From Classic to Trendy: Greenbrier Shoots Craps

The prevailing Draper/Varney philosophy, wrapped in sound judgment and confirmed in oodles of Draper & Company time-tested projects, faced its severest test with the designs of the restaurants, guestrooms and some of the public spaces at the Greenbrier after management decided the resort needed a $50-million facelift. In an article appearing in this magazine, November 2001, Varney said “I must have carte blanche. Otherwise, I won't take the job.” Redesigns and renovations at the Greenbrier have been Varney's since he took over in 1963. Not any more. If he wanted a piece of the $50-million renovation — which began in January 2007 and was completed four months later — he was told to comply with new design edicts. He was told to compromise.

The renovations seemed to be based on demographic analyses: Who or what was the market it should attract; and, if the resort is to survive deep into the 21st century, how could it attract a younger generation? If it were to compete with those five-star upstarts, would it have to reinvent itself, modify its uniqueness and landmark status, and become just another five-star resort, deserving of the honor, but no longer something special?

According to Vicki Smith, an Associated Press writer, Paul Ratchford (at the time Greenbrier president) told her “The Greenbrier is a very historic national treasure, but we had been unable to pierce the market share of a younger demographic that might have come here with their parents or their grandparents in previous years, but would not necessarily consider us for a return visit.”

Ratchford, who joined the Greenbrier in October 2006, is no longer an employee there. He was fired by Michael Ward, CEO of Greenbrier owner, CSX Corp. (a North American railroad company), Sept. 18, 2007, less than a year after he was named president of the resort. Ratchford has filed a $50-million lawsuit against the Greenbrier for wrongful discharge, violation of California labor laws and West Virginia's wage and payment act.

While still with the Greenbrier — and having been there less than two months — there was a heated email exchange in December 2006 between Varney and Ratchford that foreshadowed a relationship that would become rather touchy. Ratchford was hired to manage the resort's P&L, to win back the fifth star from Mobil and to attract a younger crowd. He was determined to oversee a transitional shift in the Greenbrier's marketing to appeal to guests turned off by the “pretentious sophistication” of the resort, who — survey says — would likely embrace the less intimidating, yet still luxurious environment one might find at a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons.

For that reason, the Draper touch, though visible in many venues throughout the resort, was not needed for the renovations. The times they were a-changin' and Varney was so advised in the email back-and-forth. Nine months later, Ratchford was fired. CSX has yet to name his replacement.

There were also articles about the Greenbrier's new look, best described as unenthusiastic (according to Varney, “the media has not been kind”). Here's an excerpt from one in the New York Post, written Sept. 11, 2007, by a self-described “twenty-something” reporter. “[A]lluring the young and appeasing the old has created an identity crisis for the establishment … A random poll of guests found unsurprising results: businessmen, ladies lunching. But no young people … Come winter, the Greenbrier will expand its spa … and the Main Dining Room may get a wine bar. They can build it, but will they come?”

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