After Sale Of Nantucket Inn, GM Scott Thomas Looks Back On 30 Years Of Island Hospitality
Jason Graziadei •
It’s been a long time since Scott Thomas had a summer off.
But after 30 years managing the Nantucket Inn, the largest hotel on the island, Thomas is taking some well-deserved time for himself this season.
Following the $30 million sale of the Nantucket Inn last November, Thomas and the company he worked for, The Finch Group, have parted ways with the new owners of the lodging establishment at the entrance to Nantucket Memorial Airport.
Thomas had been one of the mainstays in the island’s hospitality industry for more than three decades, and the Current caught up with him at his home in Tom Nevers last week to hear some of his reflections after capping off a long career at the Nantucket Inn.
“It’s relief and a welcome break from day-to-day hotel responsibilities,” said Thomas, who’s been helping his friend Aisling Glynn, of ACKtivities, with her event planning business and few others to stay active, but has generally been taking it easy. “I’m having the time of my life this summer. Don’t regret a thing. Onward to the next chapter.”
Thomas started at the Nantucket Inn in 1989 as the conference services manager and was quickly thrust into a role in which he was overseeing the operation of the 100-room hotel. In those early years, all the reservations were on paper, and he oversaw the sprawling property with a big ring of keys.
“As an innkeeper, I was wholly unprepared for what that job really was,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I give huge credit to my boss Ernie Palazzolo for seeing the potential. But back then, it was really just about managing the hotel. Now there’s so much more to it, and particularly with all the technology. Before it was you check people in and out and make sure the rooms are cleaned. Now you’ve got to manage the inventory, make sure Expedia is right, and there’s so much more stuff like TripAdvisor.”
The Nantucket Inn was originally envisioned as a full-service, year-round, five-star resort. But it quickly became clear that that model simply wasn’t going to be sustainable, Thomas said. He recalled how the Nantucket Inn evolved and adapted to find its own unique niche in the island’s hospitality industry: a hybrid model with full-service during the summer, while remaining open with limited service in the off-season.
“It made a lot of sense when it was all said and done,” Thomas said. “That was a huge thing in terms of turning the financial fortunes of the hotel around. We needed that extra revenue.”
And so the Nantucket Inn became known as the large, affordable, and family-friendly hotel during the summer, as well as the offseason home for many of the island’s transient workers. There were construction tradesmen, TSA agents, private pilots, pool builders, and UPS employees who all made their home at the Nantucket Inn during the fall, winter, and early spring.
“We were doing an unbelievable amount of rooms for pool builders, because everyone wants a pool, and the guys would be here all winter doing the pools, and it was unbelievable,” Thomas recalled. “Everyone always said to me, why are you guys only open May 15 to Oct. 15? And I said ‘we’re actually open year-round, but we’re only open full services during that window.’ What we did was strip away all that extra expense. We didn’t have to deal with staffing for the winter, because we could pretty much do it with five or six people over the winter. We could do the construction guys, the TSA guys, National Grid, and Verizon. We didn’t really do the pilots because they’re a little more high maintenance and the limited services model doesn’t work for them. But it became a great source of business.”
Staffing a 100-room hotel for the high season was always a puzzle that Thomas and others at the Nantucket Inn attempted to piece together while navigating a complex and changing labor landscape.
Early in Thomas’ career, there was a group of students from Nebraska who returned every year to work at the hotel. In the 1990s, the Nantucket Inn was one of the first island businesses to utilize the federal government’s H-2B visa program for temporary workers. Some of island’s very first seasonal workers from Jamaica got their start at the Nantucket Inn.
“There was a woman named Jane Zimmerman, she had a connection with Jamaica, and she somehow uncovered this H-2B visa program, which was really supposed to be a non-agricultural visa, and she said ‘well, maybe there’s a way we can bring some women in from Jamaica’,” Thomas said.
Eventually most, if not all, of the 30 seasonal workers the Nantucket Inn hired every summer were through the H-2B visa program, and many returned to the island year after year.
“We had unbelievable longevity, and the thing with the H-2B program as it got more and more difficult and got so much more politicized, these were people who were – it’s easy to say they were family – but you had a relationship with these guys and they counted on the job as much as we counted on them,” Thomas said.
But, as Thomas noted, the politics of immigration ultimately made the H-2B visa program less and less reliable as the years went on, forcing the hotel to make some difficult decisions and shift its staffing mix.
“As difficult as it was, we finally had to make the decision to limit how many of H-2Bs we would do, because if the entire staff was H-2B and you didn’t get your visas, what do you do?” he said. “2008 I think was the first year we had real problems and people didn’t get through due to new numerical counts and filing bureaucracy. That was the year we said we need to start trimming this back and do a mix. What can we do with J-1s, what can we do with Americans, how much more recruiting can we do and come up with a better mix of people and not rely solely on H-2Bs?”
As Thomas decided to step away from the island’s lodging industry late last year, he was not alone. A handful of other longtime innkeepers and general managers – including Jamie Holmes (Nantucket Hotel), Pete and Thea Kaizer (Brant Point Inn) and Karen Keelan (The Beachside) – all decided it was also their time to move on.
The island’s hospitality industry is certainly in flux, and Thomas said he sees both positives and negatives in some of the changes that are underway.
“There’s no question there’s a lot more consolidation than there was,” Thomas said. “But even back in the day, it was Interstate Hotels, and they had the White Elephant, The Breakers, and The Boat Basin. And that was considered to be a big deal. The Nantucket Inn, even we were considered - people didn’t understand - but we were considered to be the outsiders. We were a Boston company that was doing something different. Everything else was individual operators.”
The Nantucket Lodging Association was previously run by those owner-operators. Today, he said, the organization is run by employees of larger companies.
“It’s a completely different perspective on things and it’s hard to get the group to agree,” he said. “As far as it being a good thing or bad thing, as long as they continue to operate transparently to the guest and you don’t know – I love going into the Greydon House and not knowing they own four other properties – it doesn’t feel like a chain. But I don’t love the idea that everything is a boutique hotel now. When I travel I like to go to places that are authentic, and I’m not sure there are a lot of real authentic places on Nantucket anymore and that’s kind of a shame.”
But looking back on his career, Thomas spoke with pride and gratitude about his time with the Nantucket Inn. He recalled how he had once hired some of the island’s most recognizable businessmen to work at the Nantucket Inn – people like Packy Norton, John Jordin and John Keane – before they went on to do big things themselves.
His fondest memories are of those when the staff came together to overcome challenges and obstacles – like the one Christmas Stroll when all the boats on Sunday were cancelled due to weather.
“All the sudden we had all these people there and we were only supposed to be open for two days,” Thomas said. “We said we need to figure this out. We went out and bought 50 pizzas, went down and cleaned out the Juice Bar of ice cream, and set up a buffet. We didn’t know who was going to be open, and even now, people still come back and say ‘we were here at Stroll when you guys put out the pizza party’!”
There are other memorable stories, of course, but most of those are not fit for publication, Thomas said with a chuckle. A few he did share with the Current:
- The night auditor called Thomas one night to tell him a few guests were upset and wanted his phone number, and that he should expect their call. “The phone rang and they’re hammered. They had gotten into a fight at The Chicken Box and they were blaming us for recommending The Chicken Box.”
- One night the Nantucket Inn was the subject of a noise complaint for one of its rooms. The Nantucket Police Department arrived. “And the police decided to break down the door, for whatever reason, and it was the wrong door. The person inside was sound asleep.”
As for his own immediate future, Thomas said he’s looking forward to doing some traveling, and will be weighing some options for work during the off-season. Wherever he ends up, no doubt he’ll remain a familiar face for the many people who have either worked with him over the years, or stayed with him at the Nantucket Inn as a guest.