OCEAN CITY - The historic Flanders Hotel is an iconic landmark that holds special significance for many people in Ocean City.
The hotel has hosted weddings, high school proms, vacation memories and special events for generations of residents and visitors. The familiar nine-story building is part of the fabric of the island.
But hotel President Peter Voudouris said the luxury hotel holds some mystery, even to longtime residents.
"Most people probably don't know we have catacombs - or a private tunnel that leads to the beach," he said.
This area is off limits to guests but once served as the hotel's illicit speakeasy during Prohibition. Ocean City remains a dry town today.
Flooding from Hurricane Sandy last year inundated this subterranean network and damaged many of the hotel's electrical and mechanical systems, which were replaced during the winter.
The Flanders is a condo hotel, owned by Voudouris and 122 others who hold the deeds for its individual condo units that are booked nightly by guests. The condo association jointly owns and maintains the common areas in the hotel.
Voudouris also owns and operates the storefronts that lead from the hotel to the city's Boardwalk.
"Any traffic we get from the Boardwalk really helps," he said of the stores.
Voudouris, of West Chester, Pa., said the biggest challenge in running a large resort hotel on a small barrier island is finding enough employees each summer, he said.
The hotel's employment swells each summer from 45 to 125, including maids, bellboys and maintenance workers.
"That's a tremendous challenge. Everybody must understand their responsibilities. Communication is key," he said.
In December, the Flanders will celebrate 90 years on the city's Boardwalk. The hotel has all the amenities of a resort, with a restaurant, spa and salon, coffee shop and business center.
The hotel's original saltwater swimming pool was filled in and later became Playland's Castaway Cove amusement park.
"Everyone has memories of the saltwater pool," he said.
The hotel still offers one of Ocean City's largest heated swimming pools.
The hotel's second-floor banquet center hosts small conventions, bar mitzvahs, cocktail parties and about 65 wedding receptions each year. The hotel draws its clientele from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, the core markets for Ocean City's tourism industry.
"We're trying to make it a full-service hotel for families, business travelers and couples," he said. "We want the Flanders to be a new family destination, generation after generation."
The Flanders has 117 guest rooms, each with their own kitchens, private baths and bedrooms. A five-bedroom suite goes for $1,699 per night during peak summer weeks. The hotel's penthouses, completed in 2006, book for $350 in the low season and $990 in July and August.
"If I had another five penthouses, I think we'd still be sold out," he said.
The oceanfront penthouse has two bedrooms, three bathrooms, oceanfront balconies and three gas fireplaces. The hotel's skyline terrace penthouse is two stories and includes 2,300 square feet of living space, with outdoor patios and its own private elevator.
These suites feature hardwood floors and cabinetry, marble counters, and gold-plated fixtures.
"We've put about $4 million into the hotel in the past four years," he said.
The hotel is planning more upgrades, with a new outdoor patio at Emily's Ocean Room restaurant and a temporary enclosure for the swimming pool.
The hotel was designed by architect Vivian Smith, who also designed City Hall and the city's Music Pier. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its occupancy rate soars near 100 percent in the summer. January and February are the toughest months, he said. To boost bookings it targets small conventions, including a scrapbooking group.
The hotel has played a big role in the lives of most Ocean City residents and many visitors, said Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"It's been a focal point for Ocean City. So many things were celebrated there," she said. "Two of my sisters were married there. It's a staple of Ocean City."
Katie Mitchell, of Voorhees, had her wedding at the Flanders this year. She grew up in Ocean City and decided she wanted to have her wedding there.
"My husband, Todd, and I fell in love going to the beach together in Ocean City. The Flanders seemed like the only choice. It's beautiful. It's grand. It's historic," she said.
Mitchell had her Ocean City High School senior prom at the hotel. She always looks for the stately building when she comes across the Ninth Street causeway, she said.
"I have a stronger connection to the Flanders. Every day, I'm reminded of this special moment," she said.
Contact Michael Miller:
Location: 719 E. 11th St., Ocean City
Owners: Flanders Condo Association members
Employees: 45 to 125 seasonally