Class of ’90 | Back in the spring of 1990, Curtis Bashaw WG’90 knew that his Wharton MBA classmates would be taking a break between their last final exam and Commencement.
“Groups of friends would rent a house and do a last hurrah kind of thing,” he says.
But Bashaw figured there was a better way they could celebrate together. He called his classmates and said: “I’ve got access to these old hotels in Cape May. Why don’t we get everybody to go down there and we’ll have a four-day party?”
The party was dubbed “Bonfire of the Bulk Packs”—playing off both Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, and the triumphant demise of all the course materials that comprised their “bulk packs.”
Everyone stayed at one hotel. Bashaw parked a beer truck on the front lawn, and bands played every night.
“It was,” he says convincingly, “a legendary party.”
You’d have a hard time picturing a beer truck on the lawn of that hotel now. Today Congress Hall—which began life in 1816 as a simple boarding house—is a grand, luxurious seaside hotel, the center of the Cape Resorts empire, arguably the crown jewel of Victorian Cape May, and the heart and soul of a revived shore community. Its bar, the Brown Room, is known in some circles as “Cape May’s Living Room.”
But back in 1990, Bashaw says, “it was kind of a dump.”
Bashaw came into the hotel business through his grandfather, Carl McIntire, a fundamentalist preacher and founder of the Bible Presbyterian Church. In the 1960s, McIntire bought aging properties in Cape May—some for $1—and turned them into the Christian Admiral Bible Conference and Freedom Center.
Every summer break during his undergraduate and pre-Wharton graduate years, Bashaw managed Congress Hall, which was run as housing for conference attendees. There was no bar, and virtually no amenities.
In the mid-1980s he set his sights on the Virginia, an old, rundown Victorian inn that he envisioned as a luxury B&B.
“Six banks said no, and I finally said, ‘If I can’t get this financing, I’m going to apply to business school,’” he said. “Literally the day the seventh bank called and said, ‘We’re going to finance the Virginia,’ Wharton called, too. So I did both.”
When his grandfather’s Cape May operation went bankrupt, Bashaw and his cousin were put in charge of restructuring the company. They sacrificed one of the grand old hotels—the Christian Admiral (demolished in 1996)—in order to pay off creditors.
While his cousin oversaw the bankruptcy, Bashaw found investors to form Cape Resorts (now Cape Resorts Group) with the goal of saving and financing the complete renovation of Congress Hall. It re-opened in 2002 after a $25 million renovation. Former Governor Christine Todd Whitman cut the ribbon on opening day. Other properties in Cape May soon followed: the Star Inn, the Sandpiper Beach Club, the cottages at the Virginia Inn.
Soon Bashaw’s work expanded northward to Atlantic City. In 2004 he became head of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for a year, and four years later he fused a Holiday Inn and an adjacent Howard Johnson Hotel into the Chelsea, an upscale, non-gaming boutique hotel. He’s also an investor in a Hard Rock Casino slated to begin construction in Atlantic City next year.
Cape Resorts Group has weathered the Great Recession by being flexible. A one-story building in Cape May that was going to be the company’s new headquarters was instead turned into the West End Garage, a place where local artists and shops can rent space and market themselves together as a collective.
“We feel like we’ve built this platform now in Cape May of a campus of properties that really deliver the classic American resort experience,” says Bashaw. “We think it’s time to export the concept to some similarly positioned markets.”
This year, the company is branching out to Sag Harbor, New York, renovating the former Bulova Watchcase factory into luxury condos. Two renovated hotels will open there next spring.
Another offshoot of the business began in 2007, when Bashaw bought 62 acres of an abandoned lima-bean farm in West Cape May and turned it into Beach Plum Farm, which opened a year later.
“The original vision was to just grow food for the restaurants,” he said. “It didn’t quite dawn on me how much the guests would like to see where their food comes from.”
Though he won’t handle the farm’s day-to-day operations, he was the one driving the truck from Virginia to Cape May with five sheep in the back, which joined the chickens and pigs. The farm now offers free walking and bike tours, and there is an on-site farm stand.
Next May Congress Hall will again play host to the Wharton MBA Class of 1990 for a second Bonfire of the Bulk Packs.
Just don’t expect to see a beer truck on the lawn this time.
—Jen A. Miller