A second act in Palm Springs
They're the dreamers in the desert — former big-city corporate professionals who turned in their pantsuits for shorts, the boardroom for the pool, and the lives they were used to for ones they'd always fantasized about.
Palm Springs, California, is a tourist destination, welcoming millions of visitors every year from around the world. There are dozens of boutique hotels catering to all types of travelers — architectural aficionados, party animals, wellness-minded yogis — but what really stands out are the hoteliers. At many of these establishments, the owners are now on their second careers, leaving behind their former gigs in finance, advertising, and design to start fresh.
It was a particularly brutal winter when husband and wife Kathy and Gary Friedle started discussing moving away from New York City and opening a hotel elsewhere. She was an architect at one of the world's largest design firms and he was in money management on Wall Street, but the idea had always been percolating — some of their earliest conversations about retirement revolved around opening a bed and breakfast one day.
"We got to the midpoint of our lives and careers where we could have spent another 20 years doing what we were doing, and we really had to decide if we wanted to or not," Gary said.
It wasn't just Kathy and Gary's decision to make; they have two sons, and in early 2015, their eldest was a high school junior and their youngest an eighth grader. The boys said they were game, and the Friedles started researching the hotel industry in earnest. They knew they needed to find a place to set up shop that had a good school system for their sons and was a natural tourist destination.
Palm Springs fit the bill — specifically a mid-century property that opened in 1960: the Monkey Tree Hotel. It was a celebrity hot spot, with the Beatles (minus Paul McCartney), Eric Clapton, Bob Hope, and Katharine Hepburn all onetime guests — and, it's rumored, Marilyn Monroe and JFK once had a rendezvous in a suite guarded by Secret Service agents. By the time the Friedles purchased it, the hotel was a nudist resort (it no longer is) and they had to refresh the property while retaining its structural integrity.
"We were very lucky in that we had enough capital," Gary said. "A lot of people will do the research and find they have just enough money to begin and then there's nothing else."
When they told their families and colleagues they were starting over as hoteliers, "a lot of people were shocked," Kathy said. "We were just so entrenched in our careers. I think some people thought, 'Wow, I wish I could do something like that.' You really need to have the right circumstances. If you're married, your partner has to decide it's for them, too. If you have kids, you have to think about how it affects them. We were able to make it happen because a lot of things aligned at the same time."
The family moved to Palm Springs in August 2015, and on their fourth day in town, it hit 120 degrees. They've since become accustomed to the heat, as well as their new roles. Gary cooks breakfast every morning for guests, tweaking recipes and whipping up his own creations like huevos rancheros deviled eggs and banana fritters, while Kathy runs the marketing and social media. They have support staff in the front office and kitchen, as well as housekeepers, and still use skills from their past careers — Kathy scours vintage shops across the desert for mid-century modern masterpieces to use in the hotel, while Gary chats with guests in the dining room like he used to over the phone with his clients.
"It's hard to give up certain things," he said. "I put a TV in the kitchen, because there's still a lot going on — Brexit, political issues throughout the world — that I like to keep up with. We still have investments we track, that's hard to turn off, but I'm extraordinarily happy to no longer be tied to the market. I'm glad I did it, and glad I built up that knowledge and experience."
Like any business owners, they have their worries, and they've been told by guests and friends alike that they're both brave for starting new careers at this point in their lives, and that they're bonkers. "Looking back, it was a really good move for all of us in the family," Kathy said. "We had these jobs where we worked 12 to 14 hours a day, and we never really ate dinner as a family together during the week. Now, due to the move, we spend more time together as a family than I think we ever would have had we stayed in New York."
The Friedles had solid careers and "we weren't unhappy, but life is long," Kathy said. "We just wanted to be doing something that was really entrepreneurial and ours and creative."
Gary has no regrets. "It's a pace at which you can just live your life," he said. "It's nice to find an industry that allowed us to slow down, support ourselves, and see our children more often."
The Friedles aren't alone. Michael Green and his husband, Stephen Boyd, were both in the advertising business in Atlanta when they decided it was time to jump ship; they loved the industry, but it's highly competitive "and has a real tendency to eat you alive," Green said.
They both worked with hotels as marketers, but had never owned or operated one before. "We traveled all over the world, and always enjoyed staying at smaller places rather than choosing chain hotels," Green said. "When it came time to think about something we wanted to do later in our lives, it seemed to us that it was a natural fit. We spent several years researching it — it wasn't a fast decision."
Looking to escape the humidity and run a hotel in a known tourist destination, they decided Palm Springs was the perfect spot. Green and Boyd are pioneers of the second-career hoteliers, buying the Triangle Inn, a gay men's clothing-optional resort, in January 2000.
"We were both in a good place and good space, and it didn't feel like we were running away from something, we were running toward it," Green said. They got busy working on the property — painting it, putting in new plumbing, finding furniture — and they're still at it nearly 20 years later. Keeping up on maintenance is a constant responsibility, and Green and Boyd, who live on the property, have seen lots of hotels come and go, shutting their doors after a few years due to burnout.
"They weren't really prepared for the amount of work that goes into it," Green said. "You have to think about how to make a profit, making sure you're profitable. That's a big, big deal." Green considers himself and Boyd to be "entrepreneurial spirits," and tells those who might want to take a similar path that it's "a leap of faith, definitely. I think that you've just got to be committed to wanting to do it and knowing that it's going to be a business, and the ups and downs of the economy will affect that. You can't help that — travel is one of the first things that is impacted if the economy goes bust."
The Triangle Inn is constantly welcoming returning guests, and many have become friends with each other, as well as with Green and Boyd. Several have fallen in love with Palm Springs during their stays, and end up retiring in the city or buying a vacation home there.
"What happens, especially with the small properties, is that much of what you're selling has to do with the personalities of the owners," Green said. "We're part of what the guest is buying."