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Restoring a Treasure

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  • | 10:56 a.m. January 14, 2011
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Hotelier. Jack Damioli
Property. The Gasparilla Inn & Club
Key. Turning around a historic property takes years of careful planning so you retain existing customers and attract new ones.

Jack Damioli stepped back in time when he arrived to run the Gasparilla Inn & Club on Boca Grande four years ago.

Despite its location on the chic island between Fort Myers and Sarasota, the hotel had no computerized reservation system or Web site. In fact, the hotel had no computer at all.

What's more, the inn's kitchen had no air conditioning and guests had no privacy because their names were displayed each day on a board in the lobby. The dining room was frozen in the disco era with lime-green chairs, Japanese lanterns and giant mermaids painted on the walls. A soda machine hummed on the back porch.

Damioli is being kind to the previous management. “The property had fallen into a little bit of disrepair,” he says, with a smile. “It was really run as a club.”

But Damioli saw an opportunity to return the Gasparilla Inn into a one-of-a-kind jewel on the Gulf Coast, when years ago it hosted business tycoons J.P. Morgan, Henry DuPont, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. The hotelier knows all about historic properties; Damioli was the general manager of the Greenbrier Resort, the 232-year-old West Virginia landmark that has hosted presidents and movie stars and for years secretly served as the U.S. Congress bomb shelter in case of nuclear attack.

When he visited the Gasparilla Inn, Damioli saw the possibilities of bringing the hotel back to its roots as a luxury lodge for wealthy travelers. “All the bones were here,” he says.

What sealed the deal was the owners' commitment to the hotel's restoration, Damioli says. Fortunately, he says, the Farish family has the wherewithal to commit undisclosed sums to renovate the Gasparilla Inn and expand it.

Rebirthing Gasparilla

Built in 1913, the Gasparilla Inn was once owned by the Barron Collier family and later sold to Bayard Sharp, an heir to the DuPont family fortune. When he died in 2002, Sharp's daughter Sarah Farish inherited it with her husband, William Farish III.

The Farish family couldn't be reached, but Farish III served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain during George W. Bush's presidency from 2001 to 2004. Farish owns Houston-based trust company W.S. Farish and Lane's End, a thoroughbred horse farm in Kentucky that has produced numerous derby winners. Farish was chairman of Churchill Downs from 1992 to 2001.

When he interviewed for the job as president and general manager of Gasparilla Inn, Damioli was invited to Lane's End to meet with the Farish family. Damioli, a Midwesterner who had been identified by a recruiter, says he initially was reluctant to take on the job because of the hotel's condition at the time and the fact that he had little interest in moving to Florida.

But the splendor of Lane's End's manicured pens and deluxe barns told Damioli everything he needed to know about their commitment to reinvesting in the Gasparilla Inn. “I realized I didn't have to talk about anything at all,” he says.

Since the Farish family became more involved with Gasparilla Inn, they've spent large sums to rehabilitate the property. While Damioli declines to say how much they've spent, Lee County building permits show the owners have invested tens of thousands of dollars, from hiring renowned golf-course architect Pete Dye to redesign the seaside golf course to installing new air-conditioning systems and replacing crumbling portions of the 62-room inn.

“It's not an asset to them, it's a love,” Damioli says. “None of this could happen without their support.”

Damioli declines to share specific details of the hotel's five-year capital plan, but he says part of that includes the current expansion of the property's marina. The Farishes are adding a new, 70-slip dry-storage boat facility with a ship store and viewing porch. The marina, which currently has 142 dry slips and 30 wet ones, has a waiting list of 170 people.

Damioli's special challenge has been to renovate the inn and its 18 cottages and modernize them without alienating existing customers, some of whom notice small details such as a missing favorite chair. That's one of the reasons the big renovations weren't done all at once and then only during the summer months of July and August when the hotel is closed.

While the Gasparilla Inn now has modern amenities like flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi Internet service, it still holds well-attended bingo games and croquet tournaments. “It's a matter of evolution, not revolution,” Damioli says. “It's been done gradually; we've done this very methodically.”

Damioli contrasts that with the demolition of grand old hotels such as the Cloister in Sea Island, Ga., which was replaced by a new building without character that Damioli calls “a box.”

The new Cloister chased away its longtime clients because the new hotel was so shockingly different. Meanwhile, new guests failed to show up because it wasn't much different from other new ultra-luxury resorts. (The Cloister's owner, the privately held Sea Island Company, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.)

In addition, Damioli was able to recruit some of the top hotel executives from the Greenbrier, including John Reecher, who was the director of catering at the West Virginia resort and is now director of food and beverage at the Gasparilla Inn. In addition, Damioli recruited the Greenbrier's executive chef, Peter Timmins, and Charlie Baker, director of housekeeping.

Recruiting these skilled executives to Boca Grande took more than just competitive salaries. For example, Timmins had become more of an administrator at the Greenbrier and wanted to return to the kitchen to cook and teach, Damioli says. “Bringing the team was the major challenge,” Damioli says.

Rebuilding occupancy

Since Damioli took over as president and general manager of the Gasparilla Inn in 2006, he says occupancies at the hotel have risen 50% and rates have risen about 3% annually. Although he declines to cite specific occupancies and average daily rates over that time period, the increase in business contrasts with the hotel industry downturn and economic conditions in general.

For starters, the hotel has benefited from the fact that 65% of its guests are repeat customers and two-thirds of them live within driving distance, because the nearest airports in Fort Myers and Sarasota are more than one hour away by car.

Because the hotel doesn't have a large marketing budget compared with chains of hotels and doesn't sell rooms on popular travel Web sites such as Travelocity and Expedia, Damioli focused on generating good press in travel and leisure magazines as well as newsletters for high-end travelers to generate new business. The hotel has been featured in publications ranging from the New York Times to Conde Nast Traveler, Southern Living and Gary Galyean's Golf Letter.

Damioli also says he immediately got involved with the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “You're the guys who never return our phone calls,” a VCB representative told Damioli the first time he showed up at the tourism group's annual meeting in 2006.

Damioli had to build the marketing plan from scratch, hiring a public-relations manager, Lindsay Leibson, and the Pennsylvania-based marketing firm Boyd Tamney Cross to help him (Boyd had been the marketing firm for the Greenbrier). “We had no Web site, no collateral, no photos,” he recalls.

The inn's marketing strategy plays on its strengths, from the landmark property to the nostalgia for times gone by while offering modern accommodations. The idea is to attract multiple generations to the inn. There's a new word for this trend among hospitality consultants: “Togethering.”

You can go tarpon fishing during the day while your spouse enjoys yoga on the beach and the children can go kayaking. “The luxury traveler is looking for experience,” Damioli says. “I think that's in our favor.”

That's what Lee County tourism officials try to sell when they're pitching the area to the travel press, says Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee VCB. “It's almost an easy sell,” she says.

Because many of its guests come from cities within driving distance such as Tampa and Orlando, the island's remoteness isn't a problem. In fact, it helps the destination's image as a safe a secure place for families.

After all, where else are 14-year-olds allowed to drive golf carts?


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