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Stephen Johnston, Boston Harbor Hotel



To the delight of the local hospitality industry, one of Boston’s most congenial and popular hoteliers is back in Boston after a two year hiatus in Washington, DC.

Stephen Johnston returned last August as the new Managing Director and General Manager of the five-star Boston Harbor Hotel at Rowes Wharf, one of the city’s prized luxury properties. In 2013 the BHH was voted one of the Top Ten Hotels in the continental United States by Travel + Leisure Magazine readers.
We sat down with Stephen recently and talked about his new job along Boston’s sparkling waterfront.

Welcome back to Boston to you and your family! You were managing a terrific property – The Fairfax on Embassy Row in Washington, DC - and received the Silver Plume award for General Manager of the Year in 2013. What made you return to Massachusetts?

In the unpredictable adventure of life, sometimes we are lucky enough to find ourselves at places that are extraordinary and beyond compare. For me, the Boston Harbor Hotel is just such a place. When I first arrived in Boston in 2003 to open Jurys Hotel Boston, I became increasingly aware that the Boston Harbor Hotel was a special place within the city – a hotel with a growing reputation for excellence, and an enviable landmark location. After a brief departure from Boston in 2011 to manage The Fairfax in Washington DC, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to return to the city my family and I consider our home, and to manage this iconic hotel.

Now that I am here, I can appreciate that the true character of the hotel comes not just from the stunning architectural design and setting, but from the hearts of the employees who work alongside me every day as we strive to create memorable experiences for our many guests.

How has Boston changed since you first arrived over a decade ago?

Boston has seen tremendous growth since I first arrived in 2003 – and continues to see positive development and growth which is wonderful. Perhaps most notably, Boston’s waterfront neighborhood has experienced extensive growth and evolution over the last decade. The area surrounding the Boston Harbor Hotel continues to progress and the increased development continues to draw prominent new businesses and leisure attractions such as restaurants and shopping. The creation of public pathways such as the HarborWalk and Rose Kennedy Greenway make it easier for people to enjoy all that our neighborhood has to offer, and the waterfront is once again at the heart Boston.

Is it fair to say that the BHH helped set the course for the burgeoning Seaport District sprouting up across the harbor?

The transformation of Boston’s waterfront landscape in the past two decades as a result of the Big Dig has been truly incredible. Location, location, location may be what the Boston Harbor Hotel is all about – now, but those who remember the years before the Big Dig know this was not always the case.

It took the incredible forward-thinking vision of Norman Leventhal to realize the waterfront’s future potential value and create the iconic structure of the Boston Harbor Hotel that is now considered the most photographed building in New England. The Big Dig opened up the city, and in turn opened up the waterfront and Seaport District for the expansion that has since taken place.

From the Boston Harbor Hotel’s perspective, it has always been our objective to support the growth of our neighborhood. The hotel has become known for providing entertainment and programming for the community to enjoy the harbor and stimulate the waterfront neighborhood. As a five-star hotel, we are committed to ensuring that the hotel remains vibrant with programming that celebrates our unique Waterfront location. The Greenway has united the center of the city with the Waterfront and public programming has changed in recent years to reflect this new shift in geography. Today we take a year-round view with regard to programs and offer a variety of seasonal activities such as a recently introduced winter ice skating rink and a popular “Summer Series” of music and movies during the summer months.

The Boston Harbor Hotel has become a preferred choice for many notable functions and gatherings including numerous events organized by the Irish-American community.

It has also become a home away from home and often the hotel of choice for Ireland’s government officials who visit Boston regularly as well as visitors traveling to and from Ireland.

What do customers look for these days when deciding where to stay in a city like Boston?

Steeped in history and culture, Boston is truly a unique city that offers a perfect blend of old and new. Visitors have so many options when traveling to Boston – sights to see, neighborhoods to explore, restaurants to dine at – and with this, comes an array of hotels to choose from. Ultimately, the test of any great hotel is not the linens or art on the wall, but the service, and at the Boston Harbor Hotel, it is our goal to make our guests’ experience truly Beyond compare.

Understanding the value that our guests place on experiential travel, we are constantly working to create new initiatives and develop innovative ideas that will keep the hotel relevant within the ever-changing hospitality market and make the Boston Harbor Hotel a destination within the city for business and leisure travelers alike. There is nothing cookie cutter about the Boston Harbor Hotel. You can arrive straight from Logan airport by water taxi, crossing the famous harbor in just a few minutes, and pulling right up to the hotel’s dock.

Unique programming such as the hotel’s Winter on the Wharf season of festivities, new ice-skating rink and Summer in the City Entertainment Series further set the Boston Harbor Hotel apart as a welcome retreat and ‘home away from home’ for business and leisure travelers alike.

I’ve always thought of this hotel as a symbol of excellence in hospitality – for both the hotel’s physical product and the personalized sense of service we offer our guests. Only the most special teams can achieve that fifth star. It’s hard to get and difficult to keep, and I am determined to do everything I can to make sure that we do.

How important is food and beverage in portraying what the hotel is all about?

Food and beverage has been at the heart of the Boston Harbor Hotel since it first opened its doors nearly 26 years ago. Chef Daniel Bruce is celebrating his 25th anniversary at the hotel this year, which is remarkable, and he has truly put the Boston Harbor Hotel on the culinary map both locally and globally in terms of food and wine pairings. The hotel is a hub for food and wine connoisseurs as well as the casual diner and offers a variety of options to suit different tastes and dining styles including Meritage, Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, Rowes Wharf Bar and The Alley Bar at Rowes Wharf (seasonally). The winter months at the Boston Harbor Hotel also offer an entirely different food and beverage experience as the hotel hosts three months of wine events as part of The Boston Wine Festival – also in its 25th year. For wine and food or those travelers looking to personally meet and interact with some of the world’s top winemakers – this is THE event. It is also the nation’s longest running food and wine pairing series.

What are you looking forward to this summer?

We are looking forward to another wonderful summer here at the Boston Harbor Hotel with our Summer in the City Entertainment Series playing a large role. From June 12 – August 29, the hotel transforms into what is perhaps Boston’s largest waterfront live entertainment offering. Bostonians, visitors and hotel guests alike can gather on Rowes Wharf Sea Grille’s outdoor terraces to enjoy live concerts Tuesdays-Thursdays and movies on Fridays throughout the summer. There really is nothing that quite compares to watching bands perform from the hotel’s floating barge stage while enjoying cocktails or dinner – it is what summer in New England is all about.

Thank you Stephen!

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