GRAND LAKE — A year ago next week, the town of Grand Lake received some national attention through the Western Riviera Motel. Some town residents are comparing that attention to a snowball, gaining speed and growing as it rolls the town in the right direction.
Late in December 2012, the producers of the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible” contacted the motel’s owners, Jackie and Mike Tompkins, about featuring their property. Jackie admits they were reluctant at first, but decided to take a chance.
“We watched some episodes and said, ‘oh no.’ Everyone cried in the show, so why would we want to do that?” she said. “But when they said they wanted to come in January, we knew that’s when the town needed help, when things are slow.”
By Feb. 4, 2013, the “Hotel Impossible” cameras and crew rolled into town.
A popular makeover reality show, “Hotel Impossible” host Anthony Melchiorri travels the country, advising struggling hotel operators and owners. He then provides extensive renovations. It’s a simple formula that makes for appealing television, but soon after Melchiorri arrived in Grand Lake, signs indicated this episode would be different.
For one, Melchiorri seemed enchanted by Grand Lake. He called it “an absolute perfect location for a hotel,” a “storybook town” and “magical,” with “beautiful businesses.”
Melchiorri even raved during a brief Sky-Hi interview following filming.
“I will go on record saying it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” Melchiorri said, who had filmed at beach hotels in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as mountain towns in California and Vermont. In each episode, Melchiorri often does a thing or two to mingle with local town, from perusing the local bar to scoping local attractions. The Tompkins went a step further and convinced him to participate with Western Riviera staff in the bed sled race at the town’s Winter Carnival. The entire time, Melchiorri marveled at the vacancy signs dotting the town and lack of visitor traffic, something locals are accustomed to in the winter months.
“The town’s great, but nobody’s here,” he said on the show. “Maybe because nobody knows about it.”
Soon, the show’s efforts became more than the Western Riviera. Melchiorri launched an effort to overhaul the town’s winter season.
“Of the things he said to me, these words have stuck with me,” Jackie said, “‘you can keep advertising and advertising, but unless you get the whole town behind you, you’re just spinning your wheels. If (guests) come up here to stay, but there’s nothing to do, they’re not going to hang around.’”
The boards at town hall and the chamber of commerce had already been exploring ideas to revamp the town through a possible branding campaign and downtown assessment. But as Melchiorri brought in marketing advisors, met with town officials and honed widespread attention on Grand Lake, it gave those efforts a significant push forward.
“The town has been energized,” said chamber executive director Samantha Miller. “There are a lot more people involved with the chamber, and it’s great to see everyone involved in marketing our community’s assets.”
Miller wasn’t in Grand Lake during last year’s filming, but came to the chamber right when the Western Riviera episode first aired in late March 2013. She has since been working with Jackie, who serves on the chamber board, to implement some of Melchiorri’s advice on cohesive marketing.
New energy in town
Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke has also noticed positive change since the show aired.
“I get calls from all over the world about it,” she said. “I think many people have taken to heart the fact they need to do things to improve their businesses, making Grand Lake a better year-round economy than what we’ve had in the past.”
The “Hotel Impossible” feedback also encouraged the town board to put more money into the local chamber for extra help and to grow their marketing efforts.
For the Tompkins, the national and international attention “Hotel Impossible” shed on their small motel has certainly paid off. Since the show aired, Mike said 2013 was their second-best year ever. It’s just behind 2007, a record-setting year for many businesses in Grand Lake.
The Western Riviera episode re-aired this last Monday, Jan. 27, bringing another surge of attention to the property and the town.
“We saw an increase in the amount of ‘likes’ on our Facebook page, and a huge increase of Internet traffic to our website,” Mike said. “It’s very noticeable.”
While the Tompkins tried to implement as much of Melchiorri’s advice as possible, they didn’t have the funds to duplicate Room 6, the show’s “makeover” room, throughout the entire motel.
“He was very honest after he revealed the room,” Jackie said. “He told use we can’t duplicate this room because we won’t get our money back. We have to pick and choose, decide what guests deserve but still fits within a real budget.”
Initially, the Tompkins thought they’d renovate a room or two at a time, but quickly realized guests expected to see changes in every room. They’ve swapped the bedding to match Room 6’s cozy mountain design. They’ve painted accent walls instead of installing beetle-kill panels. They’ve replaced the flooring in half of the motel’s 16 room, and expect to do the other half this spring. Next winter, they’ll add bedside lighting and mount the TVs.
They charge a little extra for guests wanting to check in to Room 6, but nowhere near the $500 Melchiorri recommended during the busy season. Western Riviera’s motel rooms regularly go for $100 in the winter, and Room 6 goes for $125. In the summer, Room 6 will cost $190, just $35 over the regular rate.
Even with all the positives, the Tompkins admit the episode was painful to watch at times. Melchiorri made issues out of things he never brought up with the Western Riviera owners or staff, Jackie said, like the housekeeping shoveling snow instead of cleaning rooms.
“You have to realize you can’t take a New York City philosophy and drop it in Grand Lake, some of the stuff doesn’t fit in our community,” Jackie said.
Still, the Tompkins said out of all the “Hotel Impossible” episodes they’ve watched, they felt Melchiorri and the show’s producers were far nicer to the Western Riviera than other hotel owners and staff.
It’s true that the Western Riviera show was full of the embellishments commonly found in reality shows, including intense music and long pauses with melodramatic cutaway shots. But while “Hotel Impossible” is often punctuated with shouting, arguing and tears, the Tompkins were eager, intelligent and friendly. While Melchiorri’s hotel inspections often find rooms smelly, stained or crawling with insects, the Western Riviera was clean and maintained,even if a little generic and dated.
“I do think it was a gain overall,” Mike said. “Rather than focusing on the Western Riviera, Grand Lake was given a one-hour free national televised ad on the Travel Channel.”
Momentum seems to be gaining. Beyond the televised attention, there are efforts to implement the new downtown assessment’s recommendations. Sales tax numbers look encouraging, an indication the local economy is picking up. There’s the recently unveiled “Soul of the Rockies” branding campaign. And there’s a freshly energized town spirit, working to put Grand Lake on the map beyond the summer months.
“You need to do it together, not by yourself,” Jackie said, recalling Melchiorri’s advice. “No one business can do it alone.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.