Have you been thinking about coughing up $612.62 for the Romance Package at the Ahwahnee Hotel? Now that the name of the famed hotel in Yosemite National Park may change, you might have lost your chance.
On March 1st of 2016, Aramark, which holds nine contracts with the National Park Service (NPS), will replace Delaware North Company Yosemite (DNC), which ran the Yosemite concession services for twenty-two years. NPS and DNC are currently in legal battles over the rights of the names of historic buildings including the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.
In 1993, DNC won the concession bid promising 10% of gross profits to the NPS, up from the reported less than one percent that the Curry Company, the previous concessionaire, provided. At the time, the NPS required DNC to buy trademarked names from Curry Company. In 2002, DNC registered additional trademarked names, including “Yosemite National Park,” with the US Patent and Trademark office. NPS never agreed with the trademarking. DNC’s $51 million dollar estimate of the trademarks value exceeds NPS’s evaluation by twenty-seven times. DNC had two independent appraisals of the intellectual property by third-party experts. During the bidding process, the NPS flip-flopped on the trademark purchase requirements, which affected contending bids.
In early January, Scott Gediman the NPS assistant superintendent for public and legislative affairs, told USA Today, “We feel Half Dome and El Capitan and the Ahwahnee Hotel (and other trademarked names at Yosemite) are part of the national park’s fabric. We feel those names are inextricably linked with Yosemite … and ultimately belong to the American people.”
Built in 1927, the Ahwahnee Hotel became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The names of the Ahwahnee, Curry Village and other sites in Yosemite were in place long before they were trademarked.
Public opinion supports the names remaining. “Concessionaires and other partners are critical to the park service and have a real stake in its mission,” wrote Access Fund Director Brady Robinson in the New York Times. “But if Delaware North Corporations’ claim stands, it will help set a precedent that private companies can financially benefit from trademarking noted American place names.”
Amongst Yosemite employees, there’s a common belief that government failure and corporate greed is creating the problem. The NPS failed to uphold the precedent of selling the names with the new concession, and DNC, or as it’s known locally, Devil Needs Cash, overvalued the names. Now, the public and the employees will suffer.
“It’s a hoax,” said one NPS ranger, doubting that the company and park service would ever change the names, supporting a common idea that it’s a political play to draw positive attention to NPS and negative attention to DNC, keeping the company from gaining future bids.
Other park employees addressed concerns about working for a new concession company. Along with the trademark names, the dispute includes intellectual property, which could affect employment status. The concessionaire employees 800 people in the winter and 1,700 people in the summer, and many are returning seasonal workers. For them, knowing whether or not they’ll have jobs is of greater concern than the name of the building they work in.
The trademark issue affects more than Yosemite. Xanterra, the third player in the national concessions market, runs some of the services in Grand Canyon National Park. The company trademarked the names of the national park hotels, including Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. NPS and Xanterra are in a similar legal dispute. The Yosemite outcome will set a precedent for the Grand Canyon decision.
In December 2014, Congress amended the U.S. Code allowing the NPS to “retain the name historically associated with the building or structure” regardless of any trademark. This amendment will prevent future disputes but has no effect on the current battle.
DNC offered to license these trademarks to NPS to avoid any name changes while the disagreement is resolved in court. A permanent name change would reflect poorly on the concessionaire since much of the media blames DNC for the dispute, even though the NPS also neglected the details of the concession contract.
The outcome of the trademark name dispute remains unforeseen. A park service source speculated that the outcome would be determined at the end of February, when Aramark takes the contract over.
One thing is certain. Aramark will not be lowering the price of a night at the “Majestic Hotel.”