The Last Resort

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel McGinn

Will the hotel that has hosted 26 presidents be around to receive Barack Obama?

When guests approach the entrance of the Greenbrier Resort, they're usually impressed by the Greek Revival architecture, the 6,500-acre grounds, and the knowledge that they're walking in the footsteps of historical figures who've vacationed here. But when Jim Justice looked over the 230-year-old resort last summer, he saw room for improvement. "The trees are too big--this area needs to be opened up so people can see it better," he says, pacing the garden outside the north entranceway. In the lobby, he shakes his head. "This is all screwed up," he says, pointing to the way guests come down a grand stairway and are forced to do a U-turn to find the check-in desk. "The registration desk needs to go here," along the back wall. Then there's the gym, located in a building near the golf courses. "You're in your sweats, and you have to get on a bus?" he says, incredulous.

For centuries the Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has been a destination for moneyed Southerners and corporate executives on retreat. But over the past decade the 721-room resort has fallen on hard times. In 2000 the Mobil Travel Guide took away its five-star rating, and younger travelers have been turned off by its formality and its lack of nightlife. After years of small losses, by 2008 the Greenbrier was losing $38 million a year--and last spring, the resort, whose guests once included Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and Dolley Madison, filed for bankruptcy.

That's when Justice, a rich local entrepreneur, opened his checkbook. The new owner loves the Greenbrier's quaint traditions, but he's blunt about its shortcomings. "In its own way, it had dissolved into a really elegant retirement home," he says. To revive it, he aims to spend up to $100 million to build a casino, revamp its restaurants, and make it more accessible to travelers. Justice paid just $20 million for the place, which makes him optimistic. "It's the buy of the century if we're able to accomplish the turnaround," he says.

The economy won't help. While all travel businesses have suffered during the downturn, resort hotels have been hit especially hard as their upscale clientele scaled back. Adding to the Greenbrier's challenge: it's particularly reliant on corporate junkets, which declined dramatically after the public outcry that bailout-recipient AIG was still hosting posh getaways. Even if the economy improves, Justice faces a tricky balancing act in modernizing the Greenbrier--and adding amenities like a casino--without disrupting the history and tradition that are its best attributes. "There are a lot of people watching this and thinking this guy is either really brilliant or hopelessly misguided," says Peter Yesawich, CEO of the travel consulting firm Y Partnership.

The Greenbrier has been attracting visitors since 1787, when settlers began bathing in curative water from its sulfur spring. By 1860 five sitting U.S. presidents had vacationed there. The resort was converted to an Army hospital during World War II (as it had been during the Civil War) and afterward was redesigned by society decorator Dorothy Draper, whose bold color scheme still prevails. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower--a frequent guest--cut a deal to build a top-secret bunker underneath a new wing of the resort. Behind huge blast doors lay a secure facility designed to house Congress during a crisis. The bunker's existence was revealed by The Washington Post in 1992, and it now functions as a museum.

In many ways the Cold War years were the Greenbrier's heyday. During the 1970s and 1980s, companies like General Motors would book the entire resort for a week to host dealers. Until the 1980s, there were only a handful of iconic U.S. resort hotels--places like the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix--that competed with the Greenbrier. …