We all remember watching the movie “Dirty Dancing” which takes place in the Catskill Mountains of New York during the heyday of the destination American Plan Hotel. A place of tradition where families booked “their week” every year and focused on rest, relaxation, bonding and pampering – all for one price. These hotels dotted the American landscape from coast to coast offering everything that a family could ask for: all meals, golf, tennis, swimming, boating, entertainment, cocktail hours and personal coaches for all of these activities. This “right of passage” was passed down from generation to generation, setting aside “their week” as an essential part of family life.
At the time, we had fewer distractions than today without the need for constant communication using our electronic devices, less need to be busy every minute, less need to be independent and a much greater need to be together. These hotels flourished finding themselves more focused on serving their guests and paying less attention to the need for guerilla marketing to get their share. Their guests continued to arrive each season as a result of traditions passed from generation to generation.
From a hotel’s perspective all services were amenities to support the revenue from packaged room sales. The hotel needed to provide exceptional dining, interesting activities, learning opportunities, and face-to-face social networking in order to sell their packages. Sure, each department had a budget, but for the most part it was an expense ceiling. These areas within the resort were not expected to generate revenue, but rather control their share of expenses. To this end they were not viewed as separate businesses but rather parts of the whole. If the resort was profitable, then all departments were viewed as viable.
Over time transportation became easier, technology robbed us of the desire to step back and “get away”, family traditions began to dissolve, competition for consumer time and money increased exponentially and our American Plan Resorts lost much of their sparkle. The Catskills and Poconos were no longer the place to vacation and those American Grand Hotels that were able to survive found themselves in a highly competitive market that forced change.
In an effort to maintain a comfortable level of occupancy these resorts enhanced their marketing departments and dramatically shifted budgets to ensure that sufficient cash flow existed to support the business. Traditional “family weeks” that had been passed down from generation to generation would be replaced by a need to attract transient, short stay guests, business travelers, conferences, conventions and other event activities that had previously been reserved for the “shoulder seasons”. From an accounting standpoint it was no longer acceptable to view departments as amenities, they needed to view themselves as separate businesses that could demonstrate sales to cost ratios leading to profit contribution. If a department was unable to demonstrate profit it was eliminated, replaced or outsourced. The American Plan hotel was now beginning to look and act like any other hotel. The real downside was that most of these resorts had been built as destinations that were isolated from the activity of cities. It became more and more difficult for these properties to survive, let alone thrive.
Even the landmark properties across the country, the ones that folk lore was built from: The Greenbrier, Mohonk Mountain House, Broadmoor, Breakers, Casa Monica, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Basin Harbor Club, Mount Washington Hotel, The Lake Placid Club and the Balsams Grand Resort were finding themselves in a catch-up game.
From a young cooks perspective, working in an American Plan Hotel was the perfect environment to learn your trade and build a resume. It was even possible to flip properties from season to season and become a vagabond cook chasing opportunities and the weather that you preferred. The kitchens were large (sometimes multiple kitchens), staffed with Executive Chef and all other departments outlined by Escoffier as part of his classical brigade. You could work in the butcher shop, garde manger, the saucier station, roast station and grill all within a season. Hundreds of guaranteed guests every day, three meals per day, buffets, a ‘la carte menus, receptions, snack stations, ice carvings, weddings, reunions, outdoor pig roasts, and the list goes on and on; the resort had it all.
To place an American Plan Hotel kitchen on your resume was to clearly state to an employer that you had the chops. You were versatile and could fit in anywhere and handle any level of business. This was the place where many of the accomplished cooks across the country were born. Many hotels were so successful at training that they developed their own apprenticeship programs that included placement in sister properties during their off-season. As the era of American Plan vacationing began to fade, so too did this avenue for culinary education.
Many of these Grand Hotels have either closed or transitioned to another format, leaving behind a gap in American culture. Family traditions have lost their appeal and the venues for this to occur.
In recent decades properties like the Lake Placid Club in the Adirondacks and the Balsams Grand Resort have joined their fellow hotels from the Catskills and Poconos and shuttered their doors. The Balsams, one of my personal favorite properties and a location where I spent a number of weeks over the years polishing my craft and enjoying the formality of a classic kitchen was sold and closed in recent years. There is still promise that this magnificent piece of America will reopen at some point and bring life back to the rural mountain area of New Hampshire that it called home for generations. We can only hope.
This article points to the progress or lack there of in resurrecting an important piece of Americana. If you have a warm spot in your heart for these properties then SHARE this article with your networks.