Parking Fees Touch Emotional Raw Nerve

When I first came to the Grove Park Inn more than 25 years ago, her staff and owners were preparing to celebrate the inn’s 75th birthday, coinciding with the 1988 opening of the Vanderbilt Wing. The additional wing increased the total number of rooms to 510, offering large groups such as the Arts and Crafts Conference two spacious ballrooms — one for our seven seminars, the other for the Arts and Crafts Antiques Show — additional meeting rooms for our Small Group Discussions and Contemporary Craftsfirms Show, and the Blue Ridge Dining Room overlooking the French Broad River valley.

The passing later that year of owner Charles Sammons (1898-1988), who had bought the historic hotel in 1955 and who had financed the resurrection of what had once been called “the finest resort hotel in the world,” prompted his widow Elaine Sammons to authorize the first official history of the Grove Park Inn, which I was honored to write.

Elaine Sammons assumed her husband’s position as chairman of the Sammons Corporation, a multi-billion dollar conglomeration of businesses in Dallas, but always found time to return to her spacious apartment atop the Vanderbilt Wing, from which she continued to direct the renovation and expansion of the Grove Park Inn.

Her death in 2009 signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another, the next to be managed by the new owner, KSL Partners, who purchased the hotel this past May. For only the second time in Grove Park Inn history, it would have not one captain at its helm, but, instead, a group of investors operating as a private equity firm.

One of the first things KSL Partners did was to announce their plans to spend $25 million on improvements inside the century-old hotel, doing such things as renovating guest rooms and hallways in the Vanderbilt Wing, relining the second fireplace in the Great Hall, and building a sports bar in the Sammons Wing to reduce congestion and noise in the Great Hall.

On top of all of that, KSL Partners will be presiding over the Grove Park Inn’s 100th birthday celebration on July 12th.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the inn’s centennial year has gotten off to a rocky start, at least from a public relations standpoint. Even before the first workmen arrived to start the renovations, the new owners also announced that visitors would be charged a daily $10 fee to park in the outdoor lots. While the staff has generously agreed to waive the outdoor parking fee during the February 22-24 Arts and Crafts Conference and Shows, the fee sparked a public outcry among those in Asheville who had come to view the Grove Park Inn as a public recreation area, albeit one without an admission charge or a parking fee.

Nearly everyone will agree that all parking fees are annoying, whether they be in a municipal parking garage, at an open airport lot or beside a hotel. People place them in the same category as airline baggage fees and premiums for better seats, claiming they are being asked to pay for the privilege of spending money there. Corporations see them as an opportunity to generate additional revenue to offset rising operating costs and to boost profits. In the case of the Grove Park Inn, the fees also served to reduce the growing crush of locals, which during the holiday season threatened to diminish the resort experience of the overnight paying guests.

While no one can dispute KSL Partners right to begin charging outdoor parking fees, the new owners may have underestimated Asheville’s 100-year emotional attachment to the Grove Park Inn. Locals have grown accustomed to paying $45 to tour the 1895 Biltmore House, another of Asheville’s historic attractions, but began screaming boycott when they were asked to pay $10 per car to do the same at the 1913 Grove Park Inn: take their family up to walk around, look at the Arts and Crafts furniture and holiday decorations, browse the shops, use the restrooms, sit by the fireplace, have a drink in the Great Hall, or occasionally even order a meal in one of the restaurants.

Last I checked, the attendants at the Biltmore House weren’t waiving the $45 per person admission fee for anyone who rolled down the window of their mini-van and said, “It’s okay, we’re just taking grandma and the kids in to see the Christmas trees.”

In hindsight, perhaps if KSL Partners had waited until after they had spent some of their $25 million renovation budget before they began assessing a parking fee, the locals would have been more understanding. We all know about remodeling costs.

Over the course of twelve months, the Grove Park Inn serves a variety of groups and functions. Some, such as the Arts and Crafts Conference and Shows, are designed as much for locals as they are for overnight guests. Perhaps as the new owners go through their first year, they will recognize that there are slow times and special events when it may pay them not to charge for parking, when the greater good calls for a relaxing of the rules.

As the newly revised history book will attest, the Grove Park Inn has weathered far worse storms than this over the course of the past 100 years. We can only hope that steps can still be taken before July 12th to mend the rift in the relationship between the queen of Sunset Mountain and the people of Asheville.

Until next Monday,

“Leave no regrets behind.”


Photo: The 1913 Main Inn and the 1988 Vanderbilt Wing.