Historic Hotels: A Q&A with Executive Director Lawrence Horwitz

Lawrence Horwitz is the Executive Director of Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide, both official programs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With more than six years of experience leading the Historic Hotels organization, he offers his unique perspectives on what makes its more than 500 historic hotels in 28 countries special, and explains how they stay on the cutting edge of new technologies.

Q: In an industry that offers travelers so many lodging options, what makes Historic Hotels of America and Worldwide unique?

Historic Hotels provides guests with an experience that is not found in contemporary hotels. Historic Hotels allows travelers to connect with the stories of the past — to connect with famous entertainers and writers, world leaders and celebrities, inventors and entrepreneurs. The most romantic hotels anywhere are Historic Hotels. They offer a chance for every individual to time travel.

If you think of a special getaway — whether you’re dating, getting engaged, getting married, enjoying your honeymoon, celebrating an anniversary, or family reunion — a Historic Hotel makes celebrating a special occasion so much more memorable.

Just a few examples of what makes Historic Hotels so unique are the stories over decades and even centuries, the architecture, the elegance, the sophistication, the décor, and the craftsmanship of both the exterior and the interior. In many respects, Historic Hotels are a way to discover, explore, and experience a time from the past, an elegance that cannot be experienced in contemporary hotels today.

Hollywood uses Historic Hotels so often in movies because they provide that wonderful setting. Think of your favorite Hollywood movie — most recently, The Great Gatsby, which featured the Plaza Hotel in New York City and Oheka Castle on Long Island, both wonderful iconic and legendary Historic Hotels. For the guest, it’s a chance to see, stay at, experience, and have a personal emotional connection with a hotel they saw in a movie. In many cases, the hotel was on that person’s bucket list.

A Historic Hotel, unlike a contemporary hotel, is iconic. It’s legendary because of the way it was built. It’s legendary because of the history that was written there. It’s legendary because of all the people who have stayed there. It’s legendary because people are writing their own stories there.

 Q: People see modern hotels as very advanced when it comes to technology. Is there a perception that older hotels sometimes lag in this area?

First, let me differentiate between a historic hotel and an old hotel. Historic hotels are those belonging to Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide. They are among the finest historic hotels. They have had a lot of events of historic significance, they’re iconic, and they have significant architectural elements. They are recognized for and celebrate the history that was written there. Many have been designated as historic landmarks or heritage buildings, or are listed in the national register of historic places in the countries where they are located. Then there are a lot of old hotels that were built after World War II. They are old, but they are not historic. Old hotels may lag, but those that are truly historic, that recognize and celebrate their history, don’t lag when it comes to technology.

Historic Hotels use the most modern technology today, whether it’s in their marketing, their social media, their check-in and check-out processes, or their high-speed cable and Wi-Fi. Many of them even have historic micro-museums, where visitors can connect to a site through their smartphones to get more information about the history of the hotel, including stories of famous guests.

In many respects, Historic Hotels are ahead of contemporary hotels with technology. The guest that checks into a Historic Hotel is eager to experience, sophisticated, affluent, educated, very connected, and demands the most modern technology. Therefore, most of the finest Historic Hotels have been pioneers when it comes to adding additional guest services, conveniences, and technology. 

Q: What are some of the challenges involved in bringing new technology into older buildings?

In many cases, the thickness of the walls creates challenges to wireless internet, and many hotels have had to add additional electrical outlets to meet the needs of the contemporary guest. At the time many of these hotels were built, the rooms may have had one outlet and just enough electricity for a single light — maybe also a ceiling fan. In the past, hotel designers and builders went to great lengths to hide electrical outlets from sight. Today’s travelers want multiple and easily-accessible electrical outlets.

Today, a single guest checks in and may have a laptop, an iPad, a smartphone, headphones, a digital camera, and a battery charger. The typical family may need to plug in seven or eight devices — or — more at a time. How does this make it difficult for Historic Hotels? They’ve had to creatively extend connectivity and electricity to support all of the connected traveler’s devices.

Q; Why do you think it’s important for hotels, whether historic or otherwise, to keep up to date with technology?

Today’s guest wants to connect with the past and learn about people, places, and events. Most important, they want to share their experiences instantly. There are so many experiences in a Historic Hotel to discover and explore — whether it’s the architecture, the spot where a famous world leader or celebrity was engaged, or the place where a famous author or entertainer stayed — that the ability to instantly share them on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter is very important. Today’s guest finds it very inconvenient if they can’t connect instantly with friends and family members and share their historic hotel experience.

Q: Luxury travelers make up a significant portion of the Historic Hotel guest base. Why do you think luxury travelers are so attracted to historic properties?

A Historic Hotel is more than just a place to stay. It is an experience of its own. The luxury traveler receives the service levels of the finest contemporary hotels, but on top of that, they’re getting the stories and the experiences of the past. Imagine sitting in the dining room of a Historic Hotel, and the people who are working there have been there multiple decades. They might tell you, ‘Well, gee, you’re sitting where General MacArthur sat. You’re staying where President Eisenhower stayed. You’re dining where President and Mrs. Obama like to dine.’ It gives you a connection with a lot more parts of the past and present than you’d find at a contemporary hotel. Historic Hotels provide an emotional connections for guests.

Q: What advice do you have for hoteliers that are running a Historic Hotel? What can they do to attract new guests and connect meaningfully with the ones they already have?

Use the most modern technology. Tell your oldest stories. Guests want to experience the history, but they also want to be in the present when it comes to technology. Use technology to tell your hotel’s stories, to preserve the stories from your past, and to enhance the guest’s ability to discover, experience, and share their experience.

Today, people take more photos than ever before, because they can instantly post them, share them, and send them. I advise hoteliers to create photo trails within their historic hotels so guests can share their own experiences and memories. For example, ‘Where was Marilyn Monroe again?’ or ‘Where were the Beatles, what exit did they go through?’ or ‘Give me the name of your celebrities, your world leaders, your writers.’ I tell people, create these digital photo trails around the exterior of your hotel as well as the interior to make it easier for people to stay connected, experience, and share your history.

Today’s customer wants to discover, explore, experience, and, most important, share. You need the most modern technology to enable that.

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