At some of America’s grandest hotels, the history lessons are free.He was an uninvited yet not altogether unexpected guest.
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The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa
Hotel Del Coronado
Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club
The history of the hotel is so sufficiently rich that Faulkner, who grew up in Colorado, can offer any number of themed tours, be it one that focuses on presidential visitors — which has included every head of state from Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush, with the exception of Calvin Coolidge — or on the unique architecture or women’s history. But on this day, Faulkner was leading a private tour for a family, showing off a section of the hotel on the second floor called the Brown Palace Club, when someone asked whether a certain gentleman coming out of the restroom was a guest or an employee. First of all, the restroom was the ladies’ room; and when everyone else looked, no one saw the man.
But this ghostly figure — dressed in a railroad conductor’s hat and looking repeatedly at his pocket watch — has reportedly been appearing to guests and hotel workers for years, although Faulkner herself has never seen him. “When people try to approach him or speak to him, he floats to the first floor of the hotel,” she says, where a ticket office for the Rock Island Railroad used to be located. “He may be selling tickets to who-knows-who, to who-knows-where.”
Leading a tour where there’s at least an outside chance that a ghost might make an appearance is just one of the novel aspects of being a hotel historian. Faulkner is one of just a handful of people around the country who hold this unique position, one that is typically part time and involves elements of public outreach and marketing (besides leading tours, historians also give speeches, do interviews with journalists and answer questions from guests and those who live in the community) as well as more traditional research and archivist duties.
Naturally, there’s a limit to the number of hotel historians because there are only so many resorts around the country with sufficiently long and notable legacies — in all likelihood, there are fewer than 20 such positions in total, at marquee establishments like the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego (opened in 1888), the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia (1778), the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. (1896) and the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club in Saint Petersburg, Fla. (1925). While there is clearly an acute appreciation for the history of each of these hotels, it’s not entirely true that the owners and managers of resorts that employ historians are doing it simply for altruistic reasons. “It’s a good sales tool,” says Elaine Normile, who has served as the historian at the Vinoy since 1998. “We generate some business; we generate some advertising and some PR because of it.”
Indeed, in the highly competitive travel industry, finding something — anything — to differentiate your hotel from its competitors is essential. “I think management recognizes that this is what makes the hotel stand out among other high-end hotels; this is the only one that has had 119 continuous years of elegance,” says Faulkner, who is the third historian to be employed by the Brown Palace, the first one having been hired in 1977. What makes having a historian a particularly savvy business decision is that it allows a hotel to forge deep relationships with both guests and locals that likely would be more difficult for a brand-new Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton. In fact, Normile says that the Vinoy originally envisioned that tours would be mostly for guests but has found that the vast majority of people who take them live in the surrounding area — certainly not a bad thing when it comes to generating more business for the hotel’s restaurant and for encouraging locals to recommend the Vinoy when they have visitors from out of town.
Historians also help cement bonds and hopefully bolster repeat business by serving as a resource for those who have questions about the hotel’s past. At the Brown Palace in Denver, for instance, Faulkner spends a portion of her time responding to e-mails and phone messages from the general public. The queries run the gamut from people who come across a vintage menu or photo from the hotel and want to know whether the Brown Palace wants to buy it — something Faulkner can’t do because she has no budget for acquisitions — to people who heard some family lore that their great-grandfather did the carvings in the lobby and want to know whether it’s true. In those cases, Faulkner will delve into the hotel’s archives and try to find an answer. In the course of her archival research, Faulkner has discovered a number of surprises, including long-forgotten yet very important guests. “Last year the Denver School Dames, a bunch of schoolteachers who go out and have fun, had the 100th anniversary of their first meeting, which had been held here,” she says. “So we wanted to see a guest book from their first meeting and we open it up and find HRH Prince of Wales. Turns out, the school dames shared the hotel that day with George V.”