Chesapeake Bay resort, created from the 150-year-old Ashburn Farm just after World War II. But that’s about the most laid-back addition to the resort this summer.
The inn overhauled its packages to include more options for the guest who seeks activity, not just relaxation. Plus, the packages offer an average 30 percent discount on amenity bundles. One deal includes unlimited use of the Golden Eagle Golf Course, driving range and practice facility. It costs $169 per person per night, with a minimum two-night stay and includes breakfast. Another package gives couples a romantic getaway with a waterfront suite, intimate three-course dinner, spa service and Carters Creek Cove Cruise on a 24-foot, flat-bottom or pontoon boat. That two-night deal runs $299 per person per night.
Other packages teach guests to sail or offer them a chance to sample local cuisine. “We’ve noticed the trend that leisure travelers are really looking for value,” says Alison Lundberg, director of communications for the Enchantment Group Spas and Resorts, the resort management company that oversees the Tides’ operations. “The more we can include in the stay, the better the opportunity that they’ll come.”
Summer guests also can look forward to new spa treatments that incorporate organic seaweed. Additionally, the resort now circulates a daily list of complimentary guest activities. Golf clinics, crabbing, parlor games (a Tides Inn tradition) and lectures are among the free offerings.
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