It’s early Wednesday afternoon, and the Hunt Room is bustling. Hungry lunch patrons have descended upon the Desmond’s main dining area, sitting among the colonial décor and enjoying the world-class service that has been a hallmark for over two decades. Regulars greet each other and banter with the staff. Generous portions test even the sturdiest appetites. The room is filled with a collection of local residents and guests staying at the hotel for meetings.
One would imagine the property’s executives are thrilled with the large crowd and convivial atmosphere—and they are happy to see so many familiar faces. But that’s part of the problem. What the Desmond needs is an influx of strangers eager to experience all the hotel has to offer. It’s great for the repeat visitors to fill the dining room in mid-February, but that won’t cause the bottom line to swell.
“During the recession, we were one of the top-performing hotels,” says Michael Chain, the Desmond’s general manager. “When the economy came back, we didn’t.”
For all of its strengths—including location, 194 well-appointed rooms, and outstanding outdoor dining—there’s been a single weakness in the past several years that the Desmond hasn’t been able to overcome: points.
Americans’ habits and attitudes have changed when it comes to travel. They want reasonable rates, and they want to be rewarded for their loyalty so that they can travel again—for free. “I know people who love me but won’t stay here when they come to the region because they can’t get points,” says hotel director Josh Desmond.
Independent properties like the Desmond can’t provide the kind of worldwide bonus that comes from repeated stays. As a result, many of the large companies that surround the hotel in the Great Valley Corporate Center won’t book visiting executives and professionals at the Desmond, because the guests don’t receive points—and neither do those who book the travel.
There’s a Microsoft data center a half-mile from the hotel that hosts hundreds of employees from around the country but won’t send any of them to the Desmond, because corporate policy prevents using independent hotels. With more than 2,000 rooms in a two-and-a-half-mile radius of the hotel—almost all of which are chain properties—the Desmond finds itself in a highly competitive situation without the proper weapons to succeed.
Thanks to a new arrangement with the worldwide hotel company, “The Desmond Malvern, a DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton” can now offer everything guests could possibly want. The Desmond’s $5 million investment in upgrades throughout the property ensures a top-shelf experience, and the partnership with Hilton brings a rewards program capable of satisfying every traveler. The ultimate goal is to blend the Desmond’s reputation among dining patrons and weekend wedding/event visitors with the midweek business guests.
As the property becomes “a hotel of tomorrow,” according to Desmond, its management is eager to remind both loyal customers and the marketplace as a whole that a change to the name does not mean an alteration of service. There also will be no period—not one day—when the hotel is closed during renovations. “Hilton is our partner,” Chain says. “This is not a takeover.”
Chain—whose father, Michael Sr., ran the first Desmond property, which opened in 1974 in Albany—is working on the details of the renovation. To him, the key to the new arrangement’s success is a continued emphasis on what’s made the Desmond unique for so many years. “One of the most important things is that we were founded on certain principles and adopted certain principles. The only way we’ve been good to our employees and customers since 1993 is that we have developed a very good image of hospitality. Going forward, we want to tell the public that we’re not changing that,” he says. “People who’ve been here for so long are excited to see us amend what we’ve been doing. We are not becoming something else.”
The Desmond’s standards aren’t changing, but much of the hotel’s look is. In 2015, guestrooms received new carpeting, wall coverings, bedding and furniture. By the beginning of 2018, the hotel will add new lighting, seating and bathrooms for a wholly revamped overnight experience.
That’s not the only place where improvements will occur. The Fox & Hounds Pub will feature some new seating, different carpet and redone tile on the bar.
But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming in the Hunt Room. The new theme there will be “bright, lively and inviting,” according to Chain, and a “fresh-to-table” menu will be crafted with the counsel of chef Chris Calhoun. That means some items won’t be available year-round. “We’re going to buy products from the finest farms and fisheries that North America has to offer,” Chain says. “Because of that, we won’t have crab cakes all year. The menu will change for the better. It will be fresher, relevant and very interesting.”
The restaurant’s décor will also get a redo, from a relatively traditional take on colonial furnishings to a more updated concept. Although the wood paneling and plaid chair cushions have a comfortable feel, there’s a need to put forward a modern, charismatic vibe that’s attractive to those with business to conduct. “This has been very charming on weekends and for wedding guests, but not for the discerning midweek business traveler,” Chain says.
The centerpiece of the lobby will be a new chandelier to go with the window treatments and furnishings designed to show off the Desmond’s enhanced personality. A new front desk will greet guests, and an expanded business center will provide remote office capabilities. The hotel is also slated to debut a shop featuring popular food-and-drink items and sundries.
It’s an ambitious project. “We had a professional study done, and its 10-year projections told us we had to do [the partnership with Hilton],” Chain says. “But it’s important to us and our guests that we keep a family atmosphere.”
By early next year, the Desmond will have something for everyone.