ROCKPORT - Last week, construction workers hustled to complete renovations to the new La Belle Vita Restaurant at The Samoset Resort in Rockport.
The work, to be completed this month, is part of a major renovation by the resort’s owners, Ocean Properties Ltd., a hotel company with deep Maine ties.
In recent years, Ocean Properties, which has New Hampshire offices but owns numerous Maine hotels, has been acquiring new properties at discount prices, renovating older ones and planning new projects like Biddeford Downs, a proposed racetrack with slot machines and a hotel.
Executives say private ownership keeps them nimble and lets the company react quickly to business opportunities, even in a sluggish economy.
“When bad times hit, it is not a big shock for us. We don’t go chasing things when the prices run up,” said Mark Walsh, vice president and son of Ocean Properties’ founder Tom Walsh. “Our view is that the best time to buy is when things are down, not at the height. A lot of people don’t practice that.”
Ocean Properties, which has some 6,000 employees in the United States, owns more than 100 hotels in the United States and Canada, including nine hotels in Maine and more than 35 in Florida, according to its website.
In Bar Harbor, the company owns the Days Inn, Harborside Hotel & Marina and the Bar Harbor Regency Holiday Inn. Other Maine properties include the Fairfield Inn in Bangor, the Holiday Inn in Bath and the Residence Inn in Auburn. South Portland properties include the Holiday Inn Express & Suites and the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks.
Ocean Properties also operates a 50-person reservations call center at the Holiday Inn Express, and owns Bar Harbor Whale Watch, said senior vice president Tom Varley.
The company employs some 1,700 Mainers during the summer season, 300 of them at the Samoset, said hotel manager Cornelius Russell.
The Florida properties include high-end resorts like the Weston Key West Resort & Marina and Key West’s Sunset Key Guest Cottages, which is on an island in the harbor. The Canadian locations are operated through Ocean Properties’ subsidiary Atlific Hotels.
Tom Walsh, 82, a former linen and bedding salesman from Bangor, launched Ocean Properties more than 40 years ago. Walsh’s early properties included hotels in Trenton and Brewer. In the early 1970s, when the economy suffered under the Arab oil embargo, Walsh bought five hotels in Florida at attractive prices, said Varley.
Ocean Properties is managed by Walsh and his five children: Mark, Mike, Patrick, Bill and Susan.
Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association, said the industry suffered heavily during the recent recession.
For five years leading up to 2007, he said, the hotel industry added a record number of rooms, growing at about 2 percent annually. McInerney said there are now 50,000 hotels in the United States and a record 4.4 million rooms.
In 2007 the industry felt the first pangs of trouble, when banks started restricting financing for construction projects.
In 2008, the situation worsened: the economy entered recession, Lehman Brothers collapsed and insurance company American International Group, operating with federal bailout funds, held a conference at a luxury resort in Arizona, leading to public criticism.
Business travel dried up, causing average hotel occupancy rates to fall from 62.8 percent in 2007 to 54.5 percent in 2009. Average room rates dropped from $104 nightly in 2007 to $98 in 2009, said McInerney.
The industry predicts room prices will rise to about $102 and occupancy rates will jump to nearly 60 percent in 2011.
Walsh said Ocean Properties didn’t get caught in the race to scoop up hotel properties as real estate prices climbed in the years preceding the recession.
“Cycles are something that we are used to. (We) try not to get fat when business is booming because, historically, what goes up does come back down,” he said.
Walsh declined to discuss Ocean Properties’ revenue. He said the hotel business “was slow” for a while during the recession but that the company’s hotels “have done very well” in the past year, partly due to nice weather in Maine last summer and in Florida last winter.
Varley said the company’s properties are not located in areas that were hit hardest by the recession, such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Walsh said Ocean Properties’ strategy is primarily to buy hotels that attract business and leisure travelers and are near the water.
He said the company kept cash at hand during the recession — money that was used to acquire properties at discount prices, many of them old, luxury resorts needing renovations.
In 2008, Ocean Properties bought The Sagamore Resort, which is more than 100 years old and sits on New York’s Lake George.
And in late 2010, the company bought the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach, Fla., and Ocean Properties has signed a purchase agreement to buy the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, N.H., which opened shortly after the Civil War.
“We are interested in special locations that may (be) historical,” said Walsh. “That type of property (attracts) generational-type visitors. You run into people who say, ‘I was here with my parents 40 years ago.’ “
Varley said historic hotels offer a “unique resort experience that can’t be replicated by newly developed hotels.”
“We have learned that there is a demand for this type of experience,” he said.
The $2 million Samoset renovations include the new Italian restaurant La Bella Vita, an adjacent antipasto bar called Enoteca Lounge, and a new seaside spa. The company is also adding an observation deck overlooking the water and three cottages near the shore.
Other Ocean Properties projects include Biddeford Downs, a harness racing track with slot machines that the company has proposed to build with Scarborough Downs.
It would have Victorian-style architecture, hotel rooms overlooking the track and entertainment like music and theater, said Varley. He added that the site would create some 500 full-time jobs.
Bills allowing gambling in Biddeford, Washington County and Lewiston are working through the state Legislature. But Gov. Paul LePage has indicated he may veto the citizen-initiated bills, which would send the measures to voters for approval on the November ballot.
Ocean Properties also sought to develop the Maine State Pier, but eventually lost its bid in 2007 to The Olympia Cos.
A memo from Portland’s attorney’s office at the time revealed that Ocean Properties had filed lawsuits against the city of Portsmouth, N.H., and worked without building permits in Bar Harbor.
Angela Chamberlain, Bar Harbor’s code enforcement officer, said in 2007 that the firm was fined more than 25 times for failing to seek building permits or follow approved plans.
Thomas Ford, Rockport’s director of planning and community development, said Ocean Properties followed all of the town’s procedures for renovating the Samoset.
“They did a good job. They provided everything we needed and got the appropriate building permit,” he said. “We have a good relationship with them and they are a big part of the economy here on the midcoast.”
Ocean Properties and its owners have a reputation for philanthropy.
Raymond Goodman Jr., professor in the hospitality management department at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business & Economics, said that a few years ago Ocean Properties – or Tom Walsh, Goodman didn’t recall which – donated money to establish the department’s International Hospitality Management Alumni Advisory Board. The board helped the department write a strategic plan and raised close to $2 million in additional donations.
Goodman described the Walsh family as discreet donors.
“They are very generous, but don’t go out and say, ‘Look how much money we are giving,’ ” he said.
Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: