News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Mark Albright, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 22, 2002 - ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.--Marriott International owns the name of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, but some people don't think the lodging giant owns the story of how the historic landmark got there.
"They cannot change history," said Michael Roberts, whose 3-year-old bed and breakfast is linked in local history books to the opulent 360-room resort just across the street in St. Petersburg. "No matter what happens in court, this will be always be known around here as Vinoy's House."
The house once was owned by Aymer Vinoy Laughner, the son of a Pennsylvania oil baron. On its front porch in 1924, Laughner and two cronies conceived the idea, and the Vinoy name, for the posh resort Laughner would build for $3.5-million on the other side of Beach Drive at Fifth Avenue N.
Today newer owners of both properties are feuding over use of the name.
Marriott International, which has run the restored Vinoy hotel since 1997, has taken Roberts to U.S. District Court in Tampa in a trademark lawsuit aimed at getting Roberts to stop marketing his six-room bed-and-breakfast as Vinoy House.
The outcome could mean more than changing the signs. Marriott wants a court order forcing Roberts to throw away thousands of Vinoy House brochures, toss out a closet-full of monogrammed bathrobes he sells to guests at $100 apiece and retool his Web site. It pops up before the hotel's Web site in some Internet searches for "Vinoy."
Such David and Goliath stories are common in the trademark protection world. Corporate giants risk losing their exclusive rights to well-known names if they don't try to stop potential imitators. But critics say the attacks frequently amount to corporate overkill.
Cases range from Walt Disney Co. suing day care centers for painting Mickey Mouse murals on their walls to a suit by lingerie chain Victoria's Secret, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, against Victor's Secret, a sex toy shop in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Marriott owns the trademark to exclusive use of the word "Vinoy" in the name of a hotel, restaurant, golf course or marina.
But Roberts, who began using the name for his B&B in marketing materials in 1999, says that is outweighed by the many other local uses of the Vinoy name. He counted a condominium tower, a body of water, a charter boat operator, a grocery market, an apartment building and a park. A downtown apartment building even uses the word "Vinoy" to designate it second-priciest units.
"But he's running a hotel," said Elizabeth Escobar, a senior counsel at Marriott headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"No," counters Roberts. "It's a bed and breakfast. It's like staying in someone's home. I consider myself successful if I walk in the living room and a guest is sprawled out on the couch watching TV."
"In a B&B the owner eats breakfast with you," added Roberts' attorney DaVid Sockol. "That doesn't happen at the Vinoy."
Marriott argues that Vinoy House has created confusion among prospective guests. Several resort guests drove to the wrong place. Others thought the two properties were owned by the same company. Priced as low as $99 off-season and $129 to $255 in peak, Vinoy House rates are not much lower than the resort's.
Guests looking the phone book find Vinoy House under "V" because the big resort is under "R" for Renaissance Vinoy.
In 1996 Roberts paid $206,000 for what was then a dilapidated vintage-1910 clapboard house at 532 Beach Drive NE. Neighbors and workers at the building permit desk at City Hall all told him, "You know that was Vinoy's house."
A former assistant manager of a Home Depot in Virginia, Roberts poured $150,000 into rebuilding the place, mostly on his own. Today it's decorated in a Key West/Hemingway style, down to the stuffed sailfish hanging over the fireplace.
He says previous managers of the Vinoy hotel encouraged him to fix up the place and open a B&B, although he has nothing in writing. The bigger hotel still refers guests to Vinoy House when it has overflow.
"As best I can determine, the golf story is true," said Elaine Normile, the Renaissance Vinoy's historian.
At the height of the 1920s Florida land boom, St. Petersburg real estate promoter Gene Elliott and Walter Hagen, a golf pro who frequently wintered here, were on Laughner's front porch trying to talk him into building a hotel that would draw wealthy winter visitors.
About 3 a.m. a wager was struck, according to Prudy Taylor Board in her 1999 book The Renaissance Vinoy. If Hagen could hit three golf balls using Laughner's gold pocket watch as a tee without damaging the crystal, Laughner would build the Vinoy Park Hotel.
No sooner had Hagen pulled it off than a contract written on a brown paper bag was signed for 12 acres of bayfront across the street. Laughner agreed to Elliott's suggestion the hotel use Laughner's middle name, which had come from a French character in a romance novel.
The Vinoy Park Hotel shut down in 1974 before re-opening in 1992 after a $93-million expansion and renovation. Marriott got into the picture when it acquired the Renaissance Hotel chain.
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(c) 2002, St. Petersburg Times, Fla. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR, DIS, LTD,