Written for and Presented during the Grand Opening of the Lodge and Spa at Primland, August 2009
THIS WAS THE HOME OF NATIVE SONS AND DAUGHTERS WHERE NATURE FLOURISHED BY CRYSTAL CLEAR WATERS A BEAUTIFUL BLUE RIDGE OVERFLOWING WITH LIFE EXPLORED CENTURIES AGO BY BOW AND ARROW, AND KNIFE
A DIVINE INSPIRATION OF EONS AGO GOD SMILED AT HIS WORK FROM THE BLUE RIDGE BELOW SETTLERS CAME AND STRUGGLED, STRONG WINDS WOULD BLOW CROPS WERE HARVESTED, CORN LIQUOR WOULD FLOW
YOU MIGHT THINK IT A RANDOM, UNLIKELY CONNECTION SUCH A WORLDLY SOUL WOULD ARRIVE FROM A DISTANT DIRECTION THAT ONE DIDIER PRIMAT OF GENEVA WOULD FIND HIS WAY HERE A GREAT CANVAS OF LAND AWAITED AS THE ARTIST APPEARED
AND IN ‘77, THIS GIANT OF A MAN SET TO WORK HE PURCHASED THIS LAND COMMENCING SLOWLY AT FIRST ABOVE ALL NATURE WAS CHERISHED—IT WOULD EVER REMAIN SO AS KINDRED SOULS WILL DISCOVER UP ON BUSTED ROCK ROAD
IT BEGAN WITH AN IDEA—HIS REMARKABLE VISION TO UNFOLD PRIMLAND WAS BORN, IT WAS BIG AND IT WAS BOLD HE INTRODUCED PRIMAT’S TO VIRGINIA AS FAMILY STORIES WERE TOLD A GLIMPSE OF THIS FUTURE WAS THEIRS TO BEHOLD
PRIMLUMBER WAS BORN IN 1977 BUNDLES OF ‘PRIMWOOD SOLD IN 7/11’S A HUMBLE BEGINNING FOR A PLACE OF SUCH MEASURE TIMBER CAREFULLY SELECTED, EACH TREE A TREASURE
TRAILS WERE BLAZED, A FEW ROADS WERE CARVED OUT JOBS WERE CREATED TO ALLAY LOCAL DOUBT HUNTING AND SHOOTING BECAME OUR FIRST SPORTS THEN AS ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER, A RESORT
ROADS WERE BUILT AND TALENT WAS SOURCED DONALD STEEL CAME ALONG, DESIGNING A COURSE BECAUSE HUNTERS MIGHT LIKE TO PLAY A ROUND OR TWO OF GOLF, DIFFICULT AND LONG WITH AN AMAZING VIEW
THE NAME PRIMLAND WAS INTRO’D IN LATE ‘86 THE FUTURE WAS BRIGHT WITH GOLF IN THE MIX WE WOULD NEED WATER FOR FAIRWAYS AND GREENS AND SEWERS AND TANKS AND IRRIGATION MACHINES
THEN THE GOLFERS AND HUNTERS NEEDED SOME PLACE TO STAY AN IDEA FOR A LODGE SAW ITS FIRST LIGHT OF DAY DIDIER PRIMAT DESIGNED IT TO FIT THESE SURROUNDINGS A CATHEDRAL OF PRIMAT BUILT AMIDST NATURE ABOUNDING
ELEGANT STYLE AND A DESIGN TRULY RESPLENDENT FOR TIME AWAY IN THE MOUNTAINS A HEAVENLY SETTING TO SPEND IT UP ON THE BLUE RIDGE IN STYLE EVEN TOURS OF THE SKY FROM DIDIER’S TELESCOPE IN A DOME WAY UP HIGH
ON THE DAY OF MR. PRIMAT’S PREMATURE PASSING AWAY BEGAN THUS A TIME OF MOURNING AND SADNESS A CELEBRATION OF HIS GREATNESS, A NEW DAY IN HIS CHILDRENS’ HANDS PRIMLAND REWORKED IN A NEW PRIMLAND WAY A GIFT AND A CHALLENGE HIS BOLD LEGACY REQUIRING THE SUDDEN ENGAGEMENT OF HIS PROGENY THESE HILLS WILL REMEMBER WHAT HE BROUGHT TO THIS PLACE TO THIS RIDGE ONCE JUST FARMLAND AND ACRES OF TREES
AND PEOPLE WILL COME IN SEARCH OF PEACEFULNESS HERE INSPIRED BY NATURE, A LODGE RARE AND DEAR HOSPITALITY WILL GROW, WE WILL WELCOME EACH GUEST TO THIS REMARKABLE PLACE FOR RECREATION AND REST
INNKEEPERS LIKE SLEEPERS
15 November 2013
IT’S NO SECRET
INNKEEPERS LIKE SLEEPERS
ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO RENT ROOMS
AND THOSE WHO DRINK WINE
AND THOSE WHO NEED TIME
LIKE BRIDES & GROOMS
AND THOSE OVERDUE FOR SOME VACATION
AND A LITTLE PRIVACY
THE DESPERATE FOR RELAXATION
AND RELIEF FROM CITY FUMES
THIS ABOUT COVERS
OUR WHOLE NATION
INNKEEPERS ITS TRUE
CAN REALLY VARY
BUT ALL GENUINELY OFFER
INNKEEPERS LOVE TO WELCOME EACH GUEST
THEY REALLY LOVE A FULL HOUSE
AND DREAM OF THE DAY
WHEN THEY CAN REST
IT’S THE GUESTS WHO COME BACK
FOR WHOM THEY ARE BLEST
INNKEEPERS OFFER ESCAPE
FROM LIFE’S TESTS
ARE A LITTLE OFF KILTER
PERHAPS ALWAYS BEING TOO NICE
MEANS THEY LACK SOME PERSONAL FILTER
OR THEIR UPBRINGING TAUGHT THEM
TO ALWAYS BE GIVING
OR THAT REAL JOY
COMES FROM HELPING OTHERS
WITH THEIR LIVING
THE WORLD’S INDEED A MUCH BETTER PLACE
BECAUSE INNKEEPERS WELCOME
THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE
THEN SEND PEOPLE BACK HUMAN AGAIN
TO THE PLACE THEY BELONG
AND BACK WITH THEIR FRIENDS
INNKEEPERS PERHAPS CONTRIBUTE
TO A LITTLE LESS TENSION
A LITTLE MORE LOVE
AND A REDUCTION IN STRESS
THIS WOULD BE
A MUCH BIGGER MESS
HERE’S TO THE INNKEEPERS
A RATHER UNSUNG FOLK
MAY THEY SLIP INTO THEIR HOT TUBS
FOR A WELL-DESERVED SOAK
IT’S NO SECRET
INNKEEPERS LIKE SLEEPERS
ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO RENT ROOMS
AND THOSE WHO DRINK WINE
AND THOSE WHO NEED TIME
LIKE BRIDES & GROOMS
AND THOSE IN NEED OF REAL VACATION
A LITTLE PRIVACY ONE ASSUMES
THOSE DESPERATE FOR RELAXATION
RELIEF FROM STRESS AND CITY FUMES
THIS JUST ABOUT COVERS OUR WHOLE NATION
INNKEEPERS IT’S TRUE
CAN REALLY VARY
BUT EACH OFFERS
A WELCOME TO SANCTUARY
At that moment, it never quite sinks in. Perhaps only later are we able to understand the magnitude of the gifts we’ve received, as doors close and a chapter of our lives abruptly ends. Little do we know that our lives are only beginning anew as the next chapter is already being written. In time, one chapter morphs into another…and then one day, yet another, in the grand pattern of our unfolding lives.
“Ride the wave” is a common refrain among today’s wayfaring professionals. It is the case today of so many lives on the move. I’m think especially of those of us in hospitality leadership roles. Invariably, we must leave what we know to advance our careers, and accept a new position in a new community far away. In spite of seeking long-term commitments and a place we can call home for a while, employers change, owners die and the boss we loved decides to leave. We anticipate a long-term commitment and a new community we can call home for a time. Instead, recessions occur, employers change, owners die and the boss who’s hired us decides to move on. “Living forward” is important, we tell ourselves, knowing that with each new move there is always an inherent cost to our friendships, our families and even our psyches.
Occasionally we allow ourselves a furtive backward glance, before the current of life snaps our focus back to forward. Such is the case for me, when my time in the Berkshires came to a close, after calling this beautiful part of the world my home for over twenty years. “Twenty years!?” the recruiters would say incredulously, shocked that a tenure of such duration could actually happen in this day and age of shattered loyalty between employer and employee.
My career began and blossomed in New England. My family was raised here, I felt great pride, knew real pain and sorrow and at last, I truly fell in love here and felt great joy. I lived here! I came to love those Berkshire hills and peaks, ponds and people and the generally agreeable tapestry of life woven here. As I passed two decades of living in the Berkshires even local writer Milton Bass referred to me as a ‘local kid making good’ in one of his columns. He doesn’t know it, but it was as close as I’ve ever been to being thought of as a ‘local’.
The Berkshire Hills are far away now, so many memories receding in the rear-view mirror. It was magical time to be a part of the Berkshire scene, an honor to be included among its people for so long. It was an experience that has continued to age and mellow in my mind. Celebrations of hard work and accomplishment still resonate. So many friendly Berkshire faces still pop into my mind, moments I remember and the times our paths crossed. My time there was cocoon-like, as though a nurturing incubator prepared me for what was to come. When it was time to leave, it felt as though I were moving on, a graduation–bringing with it both excitement and some uncertainty along with the good wishes of so many.
Over the years, I had the rare privilege of earning my way up from an entry-level job to become The Red Lion Inn’s general manager, all in one very special place–Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Much was expected, much was given and much was gained there. I thank the Fitzpatricks for the wealth of opportunities they provided me, and for seeing some real potential in me. “Everything is Important” is the pearl of wisdom that has remained meaningful and relevent to me all these years. Thank you Jane Fitzpatrick for your nurturing and inspiration.
It was time to move on from Stockbridge. Real lessons of life were only just beginning, as I eventually accepted the gift of goodbye.
Then, a private club in New Haven, Connecticut needed rescuing. Years prior, legislation passed eliminating the deduction of membership and two-martini lunches from one’s taxes. Private Clubs began to founder, and in this denouement I entered the world of private luxury clubs for the first time–bringing a Fitzpatrick style of hospitality to a struggling city club.
Participation was paramount to my Berkshire experience, and I worked to introduce this private, largely male bastion to prospective new members and to a community generally unaware of the high-level, private conversations that transpired within its walls. There were difficult moments here including struggling to make the payroll each week, renovating unused guest rooms, even issuing bonds among members to replace the club’s ancient infrastructure.
I encountered genuine malfeasance among the club’s former managers, and worked to move them all along–building a new team in the process. I also discovered an employee shooting-up heroin in a rest room there; guests who’s vehicles were stolen from the street during club events; employee thefts; panhandlers and street crime. Oh my. I had truly been thrust from Norman Rockwell’s world into a new one. In spite of these occasional challenges, I enjoyed this urban experience, the amazing people I met and the real sense of community that flourished in New Haven.
New opportunity knocked, this time a call from Wisconsin. The Kohler Company needed a manager for their luxe private club known as Riverbend. It was time to say goodbye to the Connecticut shoreline. Susan and I found ourselves looking at a map to pinpoint exactly where Wisconsin was, then making our intrepid move to the city of Sheboygan along the shores of Lake Michigan. Club members here were very gracious captains of Midwest industry and they paid an initiation fee of at least $75,000 for the privilege being a member.
This was a big company experience, a very successful organization that remains independently owned by the descendents of the original founding family. At Kohler, many things came into focus as personalities and performances were probed and analyzed through psychometrics and the assessment of such tests as Caliper, Myers Briggs, Wonderlic and FIRO-B testing. This was also a wonderful introduction to the Midwest perspective. Go green and gold! I still think of your kind people, and artisanal cheeses. And Leinenkugel’s. I discovered an incredible work ethic here in Wisconsin and among my talented team of employees. It is unrivalled anywhere.
Opportunity then came knocking, this time from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was time to say goodbye to Kohler. A mysterious and reclusive billionaire was creating his first U.S. sanctuary in southern Appalachia. Meetings were held in Paris and Geneva and I was given the privilege and responsibility of opening a $40 million luxury Lodge and Spa atop a 12,000 acre Blue Ridge setting, in one of Virginia’s most rural and beautiful counties. It was my second such hotel opening, and a wonderful challenge.
Susan and I found genuinely interesting and sophisticated people in southern Virginia along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also discovered a breadth of new experiences in this unspoiled setting. Locally made moonshine appeared one day on my desk as a unique welcome gift–the real deal. Wild ginseng still grows on the mountain sides there, and mountain lions prowl the ridges. Hunting and fishing are a life-style here–more necessity than sport. Music, sweet, joyful Blue Grass, was a gift passed on down to each new generation. No one ever played with sheet music either. We felt we were listening to the roots of American music in Floyd, Virginia.
Resilience, adaptability and ‘making-do’ all come to mind when I think of the great people of Patrick County, Virginia.
It took two years to build and open the lodge and spa as it opened in August of 2010 to a planned five diamond standard. Upon the death of the owner, his eight children were instantly thrust into key decision-making roles. Standards changed. Directions changed. My contract was over and it was time to say goodbye.
No sooner had the words left Susan’s mouth that she was “ready for adventure,” then the call came about a guest ranch in southeastern Arizona. The owner needed a manager and the ranch needed some attention to detail. Out came the atlas and off we went! We can now say we have lived the real southwest experience, there in the true wild west dreams of our childhood. Think Johnny Ringo, horses, barbed wire, water rights and silver mining. The very real town of Tombstone, Arizona was nearby and the old copper mining town of Bisbee well worth a visit.
Here, the Chiricahua Mountains in the extreme southern Rockies, was the ancestral land of the Chokonen Apache. Cochise and Geronimo walked these very trails, defending their ancestral homeland. The last Native American holdouts battled valiantly against America’s military until they were forcibly removed. We have found real strength of character here among the people of southern Arizona, along with profound quietness and a rare proximity to nature’s extraordinary diversity in what are known as ‘Sky Islands.’ Precious little remained of the Apache culture, except for shards of pottery found on our hikes. Here, I also removed my share of rattlesnakes and tarantulas from guest areas. Our guests were generally appreciative and we survived too.
Since living in the Berkshires, we’ve bought and sold six homes and lived in nine different states. We ‘let go of the proverbial rock at the bottom of the river’ allowing the current of life to take us higher and farther. We’ve had the privilege of living in very special pristine places beyond where the pavement ends, where the air is still sweet and clean and infinite stars sparkle in dark skies.
Addenda soon to be added:
Leaving Arizona, hello Great Smokies
Home at last, Colorado
There are things and people we miss about each place we’ve lived, with plenty of pleasant memories all piled up. We are grateful for the gift of goodbye and the rich experiences that life has brought us since our time in the Berkshires out on the road to adventure in hospitality.
Thanks for reading this tome, for checking in from time to time and following along.
Opening a Luxury Lodge and Spa in Southern Virginia
A few years ago, a New York City recruiter called to introduce me to a new project in a rural area of Virginia. I flew to Switzerland to meet the reclusive French billionaire, Didier Primat, who would offer me the opportunity and challenge of opening his new luxury Lodge and Spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia. Knowing the family’s reputation for exceptional hospitality, I will always feel immense pride to have been selected for the challenge.
The grand ‘design and build’ project was completed at an investment of over $40 million for 26 exquisite guest rooms and gloriously opened to the public on August 31st, 2009. The cost of the hotel’s construction was much less than the nearly $1 billion required over three decades to improve the 12,000 acre ridge-top property, build its roads and infrastructure and to create a remarkable golf course designed by noted British architect Donald Steel.
Sadly, Mr. Primat never lived to attend the grand opening of his hotel, his first property in the United States. Little did we know that we would soon learn of Mr. Primat’s premature death at age 64 just one week after arriving on the property. This event coincided with the declining world economy as its free fall into recession beginning in 2008.
At the time of his death, Mr. Primat was the largest single land owner of real estate in France with family estates in Normandy, Alsace, Limoges and Paris. He also owned properties all over the world as well as 20% of the stock of Schlumberger Limited a multinational oil services company founded in 1926 by his grandfather and grandfather’s brother in 1926.
It was during my interview in Mr. Primat’s office at “Rouvrais,” beautiful estate of Didier’s mother Madame F. Schlumberger Primat in the pastoral outskirts of Geneva that I could sense Mr. Primat’s physical condition was in decline as he bravely faced the effects of esophageal cancer. I telephoned my wife Susan from Paris the next day, as we pondered whether to take on the project knowing the potential risk in the event of the loss of the owner. We decided to press on.
In spite of Mr. Primat’s death, the massive effort to open the luxury Lodge and Spa at Primland in Meadows of Dan, Virginia moved forward. As the project was launched, the pressure fell to Mr. Primat’s friend and confidant, asset manager Jean-Dominique Percevault of Paris, and to Mr. Primat’s children to continue advancing the huge sums needed for construction and to make the many split second decisions required on all manner of architectural and design issues. This was a tense time. A prolific stream of emails ensued between Virginia and the Geneva office, and the young Primat family members with lives of their own were now thrust into new roles.
It was a unique honor to work with so many very special people at Primland including Mr. Percevault and Mr. Primat’s eight children (Bérengère Primat Serval; Harold, Garance, Stanley, Kevin, Margaux, Flora and Justine Primat) their families and their mother Martine Primat. I consider it a gift to have known Mr. Primat and I am happy that our paths crossed for a time at Primland.
Driving for miles into the 12,000 acre Blue Ridge property on its then primitive dirt roads (now paved) across guardrail free precipices, I glimpsed the Lodge’s concrete decks and steel structure for the first time. The work site was in the midst of a pristine and wild Blue Ridge setting surrounded by a stunning golf course that was already open to play. The site would become a broad canvas on which hundreds of people would work together under time and budget constraints to create the perfect assemblage of people, furniture, fixtures, equipment and systems before we could welcome our first guests.
With little evidence of professional hospitality in place as I arrived, it was clear that the property would require significant change to become a credible hospitality venue. Few people understood the depth of the fundamental change that was required. As you might imagine, expectations were very high.
At the outset, it was the direction of the owner to create a five diamond standard. It would be a tall order to initiate the necessary change and evolve from that of a hunting and timber harvesting mentality to that of an extraordinary hotel/spa/golf complex. ‘Five diamond’ and ‘five star’ phrases were already beginning to appear in company press releases as I arrived. I cringed each time, knowing that there was a long way to go before the property could attain this standard.
As I look back, I wonder if this change is still evolving–the uneasy balance between the ‘way we were’ and the ‘way we’re going.’ It was a big change indeed for an operation heretofore designed for timber harvesting, wing-shooting and hunting native deer and turkeys to build the kind of culture necessary to welcome an upper echelon of travelers who expect a high standard of anticipative service—a tall order indeed.
Neighbors in the Blue Ridge Community took to referring to Mr. Primat as “the Frenchman”. More than a few were perturbed when early on, gates began to appear on his new Blue Ridge property—thereby shutting off a convenient and inspiring shortcut for mountain folk to get up, over and down the mountain.
That such a monumental hotel was being constructed in southern Virginia, in the county of Patrick, a largely rural and ruggedly beautiful wilderness area Primland seemed entirely incongruous. Perhaps Mr. Primat considered this a retreat, an American sanctuary away from his base of operations in Europe. At a minimum, the project was a substantial addition to the county’s economic development, providing jobs for over 150 employees and truly helping to put the little Blue Ridge town of Meadows of Dan squarely on the map.
“Up on the mountain” was how local folks described the county’s western half located atop the Blue Ridge escarpment. Here along the edge, was where Primland was created offering incredible distant views into the North Carolina piedmont. The lower half of Patrick county, to the east and south, comprised foothills and small towns the largest of which is the county seat of Stuart, named after locally born confederate hero Jeb Stuart.
I came to know many of Patrick County’s citizens as friends and enthusiastic supporters of Primland. I learned so much from them. They would share with me what was important about the area’s culture, and I worked to share with them all that was important in building a new hotel. Sometimes we were clearly at opposite ends of the spectrum trying to understand each other.
It is always an advantage to work with the local community rather than against it. This really helped create a first line of enthusiastic supporters who provide their enthusiasm and positive recommendations to visitors, even though they were a bit unsure of its mysterious European ownership. Local officials and business leaders were regular visitors and we were very proud to host all manner of community and chamber of commerce events, including open house celebrations for local guests.
There was above all in the community a spirit of sharing everything with everyone. I can tell you that “‘mater” sandwiches never tasted as good as those tomatoes grown on the mountain. An exotic can of sardines would occasionally appear out of a brown bag on the lunch table or even tins of Spam. Pinto beans are a local staple and were supplanted with the occasional can of ‘beanie weenies’ regularly washed down with a ‘Cheerwine’ soda or a caffeine-spiked ‘Sun Drop.’
Important lessons were learned about wing shooting, the ritual of deer hunting and the importance of turkey season. These animals (and others) provided subsistence for many employees year-round in the form of jerky and ‘deer meat’ lunches. In secret places in southern Virginia, wild ginseng still grows in the mountains and real moonshine is still distilled, tax-free of course. Apple butter is boiled down each fall and shared year round, chinquapins are still collected and ‘fried pies’ are ever popular.
These are the people of southern Virginia, underestimated and misunderstood by generations of Americans. I came to see in their Appalachian faces a strength and sophistication as great as any I’ve witnessed anywhere and to appreciate their unbelievable resilience. One underestimates these simple country folk at one’s own peril. If someone ‘fell off the mountain’ down into a ravine, got lost in the woods, broke an axle, got lost in the densely thick fog or faced timber rattlers and copperheads up close—I can tell you from experience these were the only people you could count on.
More than anything, the culture of the area was expressed in its soulful Bluegrass music. It seemed as if every family member here was taught to play and pick beginning at an early age. No one ever looked at sheet music! I am proud to say that Bluegrass Hall of Famer Sammy Shelor and his renowned Lonesome River Band performed for the grand opening of the Lodge adding a sweet local sound to the celebration.
Many heroic performances were required of Primland’s employees both tenured and new to open such a Lodge. The talents of a few very special consultants were also critical to success. I hope they always know how much their contributions meant to the success of Primland’s opening. We couldn’t have done it without Christine, John, Steven, Sylvie and others.
In the midst of enthusiasm and excitement as the opening drew near the usual pre-opening travail occurred–the luxury suite drain was clogged with cement left by the builders, improperly installed glass shower doors shattered upon dripping guests, and a hasty valet or two scratched up a luxury vehicle or two in the new parking garage below the Lodge entrance.
That first winter, un-insulated pipes froze and burst several times with water gushing forth into beautifully decorated rooms and living areas down through all four stories on freezing winter nights. In spite of all the challenges and difficulties a magnificent new Lodge and Spa opened and is waiting to welcome you to southern Virginia!
A world class golf course and spa, a one-of-a-kind telescope observatory (the likes of which you’ve never seen in a hotel environment) and even ‘tree houses’ perched on the edge of the ridge are only a few of the unbelievable aspects of the Primland experience.
In the observatory, the team created a wonderful “Tour of the Universe” program available most evenings after dinner in order that guests could see the celestial images coming through the 14 inch Celestron reflecting telescope. The 28 foot revolving, steel diameter dome was programmed to synchronize with the motorized telescope. Everything was digitally programmed to scan the heavens light years away.
I’m certain that Mr. Primat would be proud of his accomplishments today. Primland has gone on to achieve rare recognition as a L.E.E.D. certified hotel and to be included in the Condé Nast Travelers’ Top 25 Hotels of the World.
Thank you to everyone involved with this project, for working together to create a masterpiece. Thank you to each member of the Primat family, to Primland’s talented staff and to the many local Patrick County citizens who provided so much support, encouragement and timely insights.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know you all, and my life is richly blessed by you.