After running an inn together in Nantucket, Mass., Rob Blood and his wife, Leigh, purchased their first lodging property, the Captain Fairfield Inn, in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 2004. From there, Blood served as a consultant and owner’s representative for several hotel and resort projects throughout the Northeast. Along the way, he enlisted the help of Dawn Hagin, who was then a principal at Rare Brick, a boutique hospitality design and photography firm. The more projects they tackled together, the more Hagin and Blood began speaking the same language when it came to building hospitality brands.
In 2012, the duo formally launched their own hospitality management and development company, Lark Hotels. They even roped in their spouses: Leigh Blood is company director of operations and Hagin’s husband, Adam Policky, serve as director of digital technology.
Hagin chose the name “Lark” because it has multiple layers. In addition to referencing a small songbird, the word is often associated with doing something fun on a whim. It’s also the name of the compact car that staved off Studebaker’s bankruptcy in the 1960s. “I loved all of those meanings of the word Lark and how they could really underscore who we are as a company,” explains Hagin, who serves as the company’s chief inspiration officer.
Nearly four years later and the company now owns or manages 15 boutique properties with a total of 300 employees. And Lark shows no signs of slowing down. The company is continuing its growth by pursuing investment and management contract opportunities. “We doubled in size in 2015; it was an insane year,” Hagin says, adding that there are even more projects on the docket. This May, Lark will open two properties in Martha’s Vineyard, and two others are scheduled to debut in 2017, in Salem, Mass., and Nashville. The number of rooms in Lark properties run as small as eight and all the way up to 95, but the sweet spot is in the 20 to 50 range. “We’re trying to create the best ‘top-of-the-middle’ property in a particular destination,” Hagin says. “We’re not ultra luxury and we’re not grandma’s B&B or the cheap motel.”
The collection of New England boutique properties began casting a wider net when it headed west to Northern California in April 2015 with the addition of Blue Door Group – Inns of Mendocino. Lark launched its second California property, White House in Napa Valley, this past March. “We look for iconic destinations where people want to go,” Hagin says. “Generally, for the Lark brand specifically, we stay away from urban places, but we’re looking to potentially do some sub-branded things in more urban locations in the future.”
Lark Hotels has developed a reputation for embracing the locations it’s in, but in playful, unexpected ways. The company’s motto, “amenities you desire, service you remember, and a touch of mischief,” serves as the overarching theme that unifies the portfolio, Hagin says.
To help create an unexpected sense of place at each hotel, the company relies on its Director of Design, Rachel Reider, who was named a partner in 2015. “We always look for some element that’s very much about that destination but a little bit different that we can craft a story around,” Hagin says.
Take Lark’s Merchant hotel in Salem, Mass. Rather than focusing on the city’s well-known witch hunt history, the property pays homage to Joshua Ward, the post-Revolutionary War sea merchant and privateer who commissioned the Federal-style building. Ward helped turn Salem into a shipping powerhouse by bringing over molasses for rum, Sumatra pepper, and other items from the East Indies. The design has an Asian/East Indian feel, mixed with European influences of the late 1700s. “It was such a fun thing to play up in the property because it was the unexpected side, and we’ve gotten a great response,” Hagin says. “People feel like we’ve embraced a part of the community that hasn’t been embraced that well before.”
To help guests better understand the destination they’re visiting, each property website has a blog with local travel tips, events, and musings. Another creative way the brand engages guests is through its Instagram scavenger hunt. Guests can immerse themselves in the local culture by hunting for a list of items and locations provided by Lark, and then posting photographic proof using the hashtag #onalark to earn prizes. With tasks like sipping cocktails and grubbing on burgers, a guest has every reason to be happy as a lark.
Dawn Hagin, chief inspiration officer of Lark Hotels, offers branding tips for independent hoteliers:
Operationalize the brand. “Some people create a brand but it doesn’t show through in every element of everything they do. Make sure you’re doing the entire package.”
Embrace a sense of place. “That’s where a lot of places miss the mark. Either they can’t find a story that’s a little bit different or they work with the building’s origins but don’t really execute a beautiful design that fits that.”
Be relatable and direct but not super obvious. “You want an, ‘Oh, yeah!’ reaction. It’s thinking of those types of things that may seem a little weird and oddball but can really support what you’re trying to communicate about the history of your property or the location you’re in.”