By: Irene S. Levine | As published on Forbes
If you haven’t heard the term “quasquicentennial” before, it’s because not too many institutions have the staying power to hang on for 125 years. Among the American icons that have celebrated that milestone: The New York Public Library, the University of Chicago, and Coca-Cola.
The Breakers Palm Beach joined the shortlist this year when it marked its 125th anniversary. The oceanfront property also holds the distinction of being one of the longest continuously operating businesses in the state of Florida.
But perhaps even more noteworthy: This legendary hotel has been owned by descendants of the same family since 1896.
A Year Of Historic Challenges For The Hotel Industry
The pandemic has affected almost every aspect of the U.S. and global economy but its impact on the travel and hospitality industry has been nothing short of devastating, especially its effect on hotels.
A June 2020 McKinsey & Company report noted that hotels were one of the hardest-hit sectors in the industry, and predicted they will be one of the last to recover.
Capacity restrictions, low occupancy rates, and the cost of pandemic-related health and safety modifications are among the factors that forced many to shut down temporarily. With infection rates remaining high and most business and leisure travel on hiatus, temporary hotel closures often became permanent ones. Luxury properties were most severely impacted.
Even pre-pandemic, compared to larger chains, independent hotels have been declining in number. One study reported that after natural disasters, independent hotels are those at the highest risk of closure.
This iconic, five-diamond, luxury resort has weathered more than its share of challenges and misfortunes over its lifespan. The Breakers was forced to rebuild, twice, after scorching fires; persevered through catastrophic hurricanes; and endured significant economic downturns, including the Great Depression.
During World War II, the property was converted from a hotel to a U.S. Army Hospital, complete with a maternity ward where more than a dozen “Breaker Babies” were born between 1942 and 1944.
One might wonder how this historic unicorn managed to survive, riding the waves of one formidable challenge after another.
Then came the pandemic.
Emerging From The Pandemic
To the astonishment of many onlookers, The Breakers reopened in May 2020, after only eight weeks of closure. Consistent with national industry trends, the resort did experience decreased occupancy compounded by capacity restrictions.
“As economic forecasts wrought uncertainty and many unknowns, our leadership responded to the financial hit with cautious, thoughtful, and timely decisions to revise business projections and respond to them prudently,” says Paul N. Leone, Chief Executive Officer.
“Accordingly, we had to adjust budgets and staffing levels, while ensuring the highest standards of excellence as well as our employees’ welfare,” he adds.
Then demand began to slowly pick up from leisure and local drive markets, as people sought out “staycations” and business rebounded over Thanksgiving and the holidays with the reactivation of feeder markets throughout the U.S.
Here are some of the key factors that account for the resiliency of The Breakers:
1- Devoted Family Ownership
The Kenan family (direct heirs of founder, industrialist, and railway tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler) have been steadfast in their support of the enterprise. Each year, they invest an average of $25 million in capital improvements to enhance and revitalize the property.
“This strategic initiative ensures that we maintain our resort in pristine condition, an artful balance of preservation and modernization,” says Leone.
2- Commitment To Doing The Right Thing
The Breakers currently employs 1,800 team members, fluent in a total of more than 50 languages. In keeping with the old adage of supporting employees as you would want them to treat your best guests, full-time employees received full compensation and benefits during the pandemic closure.
“Supporting our associates and their families throughout COVID-19 was especially important to us,” says Mr. Leone. This attitude and the hotel’s demonstrable commitment to their well-being, before and during the pandemic, has created a committed, cohesive staff and makes new associates eager to join the team.
3 – Having (and maintaining) A Long-Term Vision
Having faced significant challenges in the past, the owners, Board and management team plan for the long term, not allowing that vision to get derailed. For example, at a time when most businesses are constricting, The Breakers is proceeding with expansion plans developed before the pandemic.
Via Flagler by The Breakers is a $28.3 million venture, newly launched in 2020 and still growing. Located just a few minutes from the resort, it features an al fresco plaza with a collection of upscale boutiques, eateries, and residences. One of these eateries, Henry’s Palm Beach, is the 10th restaurant in the hotel’s dining collection and features elevated American comfort food with character and a hint of nostalgia.
4- Flexibly Responding to Change
At the onset of the pandemic, the resort recognized it had to address safety concerns to regain the shaken confidence of guests, employees, and the community.
Although stringent health and safety protocols have always been a top priority, The Breakers began implementing its B SAFE – Health and Safety Initiative, an expanded set of comprehensive preventative measures that include touchless transactions, elevated cleaning standards, transformed foodservice, and hybrid meetings/events.
Blessed with a spacious 140-acre property in a temperate climate, many activities and functions were moved outdoors to accommodate social distancing.
For example, in November 2020, the resort mobilized to host the 14th annual Global Wellness Summit with 150 in-person guests and 500 remote participants. This innovative hybrid meeting model employed rapid COVID-19 screenings, multiple forms of UVC light technology to purify the air and disinfect surfaces, staggered entrance and exit times, use of outdoor venues, and other risk mitigation strategies including masks, temperature checks, sanitizing stations and individually packaged fresh food options.
5- Ethos of Going Above and Beyond
With its winning combination of elegant event spaces, top-notch catering services, and a scenic oceanfront setting, The Breakers has long been an uber-popular site for weddings and other celebratory events.
Guest loyalty is hard-earned, but bespoke personal service goes a long way in gaining trust and loyalty, even under adverse circumstances.
“Mindful of the heightened emotions of couples who had scheduled weddings here during the pandemic, the months of planning that went into them, and the financial investment involved, we reassured our clients that they could depend on us—and that they would not incur any cost for canceling, postponing, or downsizing their events,” says CEO Leone. Depending on the couples’ preferences, all deposits were refunded or transferred to future dates.
A Reason for Celebration
“Regardless of the challenges we may face, our future rests largely on the strength of our roots and staying true to our purpose,” says Leone.
“Reaching this milestone is a testament to Henry Flagler’s vision, the unwavering commitment of the Kenan family and our associates, and the timeless appeal of Palm Beach,” he adds.
About the author
Irene S. Levine has penned hundreds of articles on health and lifestyles for glossy magazines, trade publications, and leading newspapers. My focus is the over-50 luxury traveler and I’ve learned you can’t pigeonhole us! We’re a diverse group with different interests, pocketbooks and activity levels. But even those among us who can well afford the boutique and bespoke are mindful of value and appreciate authenticity whenever we find it. I’m an award-winning member of the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalist Association, and International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association, and Publisher/Editor of two popular blogs for the over-50 luxury traveler: GettingOnTravel.com and MoreTimeToTravel.com. My travel stories have also appeared online on Cruise Critic, PBS Next Avenue, Grandparents, AARP Bulletin, NBC Universal and a host of other sites. Follow my ramblings on Twitter: @moretime2travel