September-October 2013 | ALL IN THE FAMILY

Sisters Sara Rutka-Karst, left, and Mary David, center, and their mother, Sally Rutka



Written By: Jonathan Westman | Photographer: Grant L. Gursky

What would you do if you were the fourth-generation steward of The Lankford Hotel — the oldest Boardwalk hotel in its original structure in Ocean City — and the constant pressure of the economy, your competition, a lack of technology and the industry’s day-to-day grind were making it feel as if the property’s historic walls were closing in on you? 

Don’t answer that just yet…

“You certainly never want to let those who came before you down,” said Sara Rutka-Karst who along with her sister, Mary David, are the actual fourth-generation owners of The Lankford. “They’ve all worked so hard to get the hotel to where it is today, and to have the hotel close because we just couldn’t do it, that would be a very sad thing.”

The Lankford was built in 1924 by Mary B. Quillen, the aunt of the sisters' grandmother. Today, Sara and her husband, Vernon, along with Mary and her husband, Brian, combine to form a very formidable team that handles nearly every aspect of the hotel’s operations, as well as running its four stores and three adjacent rental properties. And while their work ethic and intentions are as pure and honest as you could imagine, a multitude of factors has them facing the very real possibility that The Lankford could cease to exist if their bottom line does not increase significantly — and soon.

“Our policies are very old school. For example, we still lock our doors at 2:30 a.m.; we still only rent to families and couples only; we didn’t take credit cards or offer the ability to book a room online,” Sara said. “Our old-school policies have been hindering our reservations, and we need to do more business. We need to be more profitable and come up-to-date technology-wise.

“This is an all-wood structure that requires constant upkeep,” Sara continued. “We also face logistical, staffing and economic challenges that all come back to finances. We need to generate more revenue in order to accomplish our goals.”

Those realities initiated a phone call from Mary to the producers of The Travel Channel’s hit show Hotel Impossible, to ask if they’d feature The Lankford in an upcoming episode. After learning of Sara and Mary’s story, producers accepted the invitation, and that meant that the sisters would soon benefit from the expert opinions and advice of the show’s host, Anthony Melchiorri. 

Each episode of Hotel Impossible features a property that is having problems or not living up to its potential. Melchiorri secretly scouts the property and identifies its biggest problems. He then meets with the staff, from front-desk receptionists to housekeeping to the owners themselves, to determine the key operational issues. Some owners risk losing their hotels if Melchiorri’s renovations do not work. After coming up with a plan and prescribing the changes that need to be made, Melchiorri revamps and re-motivates the staff and transforms the hotel. Whether it is demonstrating the proper way to pour a glass of wine or gutting and redecorating a lobby, Melchiorri knows how to turn a struggling hotel into a bustling tourist destination.

“Confused” — that was Melchiorri’s assessment of The Lankford after spending the first of five days onsite, yet he was enthused about the prospect of assisting Sara and Mary with practices and procedures that would turn their business around. 

“Not only am I motivated, it’s the reason I do my job,” Anthony said. “These people can sell this structure for millions of dollars, but they will not sell it because they do not want to be the first generation to sell out. So it not only gives me more motivation for the owners, it gives me motivation for Ocean City, because as you go up and down this boardwalk, you see a lot of high-rises, which are fine, but this is Ocean City right here. The Lankford is Ocean City, and that’s what this is about.”

With just five days and a modest budget, Melchiorri began improving The Lankford by enlisting the help of his chief interior designer, Blanche Garcia, and local homebuilder Joseph T. Dashiell, to renovate The Crane unit — a third-level, two-bedroom unit with a full kitchen. 

“I had to take into consideration the history of the building and the fact that we’re in a beach town,” Blanche said. “I am not one of those designers who just goes in and makes everything look like New York. The design this week is very much conducive to the area.

“Anthony holds the bar pretty high, which is great,” Garcia continued. “Having his high standards with very little time and very little money is hard. So, I always try to meet his wishes, and we also need to consider the hotel and know that they have to live with everything that we did for them.”

Garcia, Dashiell and his crew painted walls and cabinetry, installed new carpeting and a tile backsplash in the kitchen, and brought in new furniture and bedding — all to the delight of the owners.

“It came as a complete surprise. We had no idea what they we’re doing,” said Sara, who described the new design of The Crane as a “vintage seaside cottage” look. And although the makeover was extensive, the crew was in tune with the style of the family and integrated their antique dressers, coffee table and end tables into the new theme.

“It was just amazing,” Mary said upon seeing the remodeled space. “It’s still The Lankford, but it’s fresher, brighter and the space seems so much more open.”

Melchiorri also upgraded the hotel’s computer and reservation systems — including the ability to book reservations online — secured an answering service to manage call volume, established a framework for a new website, and potentially most important, shared his knowledge and advice to achieve and sustain long-term viability and profitability.

“It was an emotional time for us, especially the interaction between me, my sister and our mother,” Mary said. “I’m a crier to begin with, and Anthony was sometimes emotional, so that added to it. It was the emotion of what would happen if we were to close that was the basis of the show in the early days of shooting. Then, by the end, it was tears based on the thousands of dollars of improvements that were made and the new computers and so on. So, it was five days’ worth of crying. We were physically and mentally exhausted by the end.”

“It was a great experience,” Sara added. “Having Anthony’s knowledge and guidance during his time here was 
invaluable. I wish he could have stayed for the entire summer.”

This winter, the family plans to continue the renovation process by updating four additional rooms with styles similar to The Crane. By doing so, they are hopeful they’ll be able to achieve a modest increase in room rates.

“We just didn’t know how to move the hotel forward,” Sara said. “Now that the show has been here, we have the tools and the fires in our bellies to continue to improve the property inside and out.”

Sounds like they’re off to one heck of a great start. Wouldn’t you agree? So, what would you do?

Editor’s note: Hotel Impossible's episode featuring The Lankford will debut on Sept. 23 at 10 pm on The Travel Channel. Check your local listings for additional information. 


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