The reception room at 700 Drayton at the Mansion on Forsyth Park.
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From Budget to Boutique

Meryle Evans / November 2012

Meryle Evans follows the career trajectory of a pioneer in the hotel business.

I like to have my hotels where people want to be, not where they have to be,” says Richard Kessler, CEO of The Kessler Collection, a portfolio of 10 (and counting) unconventional boutique properties that are a paean to Kessler’s passion for art and music.

There are more than 400 works of art on display at his Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia; The Castle in Orlando is a medieval fantasy; and wildlife paintings, animal sculptures, and antler chandeliers create the ambience of a middle European Bohemian lodge in his Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. Kessler first became hooked on hospitality back in 1970, when, at the age of 23, with a master’s degree in industrial engineering, he joined fellow Georgian Cecil Day to open the first Days Inn on Tybee Island, near Savannah, launching a chain of moderately priced lodgings. Five years later, Kessler became CEO of Days Inn of America and stayed on until he sold the company in 1984. But even in the early 1980s, before “boutique” had become a buzz word for hip hotels, and while Ian Schrager and Bill Kimpton were just starting to initiate high-design concepts, Kessler was thinking “theme,” converting an old cotton warehouse in Savannah into a charming inn filled with antiques and paintings, and building a plantation-style hotel in Orlando.

Fast-forward a decade. With commercial real estate ventures flourishing across the country, philanthropic projects underway to honor his Lutheran forebears the Salzburgers, who came to America from Bavaria in 1734, and a rapidly expanding art collection, Kessler plunged back into hotel development. He envisioned a serendipitous ensemble of deluxe “grand theme” establishments, each with a different focus, depending on location and market, but designed to showcase his eclectic cultural enthusiasms.

“What is the story line?” Kessler asks, sitting down with his in-house design team to plan a new venture. Art, mostly contemporary, wall to wall, in corridors, restaurants, and public spaces, is a given. When he sees work by an artist he admires, like the French painter Jean Claude Roy, he buys it all, and stores it in a warehouse, along with sculptures, chandeliers, clocks, furniture, and glass, deciding in consultation with designers where it will go. Like a painting? You can buy it—there are 4,000 more in the warehouse ready to replace it.

From decor to dining, each hotel reflects its environment. At the Mansion on Forsyth Park, overlooking one of Savannah’s myriad leafy squares, the original terra-cotta brick Victorian Romanesque manor house, built in 1888, was turned into a multilevel culinary center. The lower level houses a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen, where chef Darin Sehnert’s hands-on cooking classes are among the city’s most popular attractions for both locals and tourists. There are six private dining rooms in addition to the restaurant 700 Drayton, where Sehnert takes Savannah coastal cuisine to a new level. Among the appetizers, clams from Sapelo Island, Georgia, are served with okra, mustard greens with pot likker, and white truffle croutons; Calibouge shrimp fritters with spicy pepper jelly. Entrées include pan-roasted Southern Coast grouper with whipped parsnips, sautéed bitter greens, and crawfish/tasso cream. An all-peach dessert features a tart, ice cream, and candied peach pecans.

The adjacent 126 room hotel, built to match, brick by brick, the original home, opened in 2005. Old and new converge in the lobby: one-of-a-kind Versace furniture, 200 year old pink marble columns, an original Lalique chandelier, and a beguiling collection of vintage women’s hats, representing top milliners from 1860 to 1960, “because,” Kessler explains, “hats were important to ladies in the south.”

Harmony with nature is the theme at the pueblo-style El Monte Sagrado Resort Spa in Taos, New Mexico, where executive chef Henry Chaperont offers locally inspired dishes like green chile mac-n-cheese, seared whole rainbow trout, and elk tenderloin with wild berry demi-glace. The luxury Beaver Creek Lodge in Beaver Creek, Colorado, spotlights local artists and chef Weston Schroeder’s American cuisine, while St. Augustine, Florida’s historic Casa Monica, a restored 1888 Moorish revival landmark, showcases chef Harlan Walden’s local seafood dishes—sweet curry grilled shrimp; coriander-crusted sea scallops with whipped black beans, roasted corn salsa, citrus/chile aïoli, and cilantro oil; and Bahamian lobster tail/crab risotto with Champagne smoked tomato fondue.

Several of the Kessler hotels are designated Bohemian or Grand Bohemian, the later category being larger, with more public spaces for special events, spas, and professionally staffed art galleries. The name is the result of an “aha” moment during a business trip to San Francisco, when Kessler spied members of the city’s famed Bohemian Club enjoying an outing, and he realized the free spirited bohemian lifestyle matched his own vision for the collection.

At the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Orlando, the Bösendorfer Lounge takes its name from the Rolls-Royce of pianos, and boasts an Imperial Grand Bösendorfer, one of only two in the world. Live music is played nightly, as patrons sip specialty Martinis like the Key Lime Pie, a concoction of Grey Goose Le Citron, Licor 43, lime juice, and cream with a graham cracker crust rim. In the hotel’s flamboyant red and black Boheme Restaurant, chef Laurent Hollaender created a Chilly in Chile menu this summer, paring wines from Concha y Toro with mariscos al pil-pil and parrillada of beef. A private wine room seating 12 provides an intimate setting for special tastings. And, not surprisingly, there is a Kessler Artist Series of California wines, with custom labels inspired by paintings of four of his favorite artists. In the gemütlich, informal Red Stag Grill at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, named for a type of deer indigenous to middle Europe, chef Adam Hayes re-creates Old World cuisine using very local products: beef goulash with spaetzle, Carolina bison rib eye, and smoked Dry Ridge Farms “Freedom Ranger” chicken, served with seven grain risotto and summer beans.

What’s ahead for the entrepreneurial aesthete? With a son and daughter, both graduates of Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, New York, taking on leadership roles, and a marketing affiliation with the Autograph Collection, a new Marriott brand of distinctive hotels, Kessler would like to add 12 to 15 more properties. But is there enough art to fill the halls? “Well,” Kessler comments, “I just bought 60 pieces in the last 10 days.”