Located on an extensive 2,600-acre nature preserve in Pembroke, Va., Mountain Lake Lodge has an interesting history, to say the least. Opened in 1851 and purchased in 1936 by the Moody family, the 1986 filming of Dirty Dancing made this property famous. But as time wore on since the movie’s heyday, the entirety of the main lodge and surrounding cabins and structures became dilapidated, and the site’s owner, the Mary Moody Northern Endowment, wrote constant loss checks.
“With every property on the planet, there has to be a plan to reinvest because things get old and tired,” says Heidi Stone, general manager of the Mountain Lake Lodge. “Because this was an unusual kind of lodging place, the property just declined. Things wore out and were never really replaced, and no real money was being put back into this property. As historical as it is, it requires extra love and care because it’s not new.”
But in 2012, the property received a small investment and started renovations by questioning what visitors truly want from a hotel. Instead of focusing on what Mountain Lake Lodge didn’t have, Stone focused on what it could. She continues, “Every single inch of this property needed a lot of love, and that wasn’t going to be possible. We worked on delivering basic and immediate guest needs and prioritizing safety.”
First, Stone and the Mountain Lake Lodge crew replaced the mattresses, fixed cracked sidewalks and structures, refreshed wall paint, and ensured cleanliness. Furnishings and fixtures remained antique to preserve the property’s historical past. From that first refresh, all generated revenue went back into the property, making the lodge what it is today. Since then, the hotel has added more modern furnishings and designs.
“We have all natural stone around the property, so we’re designing based on our DNA so it doesn’t look out of place,” Stone says. “We’re not a hotel in Los Angeles, and we don’t look like we are. We don’t have super modern furnishings, but compared to where we were, we’re modern now.”
During the property’s comeback, consultants sought to eliminate Dirty Dancing from its story for good. Stone adds, “They thought the property had declined and the movie was a piece of that. They thought it had lived and died on Dirty Dancing, so initial plans were to just get rid of it. They didn’t dig deep enough into what the customers wanted. It was all surface level, so when I got here, I started listening. And time and time again, people were raving fans of the movie. It’s really like a cult following.”
To accommodate this demand, the Mountain Lake Lodge team once again chose to focus on what the property had instead of what it didn’t. For example, the property does not have a lake to recreate many of the Dirty Dancing scenes, but the team was able to mark the film’s 30th anniversary by adding signage for self-guided tours. Additionally, the property hosts Dirty Dancing-themed weekends four times a year, where guests dress as their favorite characters and enjoy the company of others who appreciate the cult classic.
Of course, the property doesn’t live and breathe by Dirty Dancing. Mary Moody Northern’s will states that the property should remain a lodging estate for nature-lovers. Following in that wish, there are other events open to those nature lovers, like dog weekends with hiking trails mapped out for pet owners and special pet amenities. Mountain Lake Lodge also hosts 200 weddings and events annually, including corporate events.
Mountain Lake Lodge’s comeback is truly property-specific, but can serve as an example for other properties having the same issues, Stone says. “It’s going to be difficult and challenging, and you have to be more than persistent. For me, I was determined to ignore all the negative noise.”