OAK BLUFFS — From almost every vantage point, the Wesley Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard has spectacular views. Boats bob gently in Oak Bluffs Harbor through the north-facing windows, while those to the southeast have overlooked the town’s famous confection of colorful cottages since the hotel first opened in 1879.
But for guests of the island’s oldest and largest oceanfront property, the charm ended when you got a glimpse of the rooms.
“Everything about the Wesley is outdated and worn,” a TripAdvisor reviewer warned last fall. “If not for the location, this place would be out of business,” another opined.
Historic seaside getaways in New England have long gotten away with the fact that their musty, doilied decor was all part of their nostalgic appeal while the hotels themselves became a part of the local landscape. So islanders’ ears perked up last summer when they heard that the longtime owner had finally found a buyer.
Two weeks ago, after an extensive renovation, the Wesley Hotel reopened as Summercamp. The team behind the change is Lark Hotels, an Amesbury-based hotel group that has been swooping in on some of New England’s toniest destinations and overhauling iconic buildings for a new generation of travelers. It’s one of three hotels they’ll begin operating on the Vineyard this summer.
Since launching in 2012, Lark has done what most of us only daydream of doing. Its founders, Rob Blood and Dawn Hagin, have taken over the marketing, management, and operations of woebegone buildings in prime locations and outfitted them with colorful, Instagram-worthy furnishings. With the help of a growing group of deep-pocketed investors, they’re moving swiftly to establish themselves as a leader in the boutique hotel industry, having set up shop in idyllic destinations such as Nantucket; Newport, R.I.; and Kennebunkport, Maine.
This year they’ll open five new properties, in New England and California, bringing the tally of hotels they oversee to 19.
“Why choose to stay at a generic Hilton when you’re going to a really cool, unique destination?” asked Rob Blood, Lark’s founder and chief executive.
It’s a question that’s resonating with millennials, who are flocking to Lark properties and dropping their signature #onalark hashtag in their social media feeds, said Natalie Francoeur, a hospitality industry analyst with Boston’s Pinnacle Advisory Group.
“They’re looking for something that’s a little bit smaller and a little bit more intimate that reflects the flavor of the local destination and culture,” she said.
Blood said there’s also a sense of wanting more than just a room. “They want to arrive in a destination and know what the insiders know.”
But those insiders are beginning to chafe at Lark’s arrival. Some on the Vineyard see the boutique hotel chain as an interloper and view the company’s rapid growth as an aggressive move by a corporate entity.
“As a islander, it saddens me to see [a] hotel that’s been on the island and owned by a local since the 1800s fall to the hands of an off-island corporation,” said John Tiernan, a fourth-generation Vinyarder and owner of Dockside Inn. Tiernan said he fears that Lark’s arrival signals the eventual Starbucks-ification of Oak Bluffs.
His worries are part of a Greek chorus that has echoed out up and down the Eastern Seaboard as well-funded hotel groups move into established beach communities to revitalize properties. In Montauk, the fishing town on Long Island’s East End, locals complained of hipster fatigue after a set of trendsetting new hotels drew young people. A similar story is playing out in Gloucester, where locals battled against the arrival of the Beauport Hotel, a 95-room luxury property that will open this summer.
“Now we’ve taken the fundamental thing of what makes us a tourist town, and we’ve made that corporate-owned,” Tiernan said.
Summercamp is Lark’s largest hotel project yet, and in a way, it’s a pivotal moment for a small company that started as a single inn in Kennebunkport.
“We’re running out of places in New England,” Summercamp’s developer, Rich Cooper, joked recently from his makeshift office in the hotel. Blood, who most regard as the driving force behind the brand, has been moving quickly to secure a toehold in key locations, and said he’s been receiving calls from interested partners as far afield as St. Croix and Bali. All of which raises the question: Can they keep the small-scale details that distinguish them as a boutique brand as they expand their reach?
Blood and Dawn Hagin, Lark’s “chief inspiration officer,” believe they can. With each property, Hagin digs into the history of the region, picking out telling details to inspire its theme. For the Merchant Hotel in Salem, she built on the city’s shipping history, lining the walls with colorful images of spices that had helped drive the city’s economy in the 17th century.
“We’re in iconic destinations, and we want to embrace that through a sense of place,” she said.
Francoeur, the hospitality analyst, said Lark’s smaller size has allowed it to feel more personal than larger hotel counterparts. But that also creates challenges. “When you get into the smaller room counts, you have to be more creative in how to make it work financially,” she said.
The story that Blood shares about Lark’s origins is a romantic one: After his father died in a skiing accident at age 50, Blood and his wife, Leigh, left their teaching jobs at the Loomis Chaffee school in Windsor, Conn., to pursue their dream of running a small hotel. But in truth, his departure was far more complicated. In 2003, he was terminated after the school “concluded that he had an inappropriate relationship with a student,” a school representative said via e-mail. Blood denied the charges and was suspended, while Leigh stayed on as a teacher.
“The police investigated it; I took lie detector tests and did psychological evaluations. Then it went quiet for quite a long time,” he said.
Blood and his wife left Connecticut and began managing an inn in Nantucket. In 2004, they bought the Captain Fairfield Inn in Kennebunkport. It was there in 2005 that Blood was arrested, after the Hartford prosecutors’ office reopened the case. He eventually pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor charge, in 2008.
A sergeant from the Windsor police department called the case a proverbial “he said, she said.”
Blood said he has been honest about the charges with his investors and colleagues.
Those investors said they have been struck by Blood’s openness and commitment to his business. “We had a very extensive discussion about the circumstances,” said Bruce Percelay, the chairman of the Mount Vernon Company, one of the largest real estate investment firms in New England, and an investor in several Lark Hotels. “We got a very clear understanding of what happened. And we’re accepting of his explanation.”
The real estate developer had purchased an inn on Nantucket to house his wedding guests, thinking it was both an investment and an opportunity to dabble in the hospitality game. When he looked for help to manage it, “Rob approached me with these grandiose plans and income projections that quite honestly, I was a little skeptical as to whether he was just giving me a story to hire him, or whether he could actually achieve it,” Percelay said.
With Blood’s oversight, Lark overhauled the hotel at 76 Main with modern, technicolor touches, reopening it in 2013. Percelay worried it might upset the locals but was so tickled by the public’s response that he quickly invested in another Nantucket property, which Lark opened as 21 Broad, the following year. He’s been an active investor in Lark hotels as the company has expanded.
Financial backing from such enthusiastic investors has been key to Lark’s rapid growth, Blood said. And because of the historic nature of the properties, Lark has managed to secure tax credits and other state-based grants for its renovation efforts. Blood stresses that Lark itself doesn’t own anything. He’s a part-owner in some of their properties, while the Lark team manages others. He said he tends to see 8 percent returns on each of his properties within a year of opening.
The varied structure of each hotel deal allows the company to be nimble, said Cooper, the developer working on Summercamp. It also means that they’ve been able to maintain an authenticity among a rising tide of imitators.
Right now, boutique hotel properties only account for 5 percent of the hospitality industry, according to the IBISWorld research firm, but are poised to grow rapidly. In the past decade, hotel behemoths like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt have all launched smaller, trendier lodging options for the guests, with varying degrees of success.
But with many hotel groups scrambling to hop on the trend, one hotel executive went so far as to call the boutique hotel concept “spiritually bankrupt,” at a recent travel industry conference.
Those fears are echoed by Lark’s own investors: “He’s grown so fast I get nervous,” Percelay said. “I don’t want to lose my personal touch.”