The ink was barely dry on the final sale agreement for the Wesley Hotel, but last Friday morning, Rob Blood, founder and CEO of Lark Hotels, was already on the job.
Sitting on the porch of his company’s newest acquisition, the soft-spoken CEO said he’d become familiar with the Vineyard business climate when he and Dawn Hagin, listed on the Lark company website as “chief inspiration officer,” spent six months in Edgartown in 2010–11 supervising the transformation of the 100-year-old Colonial Inn into the Vineyard Square Hotel and Suites. “When I first saw the Wesley Hotel for sale, I knew it was a great opportunity,” he said. “This is a perfect location. It’s the gateway to Oak Bluffs. You can come here and never have to bring your car.”
The Wesley Hotel is the last of the grand Victorian hotels in Oak Bluffs. Peter Martel, co-owner of the Wesley with partners George Fisher and Richard Kelley, has operated the 95-room hotel for the past 29 years.
Mr. Blood said he began preliminary talks with Mr. Martell about a year ago, and the subsequent negotiations were the most challenging of his career. “Usually it’s just a straight ‘buy a hotel, close the deal,’ and it’s relatively easy,” he said. “This time it was much more involved.”
Tradition with a twist
Lark Hotels operates a collection of 10 self-described boutique hotels that look to create “luxury in the heart of iconic destinations.” “We like to give a subtle nod to the history of the place, along with unexpected twists,” Mr. Blood said. “A lot of hotels are scared to do that.”
All Lark hotels are in coastal New England, except for a 19-room inn in Mendocino, Calif. Mr. Blood said the term “boutique” is more about service than about size. The company ethos, according to the website, is to “embrace the historic locations, but in playful, unexpected ways.”
“We focus on creating a very welcoming environment, through authentic personal service,” he said. “The person checking you in won’t be following a script like a Hampton Inn, and it won’t be like the Four Seasons where they call you ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam.’”
Since summer has already begun, Mr. Blood said the hotel will be operating largely as it has, with an increased focus on personal service. The entire staff hired by Mr. Martell is being kept on.
“We have a great core group here,” Mr. Blood said. “Peter did a good job lining up skilled people on J-1 and H-2B visas, which you have to do now. American college students get out later and start earlier, so at best you get two months from them.”
As part of the sale, Mr. Blood said, he is leasing the employee dormitory housing that Mr. Martell built on a separate location in Oak Bluffs.
This summer, Mr. Blood said the priority will be launching a new website, developing a social media presence, and updating the technology. Once the season is over, renovation work will begin in earnest.
“Peter did a good job in keeping the bones of the building, the electric, the plumbing, in good shape,” he said. The exterior will get some fresh paint, but the interior will be the focus of the overhaul. “We’re changing the look and feel of the interior, to bring more light to the place overall,” he said. “We’ll be putting in new bathrooms in all the rooms. Like all our hotels, we’ll have 40-inch smart TVs with Apple TV. We’ll make sure there’s plenty of bandwidth, so people can watch Netflix or any streaming content they choose.” Mr. Blood said that when the technology upgrades are complete, guests will be given an iPad loaded with local information as a personal digital concierge.
There’s already a project manager in place for the renovation, and Mr. Blood is starting to interview local tradesmen. Showing he has a finger on the Island pulse, he said, “We don’t expect work to get into high gear until after the [striped bass] Derby is over in October.”
B & B beginnings
The first incarnation of Lark Hotels began in 2003, with a B & B on Nantucket that Mr. Blood and his wife Leigh bought after they chucked their careers in academia — he as an administrator and psychology professor at Amherst and Trinity colleges, she as environmental science teacher at Loomis Chaffee School, in Windsor, Conn.
“We wanted to spend more time together, and we thought the hospitality business would be a natural fit,” he said. “Then we were together 24/7, doing everything from cleaning bathrooms to making hospital corners on beds,” he added, laughing. After a year on Nantucket, the Bloods expanded to Kennebunkport, and Lark Hotels has been expanding ever since. This year they will open the Break, in Narragansett, R.I. Next year, in addition to the Wesley Hotel, Lark Hotels will open new establishments in Salem; Nashville, Tenn.; Stowe, Vt.; Portsmouth, N.H.; and Napa, Calif.
The name “Lark Hotels” was Ms. Hagin’s idea. “We’d been trying to think of something, and Dawn said she just woke up with the name,” he said. “It has three meanings, the bird, the whimsy of going off on a lark, and it has a sense of nostalgia. The Lark was the last model that Studebaker cars made; it was also called the Weekender.”
The new incarnation of the Wesley Hotel is scheduled to open May 1, 2016.