Hotel Lakeside at a crossroads: Community debates large-scale renovation of historic inn, sale of alcohol

A recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer highlighted the historic Hotel Lakeside. Facing dismal occupancy and millions of dollars in renovation, what should the owner of the iconic hotel do? David J. Sangree was interviewed for this article as Hotel & Leisure Advisors completed a hotel feasibility study for the Hotel Lakeside concerning its possible renovation and expansion. 

Published: August 2014

Lakeside, Ohio – For 139 years, the historic Hotel Lakeside has welcomed guests to its scenic location just steps from the Lake Erie shore.

The question many long-time residents of this resort community are asking this summer: Will the hotel be around for the next generation of Lakesiders – much less another 139 years?

Low occupancy rates and the need for millions of dollars in renovations have pushed Lakeside leaders into considering several controversial proposals – including the sale of alcohol for the first time inside the gates of the Methodist-founded resort town.

Though the issue has divided the community, there does seem to be agreement on the central goal: The hotel, with its magnificent front porch and terrific views of the lake, must be saved.

“From a dollar standpoint, it might be easier to tear it down,” said Kevin Sibbring, the president of Lakeside Chautauqua, located just east of Port Clinton on the Marblehead peninsula. “But part of our mission is to preserve Lakeside’s heritage.”

An initial plan, released to the community last month, called for a complete renovation of the hotel, the addition of a three-story expansion and the introduction of alcohol sales.

The $12 million to $15 million project divided long-term Lakesiders, some of whom objected to its cost, its scope – and the sale of alcohol.

Since then, discussions have centered on scaling back or slowing down the project.

But Sibbring said the issue can’t be put on the back burner forever. “We need to invest in the hotel,” he said. “The status quo isn’t acceptable.”

Founded in 1873 as a Methodist summer camp, Lakeside today offers a 10-week summer “season,” with educational, religious, recreational and cultural programming inside its scenic, gated grounds (open to the public, but with an admission fee).

Accommodations on the grounds include rental cottages, a campground, several bed and breakfasts and two hotels. Lakeside owns and operates both the historic Hotel Lakeside, open since 1875, and the Fountain Inn, built in 1977.

Even during the busy summer season, occupancy at the 78-room Hotel Lakeside hovers around 40 percent, according to Sibbring.

About two years ago, the Lakeside Board of Directors, which governs the private, nonprofit community, contracted with Cleveland-based consulting firm Hotel & Leisure Advisors to look at options for improving the hotel’s viability. (The consultants also recommended the newer 48-room Fountain Inn be renovated.)

Among the recommendations for Hotel Lakeside: increase the number of group gatherings at the hotel, especially during the week and off-season; update and enlarge overnight rooms to make them more appealing to families; and add alcohol sales at the hotel restaurant.

“This is one of a very few hotels located right on Lake Erie,” said David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors. “It’s a very pretty location.”

And it should be more successful, he said. Part of the reason it isn’t: Groups, including wedding parties, small conferences and reunions, want to be able to serve beer or wine with dinner. “In today’s era, that’s just a given,” he said.

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