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Ex-Congress Hall boss now at Stone Harbor's Reeds

John Daily left Cape May for The Reeds at Shelter Haven

From the day it reopened in 2002 until last July 4, veteran hotelier John Daily had one of the most visible jobs on the Jersey Shore: He was general manager at Congress Hall, the massive Cape May hotel-restaurants-party complex. Built in the distant days when the gingerbread resort town was a summer home to Presidents and the powerful, restored after long neglect, on Daily's watch Congress Hall grew into Cape May's living room, one of the best-known properties of Cape Advisors, the hotel group founded by Shore native Curtis Bashaw and New York investor Craig D. Wood.

But this summer, Daily moved north to run The Reeds at Shelter Haven, a rival year-old resort in the downtown of affluent Stone Harbor. The Reeds is owned by Drexel Hill oncologist Dr. John Sprandio and investor Edward Breen, a New Hope-area native and former chief executive of Tyco International, the Princeton-based industrial conglomerate, where Breen made a fortune spinning off profitable businesses.

"These things come out of the clear blue sky," Daily said of his move. "Opportunity knocks and you seize the moment."

With just 37 rooms, about a third the size of Congress Hall, The Reeds opened last year with a big focus on its restaurants -- Sax, the Water Star Grille -- and private events. "But, a year in, they felt they lacked an identity," Daily told me, sitting in the sunlit lobby, as a bride-to-be studied wedding reception arrangements at the next table. "They told me they were missing a piece where the general manager would be a voice for the properties, someone who could meet and greet guests and develop the atmosphere, who would understand the community and the politics of the community. I said, 'That's really my strength.'"

How does a hotel develop a personality? "In Congress Hall, in the very beginning, I'm not sure we truly understood who were going to be," Daily said. A veteran of the Marriott and Starwood chains who also worked for Shore developer James Dwyer, Congress Hall was "my first true resort." Daily said the plan at first "had been to make sure we provided, year over year, new activities that were appealing."

His guests were looking for something a bit different: "What we found, it was magical, how many families were traveling to Cape May and staying at Congress Hall. There might be all 108 rooms occupied, many of them with three and four children to a room. That was a pleasant surprise." And it called for a change in focus: It wasn't ever-changing diversion that many of these families wanted, so much as a summer place with comforting continuity. "There was a family tradition of people who had come to Cape May from the 1950s. Now their children and their grandchildren were coming."

It became an important part of Daily's job to personify what they liked about Cape May so they'd come back. "I have a good memory for faces. I didn't always remember their names. They all knew mine. So I'd ask what their room number was today. Then I'd run to the front desk and got the name and put the picture in my mind. It's fair to say I've befriended more than 400 families. Some weeks there's not a day that goes by, even now, that I don't get called to the front desk (at The Reeds) by a family that has stopped in to share their mutual feelings about Congress Hall."

The Reeds prices rooms at $175 to $750, a bit up from Congress Hall.  "Congress Hall is a very beach scene. Here they've put together a luxurious larger room, and amenities similar to Congess Hall. Some have full kitchens in the room. We can provide a chef to to cook your meal. The mothers can say this is their vacation, they are pampered and taken care of." Though families who actually rent a chef are, he adds, "a small market."

The muted colors, stone and wood in clean lines "fit the brand image" of the town, Daily added. "That's really important, that we maintain and support that image. Which with this one property we have the freedom to create."

A St. Joseph's University ('74) grad, Daily worked under Martin Field at the Valley Forge Hilton right out of college, before moving around the country with the national chains.

Though it's a smaller hotel, the larger restaurant staff makes total employment similar to Congress. "People are really starting to discover us by word of mouth," Daily says. "That's how Congress Hall began to develop. It's essential, in the business climate." Stone Harbor isn't an especially competitive hospitality town, once you get beyond the motels, though there are high-end hostels nearby.

Will Stone Harbor and Avalon try to follow Cape May toward being year-round resorts? "That's a building process. Having witnessed the last 13 years of Cape May, it's very clear the chamber of commerce and the downtown retailers were convinced to stay open and build on it. In Cape May you can go there every weekend from now til New Year's Eve and find some activity going on. Then again starting around Easter."

How is the trade here different from Cape May? The Cape attracts a big proportion of metro New Yorkers; Stone Harbor is much more Philadelphia, Main Line, Chester County.

Is The Reeds as busy as Breen and Sprandio want it to be? "Our owners are individuals who love Stone Harbor and have made it their second home. They are delighted by their success."