After 46 years in the hospitality business, Harford County's largest hotel owner and operator is closing up shop.
Hess Hotels Group is wrapping up the process of selling its five hotels to new owners after the company decided it could no longer keep up with the expectations of the modern hotel industry, owner Pam Lytle-Hess said in an interview earlier this week.
"We just started reaching a point in the life of the hotels and the life of our family that we had to make a decision," Lytle-Hess said, explaining the family needed to either invest in all the hotels or pull out.
Hess Hotels has already sold two of its three Edgewood hotels, Ramada Conference Center and Sleep Inn and Suites, as well as its Sleep Inn and Suites in Emmitsburg. The company has sale contracts on its Best Western Invitation Inn in Edgewood and the Ramada in Perryville.
The three Edgewood hotels are clustered around the I-95/Route 24 interchange.
Lytle-Hess, who has worked in the hotels since she was 17, in 1983, said the exit process began about 18 months ago and she will be retiring from the hospitality industry herself.
"It was the hardest decision of my life. It's hard every day. It's still hard," she said about selling the hotels.
The boom in Harford's hotel business from BRAC mixed with the rapid changes in the overall industry and the downturn in the economy are making it hard for Hess Hotels to compete, she said.
"I think it was like a huge impact that right at the beginning of the recession, we had learned about the base realignment [plan] and everybody got really excited about it," said Lytle-Hess, who has long been an important voice in Harford's lodging and tourism industries. "Word gets out that you are going to be having this huge influx."
She said the "absolute crazy number of rooms now available in Harford County" makes it difficult to stay on top of upgrades required by the major national lodging franchises.
"The new hotels are bigger, brighter and nicer," she said. "What happens is, you can no longer be a ma-and-pa [business]. We don't have the depth, we don't have the financial bearing to do the things that are required now to compete."
"I thought that was the time to bow out gracefully," she continued. "The whole industry has changed. Guest expectations are completely different. Maybe this family is not cut out in this new era."
Lytle-Hess explained the last decade has especially been a time of major change, as brand loyalty has basically disappeared.
"Now there's somewhere upward of 200 brands, so nobody is brand-loyal anymore," she said. "That is probably a good thing but it certainly changes customer expectations. Almost all the hotels have the exact same things now because nobody has a brand. You don't have a brand to distinguish now; it's just all hotels."
"Maybe I am just getting too old to change," the 51-year-old observed.
With that in mind, Lytle-Hess said she has not gotten any feedback from the community at large about Hess Hotels closing and did not expect much anyway.
"I hardly think anybody will even notice," she said.
The move out of the business, which was started by Lytle-Hess' father-in-law, W. Dale Hess, has been pretty rapid.
As recently as 2005, the company had announced major staff changes, including creating a new position of vice president of information technology and revenue management, as it prepared for the expected BRAC boost in business Lytle-Hess talked about.
It also rebranded two of its hotels to Ramada and embarked on a $2.5 million renovation of the company's first hotel, the Best Western Invitation Inn, which opened in 1966.
Lytle-Hess said all the staff and owners have been like a family for three generations, and she was especially concerned about her employees' prospects with new owners, and has been pleased to see that most will not be let go by the new owners.
"My number one concern has always been the staff because it's always been the people," she said. "It's always been a huge family atmosphere. I still walk out to the rooms and hug just about everybody. They are like family."
As the issue of a hotel and motel tax for Harford County prepares to come up once again in the Maryland General Assembly, Lytle-Hess remains a steadfast opponent of the tax.
She said it does not make sense to single out one entity to tax, instead of other businesses, like gas stations.
"I am adamantly opposed to any other tax. It's hard enough to get your rates up," she said, questioning the claim that hotel guests are used to paying a tax everywhere else and do not think about it when the travel.
"Really? People want to pay a tax? You want to add to their bill?" she asked. "The fact that they want to put on a tax now, and everybody is still struggling – are you kidding me? It doesn't make sense."
Lytle-Hess said she doesn't know what she will pursue next and called the sale of the hotels "very, very frightening but liberating."
She said, however, that she probably would not go back into hospitality or work under someone else.
"When you have been your own boss for so long, I can't even imagine," she said.
Lytle-Hess also intends to stay in Harford County on her husband's family farm in Fallston, where they have lived for 28 years.
"It's been a tremendous experience. I have met so many wonderful people, been able to work with the people I have worked with," she said of being with Hess Hotels. "I felt like our family was breaking up."
"It's given me so many gifts and blessings, but I always look forward to changes," she said, adding she knows that sounds "strange" coming from someone who has worked in the same company for so long.
"It's just tremendously rewarding to look back over the years and it's heartbreaking to think it's coming to an end," Lytle-Hess added.