Expect to see the Gibson Inn old and improved in the months ahead.
Keenly aware of the 1907 hotel’s historic grandeur, new owner Steven Etchen is planning a series of enhancements and expansions to ensure the Gibson’s legacy is matched by its luxury.
Gibson Inn LLC, of which Etchen is its sole principal, closed Friday at Dodd Title on the purchase of the 30-room hotel from The Gibson Venture, which for the past 36 years has served as owner, with Michael and Neil Koun, and Michael Merlo as partners in the venture.
The Gibson property itself sold for $3 million, according to Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper. Etchen declined comment on that aspect of the deal.
The apparent selling price was somewhat less than the $3.75 million the Kouns were asking four years ago, when they first put up for sale the property they had painstakingly taken from disrepair to distinction.
In the early 80s, the Kouns put a reported $2 million in renovations into the structure, which casts an iconic century-old profile as visitors come over the Gorrie Bridge from the east into town.
In recent years, they had taken their time in securing a buyer, wanting to ensure their baby wouldn’t be adopted by an absentee profiteer.
“This has been a big part of Mike Koun’s life,” said Etchen. “He wouldn’t have sold it to investor X, or turned it over to a hotel management company.”
Etchen and his sister Katharine E. Couillard, both well aware of the Gibson’s charm from as far back as their childhoods growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, were sharing dinner there in April when they learned the inn was for sale.
Somewhere between the appetizer and dessert at Gormley’s at the Gibson bells went off, talks began with the Kouns and, as they say, the rest is (hotel) history.
Etchen’s ties to the area date back to his childhood, when he recalls playing on the rocking chairs on the Gibson porch, all the way up through much more recently, when his mom and dad collected the family there for a special Christmas.
It was about five years ago Etchen’s investment interest in the Forgotten Coast began.
A graduate of the University of Michigan, Etchen, 36, earned his wealth in commodities trading, to his current position as investment director for Mercuria Energy Trading, S.A., a privately held international commodity trading company, based in Geneva, Switzerland, active in energy markets including oil and gas, coal, biodiesel, base metals and agricultural products.
A prolific business traveler, familiar with hospitality options ranging from the world’s most elegant hotels down to its most humble lodgings, Etchen a few years ago started Cape and Coast Vacation Rentals, a vacation rental business out of his home in Cape San Blas, which he said has grown to having over 300 beds.
He sees the Gibson Inn, where he plans to be an active owner, in and out at least half the days of the year, as a “a natural extension of what I was doing.
“You’re still turning it every week and you still have to deal with client issues,” Etchen said. “It’s analogous in most respects.”
He plans no changes to the exterior of the Gibson but expect plenty in the way of room interior reworkings, including new beds in every room within a month, possible expansions of queens to king sized mattresses, and other furnishing changes to revitalize the inn’s historic character.
“I want to bring up the interior amenities to the standards of the modern traveler,” Etchen said. He plans to put in more local antiques, whenever possible, as opposed to period pieces that are more turn of the current century than of the last one.
Couillard, a former New York City marketing executive who now lives with her family in Nashville, said the internet has so revolutionized and democratized the industry there is now unprecedented, immediate access to information by clients. She’ll be working as the inn’s marketing director.
Meeting visitor’s demands is Etchen’s first order of business, and this initial phase also will include enhancements to the lobby, bar and restaurant. There are ideas afoot to redesign some rooms into suites, for larger groups and families. The banquet room will be modified to broaden its current uses, which are less frequently for weddings than they once were, with plans to have it be a billiard room.
With the help of George Coon, of Apalachicola, who is a designer working with a Florida architectural firm, Etchen is already well along in the planning and design for a larger infrastructure assignment – what to do with the large blue house, across Commerce Street, which now houses Wombat Music.
Once he secures approval from city officials, Etchen plans to move the house, and place on the corner of Fourth Street and Avenue C new guest rooms, together with a pool and patio, spa and fitness facilities, and possible space for a local entrepreneur whose product or service complements the inn. He said that work will be done next year, with no closures expected in conjunction with its completion.
Well aware of the area’s many available visitor options, like the growth of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods, Etchen has a clear eye towards where his inn fits with the larger hospitality picture, and that means shining up the status quo.
“Here we can offer an experience that someone is not going to get with an Airbnb,” he said.
Before any of Etchen’s plans are put into place, he plans to do a lot of getting to know the 20-some staffers at the inn, a number he expects to increase by 50 to 100 percent over the next two years.
“I want to observe and learn from staff and clients,” he said. “They’re doing a good job. Otherwise I would have steered clear.”