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 out to the dining room.
These tasks could easily be delegated to the staff. But Faessler just can’t help herself. Sonnenalp, the resort in the Colorado Rockies that 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 the generations. But in the U.S., while there are still plenty of small resorts, B&Bs and inns run by families, many larger resorts that were founded by families have been sold to or taken over by corporate entities. 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.
Those 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 a property where the corporate owners are halfway across the country or the world. And it’s why places like Sonnenalp in Vail, Trapp Family Lodge and Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont, and The Homestead along the shores of Lake Michigan in Glen Arbor, Mich., 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 from The Sound of Music first moved to northern Vermont.
The family lived on the farm during the summer and started renting rooms to skiers while they were out on the road singing.
Von Trapp expanded the lodging when he took over, and again after a fire in 1980. The resort near Stowe now sits on 2,500 acres (about 1,000 hectares) with 96 rooms in the main hotel, 100 guest houses for rent and has built 21 of an expected 40 three-bedroom villas.
He now 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 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,” Johannes Von Trapp said. “It’s a great life, too. My house is on the property, but a mile from the hotel. My son and daughter and her husband all have houses on the property, so it’s easy to go home and come back, do some work, go home again.”
The Homestead in Michigan has been operated by the Kuras family since Robert Kuras purchased the property in 1975. Originally a boys camp in the 1920s, the Homestead is now a 500-acre (200 hectares) resort with four distinct hotels and year-round activities, from golf and water sports in the summer to skiing and snowboarding in the winter. It’s surrounded by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at the mouth of the Crystal River, which Kuras proudly notes was voted the most beautiful place in America last year in a Good Morning America contest.
Kuras’ children now help run the business, with the youngest in charge of social media. He said what makes a family-owned resort different is “values and tradition. We try to stress that. We view our guests as family and friends, and 80 percent of our guests are repeat. We’re pretty proud of that.”
A fourth-generation hotelier, Johannes Faessler grew up in a resort called Sonnenalp in the Bavarian Alps, in Germany, founded by his great-grandparents in 1919.
Faessler’s parents purchased a Vail hotel in 1979 and founded the U.S. version of Sonnenalp, which means “Sun on the Mountains.” Johannes took over operations in 1985 and lived at the resort with Rosana until they had kids and moved into a house nearby.
But Sonnenalp will always be their home, and they treat it that way, with Rosana 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,” Rosana 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,” Johannes von Trapp said.
Family-owned resorts also offer a consistent, personal experience. Other resorts might change owners, managers, sometimes even names and themes, but here, 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.
“Many guests come over and over, and you get to know them on an intimate level,” Johannes Faessler said. “They become more friends than hotel guests.”