Inn-side a Family Business -Fall 2019
by: Kevin Stanton
photography by: Barbara Clarke
Kevin Withrow has hotels in his blood. He learned to walk in New York’s famed Barbizon Hotel and played football with the bellboys in the lobby of The Royalton.
“I have very vague memories of New York City and the lights of Times Square,” Withrow said.
His father Ken, on the other hand, remembers his time in New York City well.
“When I worked at the United Nations Plaza Hotel Truman Capote used to come in and swim laps. He would have his yellow legal pad and his No. 2 pencils, swim a couple laps and take a break to work on whatever he was writing,” Ken said. “Back in those days they used to say in that area there were more spies per square foot there than any other place.”
Ken’s first hotel job was in 1974 as a desk attendant at the storied Algonquin Hotel. After being there for two years and seeing no way of moving up in the familyowned business, he left and took a job as the front-desk manager at the newly-built United Nations Plaza. He soon moved up to resident manager.
But it wasn’t until his time with hotelier Ian Schrager, who is credited with starting the trend toward boutique hotels, that his career began to click. The year was 1990. The hotel was The Royalton.
“Once the boutique movement began that was much more interesting to me. They were pieces of art. That was the beginning of the revolution. Up until then all hotels had their own in-house designers. Hotels were boring as hell,” Ken said.
At that time, Ken, his wife Deb, and their son Kevin were living in Cos Cob, Conn. On Thursdays Deb and Kevin would take the train into New York and stay at The Royalton with Ken. On Sundays, they would all head home together.
“You make a lot of sacrifices working in hotels. It’s like the restaurant business. It’s all-consuming,” Ken said.
After 20 years working in the hotel business for others, he decided it was time to go into business for himself.
“Life is really interesting because so much of it you can never predict. You take turns in life and you don’t really know where you will end up. I wanted to do something on my own and the logical thing was an inn. Nantucket came up in passing. We visited the place in March, and if you like Nantucket in March that’s half the battle,” he said.
Ken and Deb opened The Union Street Inn in 1994. Today, Kevin has begun to take the reins. Growing up, he spent countless hours helping his folks out at the inn, installing window air-conditioners, cleaning, helping guests with their bags. You name it, he probably did it.
Kevin studied art history in college and never really envisioned himself working in the family business. After college he moved to Brooklyn. Soon after he ended up on a very similar path as his father.
“It was one of those weird things where I answered a Craigslist ad for a front-desk position at a new boutique hotel called The Box House Hotel,” he said. “The hotel was in Greenpoint and I was already a little familiar with that area of Brooklyn because I used to go to metal shows at Club Europa. I immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. There were still dirt lots and it was very industrial. The hotel had just opened so everyone was pretty much on the same level.”
He soon had an opportunity to work on the owner’s new project, Habitat 101, which transitioned loft space into extended-stay hotel rooms. The person slated to work with the designers fell through and with his background in art history, Kevin was offered the position. He began working side by side with the designers, going over blueprints and color palettes. They even had their own custom woodshop.
“After Hurricane Sandy hit New York there
were a lot of old-growth trees that had been uprooted. We met this guy who had secured a contract from the city saying if he removed the trees he could have them. So we started sourcing this beautiful old-growth wood born and raised in New York City. We had our woodshop use them to make chairs, bed frames and side tables for the rooms,” Kevin said.
After the project was finished his role transitioned more into property management. At the time, his father had started consulting for the not-yet-opened Greydon House on Nantucket. The opportunity to become the new innkeeper at Greydon House called Kevin home to start a new chapter in his career. After a year working with the team at Greydon House helping them open, and another year helping design and open Hotel Pippa on Centre Street, he ended up back where he started, at The Union Street Inn.
Kevin is now manager of The Union Street Inn. Using the skills he learned during his time in Brooklyn, he recently finished renovating the old innkeeper’s apartment into a new pied-à-terre concept “Garden Suite.” The 700-square-foot space is complete with its own private entrance, kitchen and back yard.
The challenge now is how to adapt to a changing market.
“I don’t think people want to rent a room, they want to rent a space,” Deb said.
The Withrows want guests to feel at home when they visit the island, and after 25 years in business they have a good number of returnees who are almost part of their extended family.
“What we try to do is sit down with guests and find out what they like. That way we can help highlight points of interest during their stay,” Ken said.
Whether it’s Washington, D.C, Boston, New York or Charlotte, N.C., the addition of many direct flights to the island has made it more accessible for tourists looking for a quick weekend escape.
With Kevin at the helm, Ken and Deb are excited to see what the future has in store. ///
Kevin Stanton is an artist and graduate of MassArt, living and working on Nantucket.