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Updated: May 3, 2021 Focus on Travel & Tourism

Kennebunkport cachet: York County resort area sees a surge of lodging investment

Photo / Tim Greenway Tim Harrington, partner and creative director of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, and Justin Grimes, the collection’s managing director, in the lobby of the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel in Kennebunkport. They say the seaside town is drawing more visitors than ever.

Twenty years ago, Tim Harrington was working in real estate development in his home state of Massachusetts.

“I started investing in real estate in my early 20s,” he says. “I’m a serial renovator.”

A house in Kennebunkport fell into his hands when its owner wanted to swap for a Massachusetts condo Harrington was renovating. The developer and his family started using the house and promptly fell in love with the coastal town, where he took on additional projects.

In 2005, he bought a run-down property called Cottages at Cabot Cove, not far from an assortment of marinas on Kennebunk River. In keeping with the creative flair that drives his endeavors, Harrington hired interior designers to individually decorate each cottage. The opening, a design showcase and fundraiser, drew 5,000 people in 10 days.

Thus began his career in the hotel business. Throughout Kennebunkport, he built a luxury resort called Hidden Pond and acquired six more lodging properties for renovations, plus one in neighboring Kennebunk. He and his business partner, Deb Lennon, rebranded the package as the Kennebunkport Resort Collection.

In February 2020, the collection was acquired by a New York investment firm, EOS Investors LLC, with Harrington remaining as partner and creative director. The deal, terms of which were not disclosed, included nine properties.

Kennebunkport acquisitions beyond the collection include Sandy Pines Campground, which Harrington redesigned with sleeping quarters such as Conestoga wagons and “glamping” tents.

Harrington, who also has investments elsewhere in Maine, views the seaside town, replete with historic sea captain homes and maritime ambience, as a terrific market for a growing customer base.

“It’s one of the most sought-after destinations in New England,” he says.

On the radar

Kennebunkport has always been an attraction, with its boating scene, a lively downtown, restaurants, inns and resorts. But a new vigor has come to its shores.

“It’s become much more vibrant over the years,” he says. “There’s just a lot going on.”

The town is perhaps best known for the Bush family’s retreat at Walker’s Point, 2 miles from downtown Kennebunkport.

“Kennebunkport first came onto the bigger tourist map with the Bushes,” says Werner Gilliam, the town’s director of planning and development. “The advent of the internet really changed how well businesses could market themselves to a larger clientele. Before that, unless you were following the Bushes, Kennebunkport wasn’t necessarily on your radar as the destination it is now.”

But increasing numbers of visitors have discovered local beaches; marinas as well as whale watches and tall ship tours; fine dining but also lobster shacks; a range of public and private golf courses and of course shopping. Downtown shops include chains like Sea Bags and Ben & Jerry’s, but also gift shops, galleries, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques and a fudge shop.

“The market has grown exponentially every year that I’ve been here, and this past year more than ever,” says Jean Ginn Marvin, owner of Nonantum Resort and a mainstay on the scene since 1994.

Harrington’s business partner Lennon says Kennebunkport has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. She and her husband bought the Kennebunkport Inn in 2001, after she worked in management and operations with Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. She later sold the inn to Harrington and partnered with him to develop the Kennebunkport Resort Collection.

She recalls the visitor season used to shut down around Labor Day. But a growing suite of amenities and events — everything from maritime activities to new shops, galleries and festivals — have expanded opportunities to promote the town as a whole and have lengthened the season. Events like the Christmas Prelude in the first two weeks of December and Paint the Town Red around Valentine’s Day bring big bursts of visitation at times of the year that are normally slow. Summer festivals have also grown.

“What’s great about Kennebunkport is you have a lot of hoteliers and innkeepers working together to expand the season,” Lennon says. “You could see that, if we join together and created interesting dining and experiences, then we’re competitive with other destinations.”

Captain homes

Another hotelier, Rob Blood, is building on that cachet with the renovation and rebranding of four historic inns as the Kennebunkport Captains Collection. Renovations of a fifth inn, the Maine Stay, are also underway.

Blood is the president of Newburyport, Mass.-based Lark Hotels, which has inns in six states. Elsewhere in Maine, in addition to the Kennebunkport properties, it owns the Whitehall in Camden and Blind Tiger in Portland.

Blood started as an innkeeper on Nantucket. In 2004, he and his girlfriend scoured the Northeast to buy their own inn. They found the historic Captain Fairfield Inn (now James Fairfield House) in Kennebunkport, moved there, and started renovations.

The Fairfield was surrounded by other historic sea captain homes that had been converted to inns.

“Pretty early on, I thought it would be amazing one day if we could put all the captains’ houses in the neighborhood into one collection,” Blood says. 

Photo / Tim Greenway
Rob Blood, president of Lark Hotels, in the stairwell of the Nathaniel Lord Mansion in Kennebunkport. He recently reopened four historic inns as a single “boutique village resort” called the Kennebunkport Captains Collection.

In 2020, he made that a reality when he bought two neighboring properties containing three buildings, and created a single “boutique village resort” of four inns, launched this year as the Kennebunkport Captains Collection. The idea is that guests will be able to move among the properties to enjoy the amenities at each. 

Photos / Courtesy Read McKendree
Lark Hotels bought four historic captain homes and refreshed and rebranded them as the Kennebunkport Captains Collection.

“It seemed like a natural synergy and a way to make sure they were preserved as lodging properties,” says Blood. “We had seen other inns sell as private homes. It seemed a shame that they came out of the inventory and the public didn’t have access to them.”

Total investment in the acquisitions and renovations was about $25 million.

Limits to expansion

Gilliam, the town’s director of planning and development, notes that property refreshes and rebranding are nothing new.

“But a lot of these properties have a certain draw and charm to them just as they are,” he says. “While we see new owners come in and freshen up a place, they don’t tend to stray too much off what it was historically.”

Can the lodging sector grow?

“There are areas in town where lodging could expand,” says Gilliam. “But I think that, in areas where folks want to be, there are limits. There’s not a lot of vacant land in the downtown where new lodging could occur. Most, if not all, of the B&Bs are grandfathered uses and, to some extent, there’s a limited supply. Some people like that and others don’t. I think it creates a special value around the ones that are here.”

Expanding demographic

Historically, Massachusetts has delivered the biggest share of visitors to Kennebunkport. But visitor numbers are expanding from states like New York and Connecticut.

“We’ve also seen growth from Texas and California, where people come to Maine to escape the heat, particularly in June and the fall,” says Justin Grimes, Kennebunkport Resort Collection’s managing director.

As importantly, he says, more people seem to be returning, bringing along family and friends and staying longer.

Kennebunkport was plenty busy 10 years ago, notes Grimes. But more lodging, dining, shopping and recreation options have come about over that time.

“More and more people are choosing Kennebunkport as a primary destination or as one destination on a multi-destination trip,” he says.

Harrington and Lennon are widely credited with helping to raise the town’s visitor profile through the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, which many simply call “KRC.”

“Groups like KRC have helped elevate the community: they market the properties and the destination,” says Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce. “When that happens, when you see the story of Kennebunkport being told internationally, you’ll see people coming and that will benefit every business in the community.”

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May 1, 2022

If he truly fell in love with the area, he wouldn't be ruining everything for locals.

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