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Big family-owned resorts keep their personal touch
VAIL, Colo. — Rosana Faessler stops by the hostess stand to check on reservations, then makes her way into the dining room to chat with a couple of the regular guests. After a few minutes, she wanders to the breakfast buffet to make sure everything's clean and full, then straightens a picture before heading back to the dining room.
These tasks easily could be delegated to the staff. But Mrs. Faessler just can't help herself. Sonnenalp, the resort in the Colorado Rockies that Mrs. Faessler owns with her husband, Johannes, isn't like a second home; it once was her home. Everything has to be just right.
This type of nurturing has made Sonnenalp one of the few remaining large family-owned resorts left in the country, a destination for travelers from around the world.
"I feel like I'm going home every time I go there," said Harvey Simpson of Old Westbury, N.Y., who's been staying at Sonnenalp since 1965. "It's a very warm atmosphere. The top personnel are there every day, and it's incredible the attention to detail they put into it."
Big, family-owned resorts are still in vogue in Europe, particularly in the mountains of Germany and Austria, where some hotels have been passed down through generations. In the United States, where there still are plenty of family-run small resorts, B&Bs and inns, corporate entities have bought or taken over many larger resorts that were founded by families. A recent report on the global ski-resort industry by SkiStar, a Swedish company, noted that the North American market has seen a "shift toward fewer, increasingly larger companies" often owning properties in a variety of locations to "decrease dependency on weather conditions" in any one place.
Places that remain family-owned say that when the owners are in the lobby or the dining room season after season, the atmosphere can't help but be different from the feeling at a property where the corporate owners are halfway across the country or the world. It's why places like Sonnenalp in Vail and Vermont's Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe attract many of the same customers year after year.
Johannes von Trapp has owned the Trapp Family Lodge since 1969, but its history goes back to 1943, when the famous singing family featured in "The Sound of Music" moved to northern Vermont. Johannes was the youngest child.
The family lived on the farm during the summer and started renting rooms to skiers while they were out on the road singing.
Johannes von Trapp expanded the lodging when he took over and again after a fire in 1980. The resort now sits on 2,500 acres, with 96 rooms in the main hotel, 100 guesthouses for rent and 21 of an expected 40 three-bedroom villas completed.
He runs the resort with his son, Sam, and son-in-law, Walter Frame, who are always on hand to make sure guests are comfortable and to attend to details.
"This place is such an extension of my family's values and tastes, it really is important that a family member be here to explain and interpret and welcome and host our customers," Mr. von Trapp said.
A fourth-generation hotelier, Mr. Faessler grew up in a resort called Sonnenalp, founded by his great-grandparents in 1919 in Germany's Bavarian Alps.
Mr. Faessler's parents purchased a Vail hotel in 1979 and founded the U.S. version of Sonnenalp, which means "Sun on the Mountains." Mr. Faessler took over operations in 1985 and lived at the resort with his wife until they had children and moved into a house nearby.
But Sonnenalp will always be their home, and they treat it that way, with Mrs. Faessler doing most of the decorating to make sure the 127-room resort stays true to its Bavarian feel. The Faesslers still spend most of their time at Sonnenalp and plan to move back when their youngest daughter leaves for college.
"This is more than a business. This is our lives," Mrs. Faessler said. "This is where our kids grew up. This is where my son learned to swim. It has to be not just cozy or elegant. ... It has to be special."
When problems arise, there's no calling the corporate office for an answer. With owners on site, decisions can be made on the spot. "It's the opposite of a large, corporate situation where it takes a long time to get a decision on anything," Mr. von Trapp said.
Family-owned resorts also offer a consistent, personal experience. Other resorts may change owners, managers and sometimes even names and themes, but in a family-run resort, guests know what they're getting every time. Even the employees sometimes stay on for decades, and like the owners, they get to know repeat guests, forming bonds that reach beyond the walls of the resort.
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