Will Etling of Solvang believes he’s speaking for countless Yosemite National Park visitors who fondly recall the grandeur of The Ahwahnee, the hotel that was renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel in March because of a trademark dispute between the National Park Service and former park concessionaire Delaware North Cos.
But the hotel’s new concession operator, Aramark, was not amused by Etling’s means of expressing dismay over the loss of the historic name. Etling, a web developer, registered the domain name “majesticyosemitehotel.net” and created a web page earlier this year that bluntly criticized the name change: a full-screen photo of the hotel against its backdrop of Yosemite’s dramatic cliffs – with large text that until recently read: “It’s called the Ahwahnee, you (expletive)s.”
Etling grew up with annual family trips in the summers to the beloved park and occasional winter visits to the grand hotel formerly known as The Ahwahnee. He says he registered the dot-net domain name and launched the page to lament the loss of a name that paid tribute to the Native Americans who once inhabited Yosemite Valley.
It didn’t take long for an attorney for Aramark, after learning of the website’s existence, to swing into action, asking Etling to change the language on the page and to give up the domain registration entirely.
“As you can imagine, this language damages the unique and historic heritage of the hotel, and its association with the Park, and the overall reputation of the hotel and the Park as a whole,” wrote trademark and copyright attorney Nicole McLaughlin, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Duane Morris LLP, which handles trademark issues for Aramark, in a Dec. 21 letter to Etling.
“Accordingly, as a steward for the National Park Service, we request that you remove this language from the site and agree not to post any further derogatory or disparaging text,” McLaughlin wrote. “In addition, we ask that you agree not to renew the registration of the domain name when the registration term expires.”
After receiving the letter by email, Etling changed the page’s headline to drop the profanity and reduce the text size: “It was called the Ahwahnee.” The page now also includes links to articles about the history of the hotel and its name, and about the Ahwahneechee people.
Despite the letter, Etling says he plans to renew the dot-net domain registration next month and keep the site and its “Ahwahnee” history links alive.
Etling registered the domain name in January.
“When I saw earlier this year that Delaware North and the Park Service couldn’t seem to come to terms with the whole trademark thing, and the park announced they were going through with the name change and that the new name of the Ahwahnee would be the ‘Majestic Yosemite Hotel,’ I thought it was incredibly sad,” Etling said.
Etling discovered that “majesticyosemitehotel.com” was already taken by Aramark. But the dot-net version was available, and for a few bucks, Etling registered it through the domain registration and hosting firm FastDomain Inc.
“The names ‘Ahwahnee,’ ‘Wawona’ and other names in the park were chosen to attempt to honor the native people of that region,” Etling said. “I thought if I want to raise some awareness and keep it in people’s minds, I’d just grab the dot-net name so this issue doesn’t slide off into the ether. … It’s a way of educating people.”
Etling acknowledged that his original disparaging reference was born of his frustration.
“I have a young son, and I had mixed feelings about the crude language,” he said. After receiving the letter, “I took it off; I thought it better served as a source of information.”
However, Etling added, “it didn’t say that Aramark were (expletive)s, but they took offense.”
David Freireich, Aramark’s senior director of corporate communications, says it was customers who took offense.
“We were alerted to this website by several concerned guests who found it offensive,” Freireich said in an email Wednesday. “As concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the property and the guests we serve, and requested that the content be removed. It has since been edited to remove the offensive content.”
The hotel, which opened in July 1927, will celebrate its 90th anniversary next year, regardless of the name. For Etling, the wholesale name changes to landmarks such as the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels, Curry Village and the Badger Pass Ski Area – names that Delaware North registered as trademarks even though the historic names predated the company’s tenure as the park concessionaire from 1993 into 2016 – is personal. The Wawona Hotel was renamed the Big Trees Lodge; Curry Village is known as Half Dome Village and the Badger Pass Ski Area is billed as the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area.
“At least once a year, my parents would pile my sister and I in the car and we’d go camping in the summer in Yosemite, and in the winter sometimes,” he said. “We would wander around The Ahwahnee and see the giant fireplaces and the spectacular views.”
The family stayed at the grand hotel just once, “right around Christmas, and that’s one of our happiest shared family memories,” Etling added. “The idea that because of this dispute, because of people being unable to find a way to continue to honor those traditions, that they were willing to throw all that aside for financial reasons, was really upsetting.”
Despite the legal saber-rattling by Aramark’s attorney over Etling’s registration of the dot-net domain, the company has not bothered to build a page on the majesticyosemitehotel.com domain it registered on Jan. 13, just three days before Etling registered the dot-net version of the name. Instead, Freireich said, “the primary website for booking reservations is www.travelyosemite.com.”
A search through GoDaddy.com, a domain registration service, reveals that as of earlier this week the “majesticyosemitehotel” name was available for registration under a range of other domain suffixes, including dot-org, dot-info, dot-co, dot-us, dot-biz, dot-tv and more, at first-year registration costs ranging from $1 to $40.
The dust-up raises questions about “cybersquatting,” a practice in which someone registers an internet domain to profit from a company’s trademark, typically with the intent of selling the name back to the business at a profit. According to the 1999 federal Anti-Cybersquatting Piracy Act, however, a court may consider whether registering a domain name and establishing a website falls under “legitimate noncommercial or fair use,” including comment, criticism or parody, as a factor in determining whether a domain was registered in bad faith.
“There are probably all sorts of things (Aramark) can throw at me, but they haven’t even bothered to do anything with their dot-com site,” Etling said. “This is satire. It’s parody. I’m not claiming to be the Majestic Yosemite Hotel or The Ahwahnee. It’s a dot-net, so I’m surprised people are even stumbling upon it.”
While Freireich did not directly address a question from The Bee about whether Aramark plans to put to use its dot-com domain or leave it empty, he added in a follow-up email that “the profanity was our sole concern” with Etling’s website.