Come for the Beaches, Stay for the Blizzards
Cape Cod isn’t supposed to be this cold. The temperature hovers in the 20s on this Monday morning. Snow dusts the scrub pines. In front of the Cape Codder Resort, a hotel complex on a commercial strip in Hyannis, icicles hang from the decorative fountain. Inside, only about 20 of the 257 rooms are occupied. But in a small office near the back of the building, Debbie Rutland is ready for business.
Rutland has spent most of the past 20 years selling time-shares in places like Jamaica, Bermuda, and Grand Cayman. Today she’s the sales director at a new venture called the Cape Codder Residence Club. On the walls of Rutland’s office hang artist’s depictions of the 15 luxury condominiums that the hotel is building, each of which will have granite counters and custom furnishings. An overhead drawing of the property shows plans for a spa complex and a large indoor water park—year-round amenities that, Rutland hopes, will make more people want to visit even on days like this one, when the nearby beaches resemble Arctic tundra.
Rutland isn’t selling the condos, exactly—she’s selling slices of them. The Cape Codder Residence Club is a fractional resort, one of the first in this part of the country. Buyers pay $159,900 and up for a one-tenth share of these two- and three-bedroom units, a purchase that entitles them to at least 35 nights of occupancy a year. Bill Catania, whose family business, Catania Hospitality Group, is spending $20 million on the project, calls it “a new vacationing lifestyle.” It’s also one that at first blush seems decidedly out of place on Cape Cod.
As anyone who’s visited a high-end resort destination like Cabo San Lucas (or paged through the ads in an upscale magazine) is aware, developers have been pitching fractionals as a smart real estate play for more than a decade. Most buyers who choose them do so because they hate the thought of owning a vacation home that sits empty 10 months a year, or they want to avoid the maintenance headaches of leaky roofs and broken thermostats. In high-priced markets, fractionals offer a (relatively) affordable alternative for those who can’t or won’t spend a million bucks for a oceanside retreat or ski chalet.
Cape Cod hasn’t been one of those markets for a simple reason: Nice as it is, most people want to be there only during the summer, which is a pretty short summer at that. Limiting the number of days when an owner can use a property, and then sprinkling those blocks of time throughout the year, only makes sense if people are eager to visit year round. “Fractionals work best where there are two high seasons, like in Colorado,” says Richard Ragatz, an Oregon-based resort consultant who studies the vacation-home market. “I’m not saying the Cape Codder is not going to work, but it’s a little unusual…for such a seasonal market.”
For the Catania family’s gambit to pay off, they’ll have to help change the perception of the Cape itself and start attracting vacationers just as content to wear parkas as bikinis. Their plan is part of a larger effort to rebrand the Cape. “We’ve been working for years to try to get rid of this image of Cape Cod as a summer destination,” says Kristen Mitchell, director of marketing at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. She points to events—the Bourne Scallop Festival, the Wellfleet OysterFest, Oktoberfest in Mashpee, the Provincetown Portuguese Festival—that now lure thousands of visitors during the spring and fall. In a down economy, off-season lodging rates (and, for New Yorkers and New Englanders, the ability to take a vacation without paying airfare) are a big attraction, too.
It’s the same economy, however, that’s turned this into an inauspicious time to make a real estate gamble, whatever the underlying strategy. The Catanias are convinced their project makes sense, but sales have been agonizingly slow. According to their projections, they should have sold 30 of the 150 units (that’s 10 shares in each of the 15 condos) by late January. So far, they’ve sold just 10.
Bill Catania grew up in the hospitality business. His father, Vincent, founded the Hearth & Kettle restaurant chain in 1973. As the chain expanded (it now has six locations), the family purchased the Daniel Webster Inn in Sandwich and the John Carver Inn in Plymouth. Today those hotels feature 48 and 80 rooms, respectively, along with restaurants, meeting facilities, and spas. In 2000 the family company, now run by Bill and his siblings Debra and Steve, added the Cape Codder. With 257 rooms, ballrooms, and banquet facilities, it’s the biggest revenue-driver of their $38 million business.
When they bought the Hyannis property, which was built in 1970, it was a bit run-down. These days it’s a clean, well-decorated, family-friendly spot with a devoted following. It’s jammed during the summer, and its small indoor wave pool keeps the place busy on winter weekends. Even in February, weekend room rates top $200 a night, and occupancy often hits 70 percent. In fact, Catania says he first got the idea of selling fractional units after hearing from customers who told him they’d love to own a condo at the resort. In 2005 Catania attended a conference explaining fractional development; afterward he hired a consultant to do a feasibility study.
From the beginning, the Cape’s climate was a concern. But the consultant, Carl Berry of Star Resort Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, discovered that despite the conventional wisdom that fractionals only work in glitzy destinations with year-round tourism, the Cape seemed surprisingly well suited for the concept. One-third of all Cape residences are vacation homes, and presumably their owners wouldn’t have bought them if they were content to use them only during a few weeks in July and August. The Cape Codder’s amenitie—particularly the indoor pool, which will triple in size as it’s transformed into the planned full-fledged water park—make it a viable year-round spot. And because Cape Cod, unlike places such as Aspen and Vail, is close to big population centers, Berry envisions plenty of owners making easy use of their condos over long weekends. “Is the winter kind of lousy? Yeah,” he says. “But if I can sit in front of the fire for a long weekend…it’s not like I would never go there.”