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Joyce Endee

The Balsams draws former guests back into the fold

August 26, 2009
DIXVILLE NOTCH — A letter mailed earlier this summer to 8,000 former guests of The Balsams by Innkeeper Emeritus Steve Barba, who served for years as one of the managing partners of the Grand Hotel, has helped to lure many of them back.

"The response to that letter has been tremendous," said president and general manager Jeff McIver, who returned to The Balsams on June first. This followed a four-year absence during the years when Delaware North was under contract to manage the resort. Mr. McIver had previously served from 2002 to April 2005 as the hotel's general manager under the aegis of Mr. Barba.

The letter urged former guests to come by Mr. McIver's office, introduce themselves, and pick up one of four "Welcome-to-The Balsams" gifts.

Some of the innovations that were introduced by the former management company have been dropped and previous practices restored, most notably the classic full American Plan, in which three meals and all resort activities are included for a single price without any "bed-and-breakfast" options and one table is assigned in the dining room giving guests the freedom to eat at any hour that the dining room is open.

"The old Balsams is back," said Mr. McIver, whose mission has been to fully restore the resort's core values of quality, service and hospitality.

Delaware North's manager shared a lot of financial information with hotel staff members in an effort to staunch the flow of red ink. Mr. McIver noted, however, that this information sharing had appeared to have diverted employees' attention from serving and pleasing guests, which, after all, is their prime responsibility.

A manager's job is to worry about the bottom line, he explained.

"The Balsams is too special to let it die," Mr. McIver said. Longtime guests have "a sense of ownership" in the place, and newcomers appreciate the experience.

A widow returned for her 42nd year this summer and enjoyed sitting on a bench that has a discreet plaque marking it as a memorial to her late husband. Her "kids" and her grandkids enjoy the place. "It's as though it is in their genes," Mr. McIver said. During their stay, a bouquet of flowers — indicating 35 continuous years of stays — marked the family's table in the dining room, once again overseen by ma"tre d' hotel John White.

August has been satisfyingly busy, Mr. McIver reported on Thursday. "We've had 200 guests a night on average for the last 10 days — over 90 percent occupancy," he said.

As is true at other hostelries, guests are making reservations closer to the day they arrive.

Stays in June and July were down 30 percent from a year ago, however. "And last year was nothing to brag about," Mr. McIver noted wryly.

Like others in the hospitality industry, he doesn't know whether the stumbling economy or the cold and rainy weather was more to blame.

Now that August is here, Mr. McIver said that there is a good mix of Baby Boomers and members of the older generation on hand.

"I'd say that it was about half-and-half in the dining room last night," he said, noting that he keeps a close eye on these kinds of demographics.

"Bookings for the foliage season are ahead of last October," Mr. McIver said, adding that he is also excited about the upcoming winter season, where the American Plan provides a good value for skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The Tillotson Corporation continues to invest in the hotel. Somewhere between $6 and $7 million has been spent on a new sprinkler system, including the steel-framed 1929 Hampshire House, plus $300,000 for a second egress on the backside of the Dix House.

The downstairs theater is being rebuilt and the two adjacent meeting rooms refurbished.

The Switzerland-of-America Ballroom has been substantially changed to make it more attractive for weddings and wedding receptions, while preserving the dance floor and enhancing food service.

A free-to-guests business center will be created this fall in one of the existing gift shops, and wireless broadband service will be available throughout the hotel.

At a downtown meeting later that evening in Colebrook, Rick Tillotson reported that The Balsams had lost out on booking a New Hampshire Bar Association convention when lawyers learned they would not be able to use their Blackberries to stay in touch with their clients.

"We're keeping the hotel up-to-date, but we know that our guests come here because they want to relax," Mr. McIver said. "Children love to come here because they love being with their parents — and grandparents — when they are relaxed. There's no stress, no strife. Everyone can go out the front door or out the back door to go swimming, play tennis, kayak, or play golf without getting into their car."

A brand-new website is being created to tout the distinct offerings and personality of The Balsams. Bob Manley, the lead partner in BobDonPaul.com of Sanbornton was on hand on Thursday to interview Mr. Barba for a videotape of him telling stories about the Grand Hotel and its history.

Mr. Manley, his brother Don Manley, and their mutual friend Paul Gurne, who formed a business partnership, hope that some of this footage will not only be used on the new website but also possibly to create a documentary film.

Mr. Manley reports on his blog that bobdonpaul.com is already at work developing an updated marketing and branding campaign for The Balsams, and is developing new interactive and web-based tools as well as traditional media and public relations. 

Mr. Manley explained, "We have pulled together a team from across New England to develop a multi-media approach that will enable our audience to get a taste of the wonder and excitement of the resort."

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Varney Smith
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