Originally published in Business Digest, March 1996

Beams, Brass, Copper and Stone

by Craig C. Bailey

Chris Francis would like to show off the larger suites of Ye Olde England Inne of Stowe, which he owns with his wife, Lyn. But he can't. On this particular date, the eve of Valentine's Day, all the major suites in the mustard-colored building a quarter-mile up the Mountain Road are occupied. So we settle for a tour of smaller suites and rooms. It's barely a compromise.

Solid wood, four-poster or brass beds are the centerpieces of most rooms of the Stowe inn. The decor is Laura Ashley -- classic, English designs that tie together the window treatments, bed coverings and wallpaper. There are private baths, Jacuzzis, fireplaces and wet bars. Quiet, cozy, plush and warm -- with views. This ain't no Super 8.

Returning downstairs to the living room, we find a fire snapping quietly in the fireplace. The room has a warm glow. Potpourri and soft, classical music. Deep red carpet. Baked goods carefully displayed on a silver platter. Framed prints and open beams.

If the inn is a treat to nearly every sense, it didn't get this way by accident.

Ye Olde England Inne began as the Sans Souci -- French for "without a care" -- an old- fashioned ski dormitory that had seen better days by the time the Francises purchased it in November 1983. "It was really pretty grim," says Chris.

"I kept thinking, Who would want to come and stay here?" adds Lyn with a chuckle.

"Despite the fact it was so run-down, it had a basic character we felt loaned itself to making an English inn. That's to say it had lots of beams ... It had corridors going around corners and up and down different levels. ... The floors are never quite straight in these older buildings," says Chris. "It had this skeleton, you might say. If you could put the right meat on the bones, you could probably create something that was interesting."

The couple discovered the property for sale while on vacation from their native England in the summer of '83. After meeting in the Royal Navy in 1972, while both were stationed at a hospital in Plymouth, Chris and Lyn married in 1980. Chris's work as a navy medic led to a job with American defense contractor Bendix. After working some years in Thailand -- Chris as an operations manager overseeing Bendix's 1,000 employees in that country, and Lyn as a midwife at a military hospital -- they were considering establishing a private medical company in England. But first, they planned a tour of New England. "We came to Stowe, and we were going to spend two days here," Chris explains. "Two weeks later, we were still here."

The Francises spent their first visit to Stowe at the Fiddler's Green Inn, owned by Bud McKeon, four miles up the Mountain Road from the establishment they would soon purchase. Chris says McKeon "seemed to be having so much fun running his inn, we thought we should do this, too. Looks like a lot of fun." Coincidentally, McKeon worked at the Sans Souci in the mid-'70s. The couple turned to their host for advice.

"What I did was help them pretty much in determining what a business was worth based on its potential and its past record," remembers McKeon. And so, over lunch one afternoon, the couple decided to take the plunge: to buy the inn and emigrate to America.

To hear them tell the story today, more than 12 years later, it seems as if the improbability of their tale is dawning on them for the first time. To get the $10,000 deposit they needed, they turned to the Franklin Lamoille Bank. "I thought, This is America, right?" quips Chris. "I pulled out my Visa card, and said, You guys take Visa?" The bank took the card, used it to investigate the couple's credit history, and issued them a check that afternoon.

"I was pretty shocked by that time," Chris says, "because in England that would never have happened. They would run you out of town." With only four major clearing banks in the United Kingdom at the time, "you don't get the sort of personal attention you get in some of the smaller banks in this area," he adds.

When the couple's second bid for the inn was accepted, they were left with four cold feet. "The real estate agent called me and said, 'Congratulations! You're now the owner of an inn,'" Chris says. "I thought, 'Oh my God! What the hell did we do here?'"

The situation became worse once the Francises returned to England to sell their home. "The further you are away from it," Chris says, "that initial enthusiasm starts to wane."

To complicate matters, they learned that Lyn was pregnant with their first child. (Oliver was born in June 1984. Ross would follow in 1988; Claire, in 1990.) Still, they sold their home in England, acquired the necessary visas, and moved into the inn with intentions to open by early December.

"They wanted to go in and make a lot of wholesale improvements right away," according to McKeon. "My advice to them was live with it for a season, knowing that the furnace was going to blow up, knowing that the roof was going to leak," so they could plan their approach. And that's naturally what happened.

"That first winter was quite interesting," Lyn says understatedly. "I think we did everything that there was to do -- from cooking, dishwashing, cleaning toilets, bartending, and checking people in."

With a tiny staff of seven for the inn's 72 dormitory-style beds, dodging leaking roofs and burst pipes, "We were just running on nerves and energy. That's how we got by," says Chris. They took any business they could get those first couple of years. "Buses for one night on a Saturday night, which is unheard of," according to Chris. "So you've got nobody on Friday, you've got nobody on Sunday. But that's what we had to do." Not surprisingly, the inn lost money the first season.

By spring of 1984 things began to pick up. Helped by the booming economy of the mid-'80s, the couple began making improvements to the establishment, turning it into an authentic English inn with a renovated pub they renamed Mr. Pickwick's Pub and Restaurant, after the Dickens character.

"We actually try to be as authentic as we can, apart from the fact, of course, that in the States, the heat works," jokes Chris. "Some of the best compliments we have are from English people who've come ... and say, 'God, this is like home.' But very often they say, 'But it's better.'"

Chris credits the Stowe community, in large part, for getting them up the steep learning curve in those early years. Neither he nor Lyn had any innkeeping experience to start with; furthermore, they were new to America. "Remember," he emphasizes, "we didn't know how to hire anybody. We didn't know how much we should pay people." To learn the ropes, the Francises turned to the Stowe community -- their fellow innkeepers. "I think the success we've enjoyed in Stowe is the direct reflection of the community. ... Rather than reject you for your efforts and success, they'd rather bring you into the fold, because your success could help everyone else succeed, too."

"The total pie grows when people support each other," confirms Tom Kaiden, executive director of the Stowe Area Association. "The basic premise of Stowe's marketing is 'Let's all work together to bring people to town first. Let's promote Stowe first. And then we'll each get our share afterwards.' Chris and Lyn, I think, embody that spirit."

Still, isn't their longevity somewhat of a surprise? "Not if you know Chris and Lyn," Kaiden says. "They're incredible people. They're bright, energetic and real community players. They invest heavily in their people, in the community and in their property. And if you do that for 12 years, you're going to make some significant advances. And that's what they've done."

"Nobody who's come into this particular business has had that kind of energy in a long time," adds McKeon.

Both Francises adopted a learn-by-doing attitude early on. To learn more about the industry, and consequently contribute more to the community, Chris accepted an offer to become a board member of the Stowe Area Association after being in town only three years. He then served as president of the organization for four years.

As the hosts' knowledge grew, so did their staff -- from its original seven to nearly 50, including assistant innkeeper Stephen Platt; bar manager Lisa Brugger; restaurant host/manager Steven Ecker; and chef Edward St. Onge, the first person hired by the couple in 1983. "We have a very easy relationship with them all," Lyn explains. "We all know the direction we want our various departments to go."

Lyn and Chris handle several departments: Lyn concentrates on the books, computers, administration of the inn and decorating; Chris works on the physical development of the property, public relations, and marketing, a topic he speaks about passionately.

"You've got to stimulate people with ideas," he says. "Just having a nice, pretty bedroom does not do it." To this end, Chris creates packages to entice visitors to the inn -- packages that might include sleigh rides, roses, chocolates, or lift tickets. Six years ago, he invented the British Invasion, an annual event in September to celebrate all things British: mostly automobiles and polo. "That started off as trying to fill the inn on what was a quiet weekend. ... Now, I would say that we probably half-fill the town."

Direct mailings to England, along with an 800 number for the United Kingdom and word of mouth, has made that country an important market for the inn. Brass tags with the name and hometown of five-time guests of the inn, attached to beams in the pub, generate pride among repeat customers, and increase interest in the inn among pub-goers. Since starting the program in 1987, they have "beamed" several hundred guests.

"He seems to have done everything right, and he has a good feel for the market -- what people want," McKeon thinks. "He's not only supplied a niche; he's pretty much created a niche in Stowe."

In June, the Francises completed a major addition to the inn. Bluff House, a $1.2 million building project constructed by MTB Builders of Stowe, has added a 100-seat medieval banquet hall and another nine suites to make a total of 13 rooms and 15 suites. Still, like the Francises' initial venture into innkeeping, the new building didn't come easy.

The original inn was built up against a granite bluff, which required two months of blasting before the foundation for Bluff House could be laid. "It went on longer than we hoped it would," Lyn says. "But now, of course, looking back, it was well worth going through it." Luckily, the guests were tolerant. "When we heard the first whistle, we would walk through the restaurant," she explains. "And we'd just say, 'You might hear a large crump any minute now, because we're blasting out back.'" Fawlty Towers in the Green Mountains.

After spending their first few years in the United States living at the inn, the Francises moved into their own home on Tabor Hill in 1986, to give more attention to their children during their off hours. True to their roots, they return to England every few years. And relatives of the family from the United Kingdom occasionally visit them in Stowe. You see, Chris and Lyn now have more room than ever to put them up.