Nestled in the southeastern corner of West Virginia sits the New River-Greenbrier Valley. It’s a peaceful area with a rich history and scenic allure. It’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who are drawn to the lush nature of places such as New River Gorge. But the area has long been a place that attracted some of the country’s elite, thanks to the venerable Greenbrier located in White Sulphur Springs.
The Greenbrier has welcomed 26 U.S. presidents in its history. And, it’s hosted even more celebrities. These days, it’s becoming even more high profile as it emerges from its darker days of recent history with a new owner, with a new vision and an enthusiastic attitude for restoring the resort to its former luster.
As recently as 2009, the Greenbrier’s fate had been up in the air. At the time, the resort was mired in labor negotiations and had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At one point, Marriott International was poised to buy the resort until Jim Justice, a West Virginia native who had run successful businesses in the agriculture and coal industries, swooped in to buy the property. For Justice, buying and restoring the Greenbrier was an opportunity that was just too good to miss.
“I live nine miles away. I grew up 50 miles away. When I was just a little kid, to be perfectly honest, my family couldn’t have even afforded to come to the Greenbrier,” Justice says. “But then I got into golf and got half decent at it, and ended up playing in our state amateur tournament, which was always held at the Greenbrier. That was really my introduction to the resort.
“There are deep roots about how the Greenbrier was thought of in my household. It was always Emerald City—our state treasure, for sure, but also a national treasure. It was just really a sacred cow to us,” he continues. “All of sudden, here I am involved in a number of businesses, knowing the pain and uncertainty of the people who worked there during that time, and I really wanted to get involved.”
While the Greenbrier was facing uncertainty, Justice, whose company operates under the name Justice Family Group LLC, was finding success in his coal operations. He was on the verge of a big purchase and sale involving his coal business, which he says freed up the time necessary to nurture the Greenbrier.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, you went and sold your business to a Russian interest, so you took all that money and bought the Greenbrier.’ That isn’t true at all,” Justice says. “We actually already had the Greenbrier deal in place before we made the sale.
“But what it did was give me the time. I wanted to be involved [with the Greenbrier], but I didn’t have the time before,” he continues. “I knew once I jumped in, it would have to be an all or nothing deal. I would have to be there and really put my passion and heart into what I was doing.”
When he purchased the resort, it surprised many in the industry who had no idea he was even in consideration. “I did the deal like I do a lot of deals. I tend to run silent, run deep, not many people know I’m around,” he says.
TURNING IT AROUND
He says that turning around the Greenbrier is like “turning a major aircraft carrier.” He says it’s taken a lot of staying power and a lot of money to weather the storm of rebuilding the resort’s reputation and draw, as well as the lagging economy.
One of the first orders of business for Justice was to address the Greenbrier’s longstanding labor issues. The resort has nine labor unions represented among its employees. “That scares some people, and some people just have an impossible time working with labor unions, but I’ve not encountered that. I worked with the UMWA forever, and I’ve always had a great relationship with unions because I respect all of the individuals in unions. I just believe there’s common ground,” Justice says.
Beyond securing the labor issues, Justice says he didn’t really have any grand plan for turning around the resort, but he says he knew he could.
Being his first hospitality business, Justice says it took him a while to get his management in place, but the idea of running a hospitality business didn’t worry him. “I’m a people person. The hospitality business has to be just that,” he says. “At the end of the day you have to be the one who’s putting the right product out there with the right service that pleases the customer.”
Justice says an important key to bringing back the resort’s luster is to regain its five-star rating. “We want to and will get that,” he says. “We also need to maintain the five-diamond from AAA, and we will. But more than anything we just want the customer experience to be terrific.”
Justice says one advantage the Greenbrier has always had is a lack of competition. “It’s a unique property, that’s for sure,” he says.
Justice brought a new philosophy to the table. “I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but it had become sort of like an elegant retirement home,” Justice says. “We don’t want to change any of its high-end luxuries, its elegance, its tradition, its history. There’s no way that I will disturb that, but it had to have some energy put back into it.”
And, energy is exactly what Justice put into the property with a new restaurant, a casino, a PGA golf tournament, additional shopping experiences, and several other changes. When the casino debuted it did so to much fanfare and with the help of a star-studded crowd. The gala opening attracted the likes of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Jessica Simpson, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, and Raquel Welch, to name a few.
“The casino is unlike any other casino in the world,” Justice says. “It’ll probably never become profitable. It’s an extension of the entertainment amenity.”
And, it brings a modern, yet high-class atmosphere to the resort. It is a place where jackets must be worn at night. It is smoke-free. There are champagne toasts. “It’s just different and I wanted it that way,” Justice says.
Justice also worked hard to bring the PGA to the resort with the Greenbrier Classic, which was played for the first time there in 2010 and most recently held this past July. “Every part of this is to step up the energy level, while at the same time preserving the elegance, tradition, and history,” Justice continues.
“In the worst economy we have pulled this thing from the doldrums to, I won’t say the peak, but we’re at the top of the ladder,” Justice says proudly.
When asked whether the changes have helped increase occupancy at the resort, Justice simple says, “My, has it ever.” The resort is currently running occupancy at 85-93 percent, according to Justice. Last year was an all-time high in occupancy for any year on record at the resort. Justice believes 2011 will exceed even last year’s record.
With the changes at the Greenbrier, Justice has opened up the resort to different demographics. “We’re looking at two different types of demographics. We still have the older demographic who are looking for a place that still has a touch of class. On the other hand, we’ve also got this phenomenally exciting golf tournament. We still have the sporting club and the casino, and now we’re getting ready to add a performing arts theater. So, now if you’re a 35-year-old and you’re looking for a little more excitement, we have that too,” Justice says.
Justice says the resort is also getting ready to break ground on an upgraded medical facility on site.
Justice has also built success by making access to the resort easier. “As great as the Greenbrier is, it’s difficult to get to,” Justice admits.
The Greenbrier has helped get direct flights from New York, Cleveland, and Atlanta into nearby Lewisburg, W.Va. The resort is also starting a luxury train from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, which is scheduled to start service next summer. The train is called The Greenbrier Presidential Express. It’ll be all Greenbrier onboard. The train’s interior is designed to mimic the features of the resort. The train is currently being built in Pottstown, Pa.
“It’s the last original steam engine manufactured in the United States and it is completely restored,” Justice says.
With new energy built into the resort, and news of making access much easier for guests, Justice and his team have the Greenbrier back on track and heading in the right direction again.