, 2014

Parade grand marshals
epitomize hospitality

by Audrey Thomasson

IRVINGTON—The annual Fourth of July Hometown Parade in Irvington will honor the founding family of The Tides Inn.

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Former “Resort Executive of the Year” and Mobil Five-Star Hotel recipient Bob Lee Stephens and wife Suzy will serve as parade grand marshals.

The parade begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 4.

The Tides Inn was a vision of Bob Lee’s father, Ennolls A. “Big Steve” Stephens, who bought a vine-covered corn field on a point on Carter’s Creek for $5,000 and in 1945 began construction as the contractor. For a man who had no hotel experience, success in such a remote location and at the end of World War II was risky.

“He used army surplus materials,” recalled Bob Lee.

There wasn’t a bridge across the Rappahannock River in those days. Steamships were already a part of history, leaving only river ferries to carry travelers to the area from Norfolk and Richmond.

“My father was a promoter. He was a dreamer...but he had little interest in the day-to-day operation of the inn,” said Bob Lee. Big Steve turned over the day-to-day responsibilities to his son soon after he graduated from the University of Virginia in the 1950s.

Bob Lee says he became an innkeeper and frustrated economics graduate. But he stayed with the inn for nearly half a century, long after his father’s retirement and move to Ft. Lauderdale in 1963.

He meticulously minded every detail down to the light bulbs, recalled Suzy.

Before selling in 2001 to Sedona Resorts, the couple built a reputation as operating one of the top inns in the U.S., putting Irvington on the map as an outstanding place to visit. Guests were welcomed with gracious hospitality by four generations. No member of the Stephens clan was too young to take up the family tradition. Bob Lee and Suzy proudly tell how their 3-year-old grandson once walked up to guests at a cocktail party and thanked them for spending their vacation with them.

Visitors loved being welcomed back each year as longtime friends. They were among a growing list of “old friends” the family personally notified with news about upcoming events at their beautiful, tranquil setting on the shores of Carter’s Creek.

“The Northern Neck is such a marvelous, marvelous place. Most of our guests were from up north. They’d marvel at how great the place was,” said Bob Lee.

Also adding to their success was a constant and loyal staff—many with over 30 years of service. They provided service for yachtsmen docking their boats, golfers at the inn’s golf course, the Golden Eagle, the spa facilities or in one of several dining facilities.

Bob Lee credits Suzy for the inn’s special style.

“Suzy ran the gift shop. She was vice president in charge of taste,” he bragged.

Suzy reminisced about an array of fun events that went on at the inn to entice guests to return.

“We held Tuesday night cocktail parties to get people to stay over one more night,” she said. “And we did fun things like Bingo, horse races, and pajama games on the front lawn. Honeymooners were also a big part of the inn. That was a time when people got married,” she joked.

“We used to put a small shelf of drinks in the pool with honeymooners...We almost went to jail over it...when the ABC board came after us,” Bob Lee said with a twinkle in his eye.

Another popular marketing tool was the Chesapeake Club, which allowed members and guests to keep liquor in assigned lockers. According to Bob Lee, it was another way around the ABC board.

The club was such a hit, families listed it in the newspaper obituary of members who passed away, Suzy noted.

But the Miss Ann was credited with being the best feature of the inn for bringing people together. “It was the best mixer,” Suzy said of the resort’s yacht. “People always got closer to each other” on the Miss Ann.

The elegant teak-clad yacht regularly carried guests up and down the Rappahannock River on luncheon and cocktail cruises.

In 1976, the Golden Eagle Golf Course opened. It was also the 200th anniversary of the U.S., added Bob Lee. With the development of the course and surrounding homesites, the innkeeper discovered he had added builder to his resumé.

“I built over 50 houses. My kids call me Frank Lloyd Wrong.”

The couple’s attention to detail in taking care of the inn and their guests paid off when they won their first five star rating from Mobil Travel Guide, and continued the run for five straight years.

“I didn’t even know what five star meant,” laughs Bob Lee. “Back in the 1970s we got a call from Mobil saying we’re one of seven hotels to be rated five stars. We kept it for five years but didn’t have the money to compete with the hot shots,” referring to hotels owned by corporations with deep pockets.

“Keeping the five star rating and being named Resort Executive-of-the-Year were the highlights of my career,” said Bob Lee. When he received what is considered the industry’s most prestigious award in 1993, he became the 21st recipient.

In the early ‘90s, a Japanese company showed interest in buying the inn. After 45 years at the helm, the couple was thinking of retiring so it offered an opportunity to assess their future. They asked their children if they had any interest in running the resort. Two of their sons, off on careers of their own, decided to return—R. Lee Stephens Jr. eventually becoming president and Randy Stephens as general manager.

“This is a 24/7 business,” said Bob Lee. Nipping at their heels were corporate giants moving into the industry and eroding the niche The Tides Inn had carved into “business meeting” groups. We couldn’t keep up with their advanced technology needs, said Suzy.

Sedona’s interest came at an opportune time for the family.

Lee handled negotiations between Sedona Resorts and his father, who was on winter vacation on a remote island in the Bahamas. Bob Lee had to negotiate on the island’s only phone — a pay phone down the road. And as these things go, all his conditions were not met and he reluctantly settled for partial payments over several years, killing his plan to invest it all in the aggressive stock market.

After the sale was completed, 9-11 hit and the resort industry took a nose dive right along with the stock market and economy.

At the next industry roundtable where resort owners had an opportunity to brag about their achievements over the past year, Bob Lee received a standing ovation on his announcement: “I sold before 9-11.”

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