Guest Blog: CUBA – A Bucket List Must

I couldn’t help but wrap the year with a sneak peak on a bucket list item for many Americans.  I too have long awaited my chance to see the beautiful island of Cuba.  Unfortunately, with a bun in the oven, any Zika territory is off my radar.  But as you might expect, I come from a family of travelers and if my mom and dad weren’t some of the first to jump on the Cuba bandwagon, I don’t know who else would be.  To round out the year and for a quick read during the holidays, read on for some inspiration into your next trip – could it be Cuba?

It’s Linda again, back for my second guest blog!  I know it’s a busy holiday season for many of you, and as retail business owners, it certainly is for us too.  We always try to squeeze in a trip before the holiday rush hits and this year was no exception. Luckily, our plans landed us on one of our very own bucket list trips – Cuba!

Although we crossed Cuba off our bucket list, many things were left for a future trip. The necessary educational criteria that we used for this trip to Havana included a three night cultural weekend with a personal guide and bus with a professional driver. Our stay at the NH Capri La Habana, a government owned modern hotel,  was very comfortable with a rooftop pool and bar and a fine-dining Italian restaurant. The hotel was approved for American tourists and there were many tour groups using this as their base.

Several highlights included visiting Fusterlandia where famous Cuban artist Jose’ Fuster has turned his talents to creating a tourist attraction from a heavily populated impoverished neighborhood into an outdoor virtual museum of his works. His studio and neighborhood  is a colorful burst of ceramic tiles inlaid into the homes and buildings with unique sculptures and artwork tucked in every nook and cranny. Excellent private lunches are arranged with the travel companies and are served family style.

A visit to Cuba must include a stop at El Floridita, the small bar where Ernest Hemingway frequented and where mojitos originated! Go ahead, be a tourist and enjoy one with guests from all over the world. If you’re interested in touring Hemingway’s home in Cuba, you’re somewhat out of luck, so this is the next best thing.  His home on the island can be toured only from the outside because of all the artifacts and the cost to protect them!

One of the coolest things in Cuba are all of the vintage cars! One hour of cruising the streets in a ‘59 hot pink Bel Air was an absolute blast with Cuban music playing on the old radio. The cars are in tip top shape with components replaced when they are needed. The driver made sure to mention the recent celebrities who enjoyed his tours!

The Cuban country, people, culture and food are delightful. They enjoy sharing with visitors and it is a very safe travel destination. Most locals speak English a bit and with a tour guide always ready to intervene, Cuba is a relatively easy place to visit. I’m sure it’s on your bucket list, but if not, it should be!  What a wonderful experience we can’t wait to visit again.

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck

The Snow Bird Life

Every December, I get a chance to flee the Ohio snow for something adventurous at our annual International Society of Hospitality Association Executives (ISHAE) Winter Summit.  Last year, TJ and I got to explore San Francisco and the Napa Valley, but since I’m not drinking as much wine these days (baby on board!) I was excited to have the opportunity to spend a few sunny days in Florida. One of the coolest parts of this annual excursion is that ISHAE does a fabulous job of showing off the country’s best hotels.  Travel with me to the Pink Palace… the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach!

The Don, as we started to call it, is truly a masterpiece. Inspired by love and built by tears, you can’t help but feel the history seeping through the walls while you’re there.  Arriving at the Don is an experience in itself.  The entrance is a massive uphill driveway, delivering you to its impressive entrance, decked out at this time of year with a beautiful wreath.  (You know, on that note, I do always have some internal conflict about being in a warm place with Christmas decorations. It’s so confusing for me!)

Past the front doors, you’re greeted by warm smiles, more Christmas decorations and beautiful, classic decor.  I absolutely loved the chandeliers and lighting throughout the public space.  The glass orbs were hung just so to give the illusion of jellyfish! I followed the “jellyfish” to the doors across from the entrance leading out to the beach. How, oh how, was I supposed to sit in a conference room all day when this awaited on just the other side?

Pure torture.

And maybe that was the point?  The history of the Don leads you to believe it was built on something like that.  The Don’s designer, Thomas Rowe, was once madly in love. After careful plans to run away together finally came to a head, the love of his life, Lucinda, was swept off in the night by her family, claiming that this poor American boy was not good enough for her. Rowe was devastated. After years of writing to her and her family, he finally received a letter in return, containing her obituary.

In 1924, Rowe purchased land in St. Petersburg, FL where he built the Don CeSar that stands today, naming the property after the French play Don Cesar de Bezan.  This play was the basis for the opera Maritana, where he first fell in love with the female lead on stage…Lucinda.

When its doors opened in 1928, it quickly became the place to be.  Only open during January and February, the Don hosted guests such as Clarence Darrow, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone. Rowe loved his hotel and his staff, many of which were nearby neighbors, and they loved him.  They made it through the Great Depression by hosting the New York Yankees for spring training. Rumor has it, he agreed to serve the team steaks and milk every morning for breakfast!

Rowe poured his life into the hotel and the memories of his first love. So sadly, years later, when Rowe died quite suddenly in the lobby of the hotel, the property was left to his then estranged wife who let it fall into despair.  The US Army purchased the hotel during WWII and it became a military hospital and later a US Air Force convalescent center.  But of course, it didn’t function well as a hospital and eventually the property was abandoned.

In 1969 after the property was ordered to be raised, long loyal residents stepped in to save the Don CeSar. They found a hotelier who purchased the property and it reopened as a hotel in 1973. The Don is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was a founding member of Historic Hotels of America.

With all of the history, how can you not get swept up in the romance of it all? The renovations of this massive oceanfront hotel that have taken place since its reopening are nothing short of amazing.  The multiple pools, beachfront restaurant and bar are fabulous.   And like my favorite jellyfish light fixtures, the rooms also master elegance with tasteful, appropriate beach decor.

When you visit a resort like the Don, you’re never sure if the culinary efforts will match the price tag.  I was pleased to find that the food at the property far exceeded my expectations.  At one of our events, I even had a chance to have a new culinary experience.  Watch this!

And although I didn’t have the chance to relax at Spa Oceana, I was fortunate to spend a few sunny hours poolside before heading back to blustery Ohio.  And that, my friends, was absolutely worth it.

If you find yourself visiting Florida’s gulf coast, consider a meal, a spa treatment or an overnight at the Don CeSar. Since 1928, they’ve been wowing guests, and I don’t think you’ll be any different.

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck

Grand Again in Downtown Toledo

With the coming of a new year, we will be welcoming loads of new hotels into the market in 2018.  The most exciting part for me is that the expanse is diverse – we’re seeing new independent properties, new brands and also new conversions.  One of the most anticipated conversions rounding out the end of 2017 happened a few months ago in downtown Toledo.  The new Renaissance Toledo Downtown Hotel has been brought back to its glory days with a complete overhaul and a new flag – Marriott.  If you haven’t made it to downtown Toledo since its opening early this fall, come along for a sneak peek with this week’s guest blogger, OHLA Executive Director, Joe!

A recent meeting of OHLA’s Northwest Ohio Lodging Council allowed me to stay as a guest of the new Renaissance Toledo Downtown Hotel, a first-class and exciting addition to this great city’s downtown hotel package.  This spectacular and monumental project brings a great upscale Marriott lifestyle brand into the site of the former Toledo Grand Plaza Hotel.

A complete-to-the-concrete $30 million renovation has resulted in a stylish and comfortable 13-story, 240 key property with 18,000 square feet of meeting space. This was shown to members of the public and special guests with great flair at the hotel’s grand opening celebration on Sept. 27.

The property takes design cues from the historic and hard-working city it serves. A prominent theme was Toledo’s role as the “Glass City.”  Entering through a prism doorway, guests are immediately presented with beautiful works from the Toledo Museum of Art.

The glass theme didn’t stop there. It was carried into the special experience the Renaissance created for the Grand Opening with a fun and funky blown-glass couture show, featuring a cadre of models who circulated among the guests throughout the event.


Similar touches permeate the property, from the unique flip-a-switch message board signage, to the dog tag-framed door numbers that give a nod to Toledo’s own Jamie Farr/Corporal Klinger, to the fashionable with a hint of industrial design lounge spaces.

One of my favorite things about Toledo is that it is home of the uniquely American icon, Jeep. As an unapologetic motorhead, I was blown away by the artwork which featured actual components of Jeep vehicles, and more subtle touches such as the elevator door pattern which is actually an authentic tire tread from the WWII-era Willys military jeep.

But those touches were topped with the inclusion of an authentic, vintage and near-mint condition military jeep on display right in the main lobby!

The first-floor Brim House restaurant was one of the favorite parts of my stay.

In addition to a great breakfast, the team was so welcoming and the location provided a comfortable, non-rushed place for me to catch up on messages before embarking on my day. The private dinning space features massive built-in wine racks, and a table that blended contemporary flair with Tudor castle grandeur.

The hotel’s rooms are immensely comfortable but also full of unique touches, including industrial-grade components repurposed for a more restful environment than they were originally employed.   The red iron hooks were a personal favorite and had me asking the FFE team where to place my order.

Drawing the most raves was the Renaissance’s new rooftop bar and dining experience, The Heights. This edge-to-edge venue provides true 360-degree views of the city and one of the most comfortable and usable rooftop environments I’ve seen. But it isn’t just about views.  The excellent service, top-notch food and drinks, and use of glassware from Toledo’s own Libbey Inc. made it a perfect end to a fabulous stay and off-the-chart opening event.

Congratulations to FHG President and CEO Robert Habeeb , General Manager Jeff Hassan and the entire Renaissance Toledo team for a successful opening and for all the success to come for many years.

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck

Back into the {Holiday} Swing of Things!

What a November! I can’t believe it’s been a month since we last adventured together.  November is annual conference month at OHLA and it was all hands on deck.  If you’ve ever put together a conference for nearly 500 people, including 50 exhibitors, over 30 speakers, political figures and a recording artist from Nashville (all with a full time staff of 4) you know it can be a bit hectic.  If you haven’t planned an event like that, now is not the time to start. It’s the holidays after all, and it’s time to get focused, because it’s my favorite time of year!

To put anyone in the proper holiday spirit you need cookies, decorations, cookies and cookies. For the past two years, TJ and I have made it a new holiday tradition to visit Ohio’s Amish Country for the Christmas Cookie Tour of Inns. It’s a win-win for me because I get to visit many of my members who are hosting thousands of visitors while enjoying the holiday spirit with my family. The tour continues to expand with new participants and fun ways to enjoy the weekend.  So let’s experience a #FlashbackFriday to the 2016 tour and see what’s in store for 2017 to get you ready for what will hopefully be a new tradition in your family. I have made note below of new additions to the tour!

Berlin Grande Hotel

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

Always one of the hot spots on the tour, the Berlin Grande Hotel was pulsing with holiday spirit and people! The tree that greets you in the lobby is nothing to contest with. One of my favorite decorations on the tour was what we playfully called the “Winter is Coming” room (Game of Thrones – anyone?). The white fur blanket on the bed was a luxurious touch! At this point in the tour, I was ready to cozy up for a nap with that blanket. This stop is also the hub for the shuttle that takes you to two more stops – onward!

Carlisle Inn Walnut Creek

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

Talk about competing with your siblings. The Carlisle Inn Walnut Creek and Carlisle Inn Sugarcreek were battling it out for most over the top, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping holiday display. The Christmas tree at the entrance to the Carlisle Inn Walnut Creek was impressive to say the least. Actually, the cool thing about this place was there were many entrances. We came in from the “bottom” level and were greeted by a secondary lobby display where we were able to snap an official blog picture (Check out that shirt!). Carlisle Inn Walnut Creek is a big property and they made sure not a corner went unturned. Every inch of the property was dressed for the holidays.Thank you for a great back drop!

Carlisle Inn Sugarcreek


Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

Not to be outdone by its sister property, the Carlisle Inn Sugarcreek had an even more impressive tree and lots of them. I have to give them kudos for my favorite room of the day. I took so many pictures of this room and immediately turned to TJ and asked, “could we do this?” to which he rolled his eyes and said, “No. We’re missing a Jacuzzi tub, a four-poster bed, a fireplace and a miniature lamb.” SHOOT. I wasn’t the only one taking pics of this room. The photos say enough. Nice work.

NEW THIS YEAR! Comfort Inn Dover

Comfort Suites Berlin

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

It’s a funny feeling when you think you know what something will be like and you’re wrong. That is exactly what happens every time I visit a Comfort Suites, particularly the one in Berlin. With so many great lodging options around the area, the Comfort Suites Berlin has made sure you have a unique experience while enjoying the comforts of brand recognition. I absolutely loved what the staff did for the holidays. The rooms were festively decorated in different ideas of Christmas – from blue, gold and all things glitter, to a classic farmstead Christmas with plaids and wood. The Comfort Suites Berlin always does a great job of showcasing local businesses in the area at the end of the tour too – those cupcakes were phenom!

NEW THIS YEAR! Country Inn & Suites Dover

Guggisberg Swiss Inn

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

If someone blindfolded you and dropped you at the Guggisberg Swiss Inn you would think you were in Switzerland. Holiday décor aside, innkeepers Julia and Eric Guggisberg have done an excellent job of making this inn feel authentic. One of my favorite aspects of the inn, although I didn’t get a chance to snuggle them this year, are their horses. They roam free on the property and are happy for a pet or to take you on a trot around the property. Decked out for the holidays, the Guggisberg Swiss Inn is exactly where you picture yourself with a warm mug of hot chocolate and a book. As always, at this stop, you can taste some of their Doughty Glen Wines!

Inn at Walnut Creek

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

I was pleasantly greeted by the new innkeeper’s mother who was handing out handmade French Madeleine’s – YUM. I was on my way out of the Welcome building when I overheard someone getting a room tour – so I jumped in line. The guestrooms were classically decorated for the holidays with festive wreaths and Christmas trees. This place is a great stop for a visit to Amish Country – centrally located, easy to access and great hospitality.

Oak Ridge Inn at Walnut Creek

One of our last stops in 2016, I was exhausted by the time we reached the Oak Ridge Inn. But, the crew

Ohio Amish Country Lodging Council Christmas Cookie Tour

here was ready to save the day. Not only did they have our cookies, but little containers of grapes and cheese. After all, it was almost dinner time and we were working hard! I have visited several Nivea Hospitality properties, but the Oak Ridge Inn was something different. Right around the corner from the ultra-modern Wallhouse Hotel Walnut Creek, this quaint little inn is tucked back off the main drag. The guest rooms here are massive with big Jacuzzi tubs and fireplaces waiting to help you unwind. Definitely worth a longer visit (and soak!) next time I’m in town.

NEW THIS YEAR! Sugarcreek Village Inn

BACK THIS YEAR! Wallhouse Hotel Walnut Creek

Unless you’ve been completely living under a pile of Christmas cookies, you know that the Wallhouse Hotel hosted our group last year. I highly recommend staying at one of these great places and enjoying dinner somewhere nearby!  I’m glad to see the Wallhouse back on the tour list for 2017!

NEW THIS YEAR! Zinck’s Inn

At the end of my post in 2016, I made it a point that we would buy 2 day tickets next time. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who thought this, as this year all tickets are 2-Day passes.

The 2017 Christmas Cookie Tour of Inns kicks off on December 9 at 1 p.m. This year marks the tour’s 10th year of celebrating the holidays and giving back to local charities.  Proceeds from this year’s tour benefit the Holmes County Education Foundation and LifeCare Hospice.  Spending a day or two on this tour is the perfect holiday tradition – hope you can make it one of yours and support Ohio’s Amish Country Lodging!

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck