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A former chief executive officer of Day's Inn — he helped Cecil Day build the chain before selling it in 1984 — Kessler is now president and ceo of Orlando, Fla.-based Kessler Collection Hotels. Convinced travelers, especially in the luxury market, wanted more than a cookie-cutter hotel experience, he launched his concept of "themed" hotels in the mid-Nineties.
Starting with a handful of properties in Florida and Georgia, Kessler developed nine hotels of his own and no two are alike. Several, like Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, and the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., both built in 1888, are restored historic landmarks. Next in line is the Bohemian Hotel at Biltmore Village, which will resemble an English Tudor hunting lodge with European-style ballrooms, and will open in November 2008 near the historic district of the Biltmore Estate, the 125,000-acre spread completed in 1895 for George Vanderbilt in Asheville, N.C. Richard Morris Hunt modeled the house on three 16th-century French châteaux and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds.
Kessler's next move will be to introduce resorts in the Austrian Alps, the Czech Republic and other former Eastern Bloc countries. His first European office, a Vienna outpost, opened in August.
He already manages St. Catherine's Court in Bath, England, an estate built in 950 A.D. that is owned by actress Jane Seymour and her husband, film producer James Keach, which is available for private rentals.
Last fall, Kessler Canyon, a 23,000-acre wilderness retreat, opened in De Beque, Colo. For around $500 to $600 a day, guests can channel Ernest Hemingway by fishing and hunting, or just practicing their aim with clay target shooting. Another one of his properties, the El Monte Sagrado in Taos, N.M., where spa treatments and decor are inspired by Native American rituals and artwork, doubled its space in September.
Kessler said preserving history without lapsing into "ho-hum and stuffy" is a challenge, but one he meets by adding modern, even whimsical elements. At Savannah's Mansion on Forsyth Park, which opened in 2005, classic Greek marble statues and crystal chandeliers are juxtaposed with crushed velvet furnishings in a chartreuse and fuchsia color scheme. Elevators are thick white marble slabs, dimly lit, lined with a heavy black velvet curtain and a single flower fixture, evoking Savannah's fascination with cemeteries and the building's former incarnation as a funeral home.