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Travel Channel's 'Hotel Impossible' makes over Abacrombie Inn in Baltimore

Reality TV host Anthony Melchiorri spends his workdays circling the country and globe, on a mission to help ailing hotels and their owners resurrect themselves on the Travel Channel series "Hotel Impossible."

When the hotel fixer visited Baltimore back in the spring, he found the Abacrombie Inn — a bed-and-breakfast in the city's Mount Vernon neighborhood — hardly lived up to the "charm" in Charm City.

"I couldn't believe some of the things I saw," said Melchiorri, who has 25 years of experience leading top hotels such as the famed Algonquin in New York City. "For starters, you certainly don't expect to find a crack vial littering the outside of a bed-and-breakfast."

That's just one of the provocative scenes that viewers will see in the premiere of "Hotel Impossible," which begins its third season Monday night. The producers filmed the makeover style show over a four-day period back in late March.

The fast-paced half-hour episode shines a less-than-flattering spotlight on Abacrombie Inn, a 12-room bed-and-breakfast situated inside a historic house on West Biddle Street, across from Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Once hailed as a four-star B&B with an attached award-winning restaurant, the operation had changed hands in recent years. If online travel reviews can be believed, the lodging establishment's reputation suffered a dramatic decline as a result.

Comments about the Abacrombie Inn on TripAdvisor vary, but tend to skew negative. While one guest dubbed it a "wonderful inn in downtown," another described their stay as "The worst customer service experience EVER!!!!" Still another called it "horrendous."

The current owners acknowledge that their path as hoteliers hasn't always run smoothly.

"We are very hardworking, but we face many struggles," said Sarifa Vahora, 53, who jointly runs the hotel business with her husband, Hanif, 54. (The couple owns the Indian restaurant next door, but it is operated as a separate business.)

Vahora, who sat down last week for an interview, said her family emigrated from India in 1988 and began pursuing their version of the American dream.

They owned a gas station on the Eastern Shore before selling it and delving into the hospitality business. They first purchased a motel in Virginia in 2002, and other properties followed, including the Baltimore-based inn.

The Vahoras paid $1.2 million for the property in 2007 but haven't reaped the kind of profits they'd expected.

"The economy and competition from other hotels has hurt us," she said. "Our family has suffered much from all this."

Vahora said her 30-year-old son, Atiq, who's shown in the episode, called "Hotel Impossible" seeking expert help. They received assistance, but in typical reality-show fashion, it came with a dose of drama.

During the episode, Melchiorri, the "Hotel Impossible" host, isn't shy about calling out the family for what he perceives as business shortcomings. For instance, he complains during the show about the housekeeping and general lack of cleanliness at the inn.

"This is the dirtiest hotel I have ever seen," says the tough-talking host, shown running his fingers over a thick layer of dust.

To make his point, he leaves a dirty handprint on a bedspread. "I'm a businessman coming here to give assistance. I'm not a housekeeper, but I was hit in the face with filth."

The episode also illuminates other unsanitary practices — including a continental breakfast spread in the dining room that really sends Melchiorri over the edge.

What's the problem, you ask? Try several hard-boiled eggs, which the owners admit while the cameras are rolling have been left out for more than 24 hours. According to the episode, there's also spoiled milk in the refrigerator and a jar of expired horseradish.

"Killing guests is bad!" the host bellows, as the family looks on in distress.

During a recent interview, Melchiorri said that getting the owners to adhere to a new management style, accept responsibility for their actions and institute an updated marketing and maintenance plan were the biggest challenges.

He called them "absentee owners" who refused to take accountability for their shortcomings.

"To be quite honest, it was not being run well," Melchiorri said. "There was no pride, no understanding that a guest comes in here to feel safe and comfortable. The only concern was making money."

Vahora countered during the interview last week that while her husband is often away tending to their other businesses, they do care.

Dabbing away tears, she said she has put her heart and soul into running the Mount Vernon business.

"I work seven days a week and do all the customer service," she said, explaining that she drives in daily from Columbia, arriving around 6 a.m., and typically works a 12- to 14-hour day.

She said the responsibility for all the housekeeping fell to her, although she blamed some problems on a staffer who ran things while she took a rare vacation. That person is no longer employed at the Abacrombie, she added.

As Monday's episode progresses — complete with dazzling shots of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and other landmarks, Melchiorri sets out to restore the inn to its former glory.

Up first: a thorough cleaning. Melchiorri also called in a Maryland contractor to tackle some renovations, and an interior designer to spruce up the drab rooms.

"It was pretty rough-looking when we arrived," said Thomas Mandell, a general contractor who co-owns Highland Renovations in Cockeysville with David Salla.

"I would say maintenance was not a top priority. The owners were nice, but the main problem seemed to be that they were inexperienced in the hospitality industry."

Highland Renovations and several local subcontractors helped transform the entry foyer and other spaces inside the inn. Their tasks included trim work, moldings, installing new light and bathroom fixtures, paint, and other features to refresh the property.

All of the work done was under the direction of Melchiorri and California-based interior designer Casey Noble.

"Due to the short timeline involved with filming, our crews worked 18-hour days to complete all the renovations in short order," said Mandell, who said his company worked for free to gain some national TV exposure.

It seems their efforts paid off. On camera, the owners — who use their American names "Hank" and "Sue" during the episode — look ecstatic as the pretty new spaces are unveiled.

"They were very appreciative of everything that had been done. They were very thankful," said Mandell. "Hopefully, they're genuine in that they want to do better. I could see the host and designer were optimistic."

On a recent tour of the property, the inn appeared neat and clean. The rooms — beautifully painted and decorated with antiques and with features such as ornate chandeliers, Oriental rugs and fireplaces — managed to be both sophisticated and cheery.

Vahora acknowledged concern that the inn's portrayal in the episode could turn away potential customers. "I wanted 'Hotel Impossible' to support me and give solutions, not leave people with a bad impression of my business. They did help, but I have mixed feelings. "

A Travel Channel spokesman said the network wants to see the inn succeed with its new look and focus. Melchiorri and the "Hotel Impossible" team don't want to exploit owners, and they are invested in helping every hotel featured on the series, said Andy Singer, general manager at Travel Channel.

"The hotel owners have reached out to us directly for assistance," Singer said. "Each hotel is struggling to survive, or looking to improve, and seeking the expertise and guidance from a successful and well-respected industry professional. Not every hotel can be saved, however [Anthony] Melchiorri provides owners with the insight, tools and resources to help turn any hotel around, even making himself available long after the shoot is finished. He truly cares about every hotel he visits, and the guests who stay at these properties."

Abacrombie's owners remain hopeful that after the TV show airs, the inn will have a chance for a fresh start.

"We want [a] good image. This is our future," said Vahora."I hope guests will come."

Watch it

The third season of "Hotel Impossible" premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on the Travel Channel. Additional locations featured this season include Baily's Harbor, Wis.; Delaware Water Gap, Pa.; Grass Valley, Calif.; Ocean City; Olympus Riviera, Greece; and Santa Cruz, Costa Rica.

If you go

Abacrombie Inn is at 58 W. Biddle St. in Baltimore. Room rates start around $150 per night. For reservations call 410-244-7227.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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