ARLINGTON, Va., August 31, 2012 — When West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice surprised the world with his singular 2009 purchase of The Greenbrier, skepticism was rampant among long-time guests and business heads.
Justice had success and experience in the coal, timber, corn, and Christmas tree industries, but not in hospitality, they opined. He would never be able to lift the moribund, bankrupt resort to its former glory in the way The Marriott Corporation – the presumed buyer - could have done. A lot of people had never even heard of Justice, except that he was a high school basketball coach in his hometown of Lewisburg.
And there was his preposterous idea about adding a casino. How could this inexperienced owner dare think it would bring anything but riff-raff to The Greenbrier’s hallowed grounds, where 26 U.S. presidents and just about every entertainment and golf or tennis celebrity have walked and luxuriated during its over two centuries of providing privileged pamper?
Fast forward to just over three years since the Jim Justice era began. The skeptics have retreated, occupancy numbers are ascending, and loyal staff members with as many as 55 years’ service under their belts are working alongside young, energetic newcomers who all seem to have caught their leader’s vision.
Justice has been very clear about his Greenbrier dreams. He wants to lift the resort’s culture from intimidating for some to welcoming for all - especially his fellow West Virginians – and he’s wasting no time in giving legs to his ideas.
Reaching for Five Stars
The Greenbrier’s new owner has made it clear he covets Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide’s five-star ranking the resort lost about ten years ago. So one of his expenditures is for staff pinnacle service training– the determining difference between four and five stars.
Already over $250 million have gone into facilities, staff, and service, and the Justice coffers seem to have no bottom. As a lifetime resident of the Greenbrier region, he has more than a business interest behind his drive. He wants to bring the hospitality icon back for West Virginians.
The buzz I heard on a recent visit is that Justice has managed to preserve the resort’s unique heritage which dates to the late 18th century, while adding experiences and features that appeal to a new generation of guests. Gowns and tuxedos for dinner almost have disappeared, but there’s still a dress code for the main dining room and casino that produces an air of relaxed elegance throughout.
As the new Greenbrier era continues to evolve, new amenities and features are unfolding at a pace rarely seen in the hospitality industry or over two centuries of Greenbrier history.
Transportation: Early Greenbrier guests spent several days getting to the resort from Washington, DC and other east coast locations via stagecoach. With the recent advent of daily, non-stop jet service from Washington Dulles International Airport and Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport to Greenbrier Valley Airport by Florida-based Silver Airways, travel time has compressed to just over an hour.
Train travel to the Greenbrier began in the early 20th century, but even that’s getting a facelift. Sometime in 2013, The Greenbrier Presidential Express, elegantly decorated vintage rail cars, will begin carrying guests from Washington’s Union Station to White Sulphur Springs, WVA. “We want to bring back the glamour of rail travel,” said Justice. “Everything from décor to the food will make guests feel as if they’re already at the resort.”
Accommodations: Guest and public rooms throughout the resort’s main hotel and cottages have been refurbished. The Windsor Club, a collection of 26 guestrooms - including the seven-bedroom Presidential Suite with its nightly rate of $25,000 – is the new namesake for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were frequent Greenbrier guests during the 1950s. Among the club amenities: antique furnishings, canopy beds covered in Filo Doro Italian linens, and personal concierge service.
Farm to table: Justice’s business interests include thousands of agricultural acres, and Greenbrier chefs now have access to 40 of those acres – the resort’s own farm - for growing about 75 percent – about 60 fruits and vegetables - of the chemical-free produce used in the restaurants, according to executive chef Richard Rosendale, CMC.
Besides the venerable main dining room which will celebrate its centennial throughout 2013, there are several new restaurants for variety dining: Prime 44 West (steaks); The Forum (classic Italian including pizza from coal-fired ovens); Infusion on Asian; the new Draper’s (casual, all-day dining named for the resort’s famed interior designer Dorothy Draper); Cafe Carleton (sandwiches, pastries, and ice cream made by the resort’s chefs).
Rosenfeld is captain of the USA Bocuse d’Or 2013 team that will compete in what some call the Olympics of worldwide chef contests in Lyon, France next January. His training kitchen for the event is located inside the bunker, the Greenbrier’s Cold War shelter for the U.S. Congress that is now a historic attraction.
He holds Certified Master Chef designation from the American Culinary Federation, and Rosenfeld said he shares Justice’s vision to position The Greenbrier as an industry leader.
“We are into re-imagining the Greenbrier culinary experience,” he said. “People who have been coming here for 20 years still want their bread pudding and peaches, and they’ll have them. But the younger generation of guests want something different. So we are taking some of the traditional dishes and re-imagining them into new choices for today.”
Greenbrier Medical: Although executive health assessments, physicals and aesthetic services have been offered by the resort for decades, Justice is ramping up health and wellness services with the addition of a larger facility that will provide “hospitality medicine,” an enhanced version of the wellness and preventative health services Greenbrier physcians offer, along with the resort’s other amenities such as spa and skin treatments. Sports medicine for elite athletes and everyday people will be on the menu at The Greenbrier Medical Institute, coming in 2014.
Casino: Greenbrier gaming in Justice’s new $90 million, 103 square-foot underground playground is available only to resort guests, members in the Golf and Tennis Club, or the Greenbrier Sporting Club. People can’t walk in off the street, and men must wear jackets after 7 p. m. Described as a Monte Carlo meets Gone With the Wind atmosphere, it’s not hard to imagine an encounter with James Bond or Scarlett O’Hara once you’re inside this elegant resort amenity.
Sports: From PGA Tour play at The Greenbrier Classic, to whitewater rafting at the now Justice-owned Resort at Glade Springs about 50 miles from The Greenbrier, sports is riding high in the new owner’s era. Justice has this year also acquired Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort, where golf is an important feature. He envisions a trail of golf course options and shuttle service among his resorts and club courses in the Virginias that are within two hours’ drive of each other. Ski shuttles will be a seasonal option for Snowshoe as well. Coming September 22: the inaugural Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic exhibition match between John McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
With apparently no perimeters on his vision for The Greenbrier, Justice continues to dream about more amenities, such as a live entertainment theater for guests who haven’t had many nighttime entertainment choices on property in other era.
As the new Greenbrier continues to unfold, the natural, recurring questions are about how far he will go and how much money will he spend to put legs on his dreams.
At a promotional event in DC, he offered an explanation: “When I was growing up in West Virginia, my family couldn’t even afford to have a meal at The Greenbrier,” he said. “In those days, you either worked in the coal mines or you worked at the resort. I want to preserve the resort not only for the economic well-being of a lot of West Virginians, but for all those who have enjoyed it over its two centuries of existence.”
With that objective and the funds to make it happen, it’s unlikely the original shock and awe that surrounding the Justice acquisition just over three years ago will re-surface anytime soon.
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