Checking in With Springer-Miller

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

There’s a long-standing tradition in John Springer-Miller’s family that each child receives a pair of skis on his or her first Christmas. A March baby, he got his first skis when he was a mere 9 months old, and his brothers, Frank and Joe, received theirs in the same manner. “I was walking by that age,” he says, “and the family story is that I wouldn’t take them off, inside or outside.” He’s kept the tradition alive with his own daughters, 3-year-old Ryan and 6-month-old Drew, who got hers in December. So it seems appropriate that his company, Springer-Miller Systems, would have its start by finding a way to help resort properties in the Stowe area keep track of who came and went.

John Springer-Miller

John Springer-Miller says the abundance of resorts in Springer-Miller Systems' hometown of Stowe was the impetus for the company's hotel management software. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

That was back in the early ’80s, when computers and binary intelligence were still pretty arcane to most of the world. But Springer-Miller had fallen for computers the moment he met them head-on, while working as a theater critic for Gannett Newspapers.

It was no surprise that a blossoming love affair with the digital world ensued. Springer- Miller’s connection with computers wasn’t born at Gannett, though. It was steeped in childhood memories along with the skiing. When Springer-Miller came into the world at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, N.H., his father was a Dartmouth professor of linguistics and editor of Ski Magazine. Springer-Miller recalls being a child of 5 “toting 80 pounds of camera equipment up Mount Washington,” adding, “It was always an adventure when I was a child.”

Winter was in his blood. His grandfather, an avid skier, helped start the children’s ski program in Stowe. His Aunt Madi Kraus was twice national ski champion and an alternate to the 1956 Olympic Games. When Springer-Miller was about five years old, his family moved to San Francisco, where his dad became the first importer of buckle boots – Hanke boots – in North America. Springer-Miller and his brother, Frank, were child models for the original Holy Underwear.

While the family was in San Francisco, the U.S. Olympic Committee approached Springer- Miller’s parents about working for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. “My father spoke nine or 10 languages because of his linguistics background,” Springer-Miller says, “and he knew everything about skiing. My mother was publishing weekly newspapers – three different ones, some in New Jersey, some in New Hampshire — and that stuff added up to the perfect qualifications.” His parents were hired to create all the daily programs for the 16-day games, including rankings, scores, timing and statistics.

During those Olympics, Springer-Miller’s father encountered people from IBM World Trade Corp., which had just taken on a long-term commitment to do automation for the Olympics. “After the Games, IBM hired him to manage the automation of scoring, timing and so on,” says Springer-Miller. “And the end result is that I spent a tremendous amount of time growing up in a lot of places, having all kinds of fun.” He tells about getting to ride on the Swiss bobsled at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964. “We lived at the Olympic Village, and about a month before the Innsbruck Olympics started, my brother Frank and I – we were 8 and 10 at the time – went down the 70- meter jump on regular skis, just playing around. Those were the days before we had to have all kinds of security.”

During his career with IBM, which lasted until the mid 1970s, Springer-Miller’s father did all kinds of things to impress a growing child. “In those days, Summer and Winter Olympics were in the same years, and in the off-years, my father did special projects.” These included World’s Fair exhibits and computer modeling of the inside of one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. “He put together a board that had little red dots that flipped back and forth as a demonstration for binary, and it became a precursor of railroad and airport boards before TV monitors were prominent.”

By the time he graduated from high school, Springer-Miller had “lived in eight or 10 states and several countries” and had attended three high schools, including a prep school and a school in Venezuela, where his family lived for four years. One place, though, was a constant for Springer- Miller – the place where his grandparents lived and where he had spent a part of second grade and all of his senior high school year. “It was a place that was always there,” he says, “where we spent a lot of Christmases and sometimes a couple of weeks in the summer. That place was Stowe, Vt.”

Following graduation, Springer Miller enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. He only lasted one semester, falling victim to his love for television. “I was working with a television station in Manchester, N.H., directing ‘The Uncle Gus Show,’ the evening news, doing late night sports, and so on,” he says, “and the school was a good hour and a half away. So I stopped and pursued a TV and film career.”

Theater arts – acting, directing and filmmaking – became his passion, and he eventually went to New York City, “did extra work in films, did off-off-Broadway stuff and started working on the dinner theater circuit up and down the East Coast. I have something close to a hundred theater credits.” He opened a summer dinner theater in upstate New York in partnership with his brother Frank and Frank’s wife, Mort Butler, which they ran, quite successfully for a few years. “I went from that to doing dinner theater consulting up and down the coast. Dinner theater is very different from restaurant or straight theater, and I helped people understand the marketing aspects,” he says.

During this time, Springer-Miller “started to do a lot of writing and wound up being a theater critic for Gannett Newspapers about the time USA Today started. USA Today was very aggressive about technology; they had some unique, computerized layout systems. It was remarkable at the time, back in 1980 and ’81. I got absorbed by those,” he says, “and I started using a Tandy 100, which had an editor in it, and BASIC, so you could write programs.” He became so adept with the technology, that, following a performance, he’d “go to Ted Hook’s Backstage in New York, a theater hangout, sit at the piano bar and sing along and write a review. Then they’d bring me a telephone and I’d plug in and send it to the main computer.”

While he admits there were downsides to what he was doing – “I would have to do television reviews. Go watch 10 hours of ‘Three’s Company!’” he exclaims – Springer-Miller really fell in love with what the computer could do. “I started doing all kinds of little routines on it, building databases.”

Some of the development team

Most of Springer-Miller Systems' 150 employees work in Stowe. The company has six other offices in the United States and Malaysia, as well as an around-the-clock software support facility in Las Vegas. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

When the Stowe-Morrisville School District needed a program to track attendance, Butler, who was, by then, computer coordinator for the district, called him for help. Because Vermont has small union school districts, unlike most areas of the country where entire counties are school districts, there was no system on the market that would track attendance the way the state required. “I designed something, convinced them I could do it and that it was the right thing to do,” he says. “And they bought it. A year later, it was attendance, student scheduling, grade reporting, medical records, all kinds of things, and we were selling them all over Vermont.” Springer-Miller Systems was born, officially named in 1984.

He began doing other custom database work, “all kinds of neat projects,” he says. One of his favorites was a complaint-tracking system for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. that could track 40 categories of complaints, tie them to product information (such as which group made a particular pint of ice cream) and generate a piece of personalized-looking mail to the complainer.

Sometime in that first year of operation, Springer-Miller was approached by Neil Van Dyke, now owner but then manager of the Golden Eagle in Stowe. “He said, ‘We’ve been through the mill with computers, working with these people from Burlington, people from Waitsfield, and we keep hitting dead ends.’ He asked us to build a custom database that would keep track of guest history so they could use it as a mailing list for brochures and allow them to remember people – what they liked, what they did last time – when they booked again.”

“Remember, this was in the early days of PCs,” says Van Dyke. “A Burlington company had sold us WordPerfect, a word-processing program, to do this. John was right across the street from us, and I called and asked him if he could help.” It was just the kind of challenge Springer- Miller’s internal sleuth needed, and he saw the potential in it. “We made a deal,” Van Dyke continues, “that he would help us with our mailing list program if we would be a guinea pig for his hotel program. So we spent many hours in my office talking about hotel needs, and he was writing programs.” It marked the birth of SMS Host System, the company’s prime product.

He began working as a consultant to help hotels find an automated system that would manage an entire hotel property. “It was probably a year later,” he says, “about 1985 or ’86, and we were working with the Trapp Family Lodge and Guest House in this capacity. They had a system that was not working very well.” At a hotel technical conference in Atlanta, Springer-Miller had one of those seminal “Aha!” moments. “What we realized was that everybody – 60 to 70 companies – had the same approach: They were all accounting-based systems that made sure the folio had the right accounts on it and did a little bit of reservation work. But there was nothing in any of these systems that had a memory. They were designed around tracking who was going to come, but all the systems deleted the data for who checked out yesterday! I realized right then that there was something to be done.”

He set out to create a system that would keep track of guests, building custom software around the issues destination hotels had. “Neil Van Dyke and George von Trapp were tremendous drivers in helping us realize what we could do,” he says. “Because I’d never run a hotel, they spent a lot of time helping me understand their process. And a lot of what we put into that is still on our system today.”

After working for a few years with Vermont and New Hampshire hotels, the decision was made to try to take SMS Host national. At the first big national show in Dallas in 1989, Springer- Miller says the product was “an absolute hit. It was such a departure from everything in the market it was a sensation. For destination-focused hotels – the kind of property you go to because you want to be there, not because you have a meeting and need a place to stay – there was nothing else on the market that would help generate repeat business and guest recognition.”

There was another absolute hit in Dallas. “A woman walked up to me in the booth,” Springer-Miller says, “and said, ‘Hi, I’m Tina Ross. I want you to show me your software.’ ” He laughs. “She’s now Mrs. Springer-Miller.” Ross was a graduate of Cornell Hotel School with a master’s degree in hospitals and hotels. At the time, she was a well known technical consultant and vice president of a Springer-Miller competitor. “She came to work for Springer-Miller Systems,” he says, “and then she became my wife.” They married at the Stowehoff in August 1993.

After the Dallas show, contracts started flowing in from around the country. “It took off like a shot,” he says. “We kind of revolutionized the hotel technology industry. Even today, we are by far the leader, but most of the other systems on the market have tried to adopt the systems we have and the functionality.”

By 1990, it was clear that the company had to find an outside partner to support the hardware side of things, one capable of supporting hardware anywhere in the United States, and an agreement was made with IBM. “In 1991, IBM convinced us we should port our software to the RS/6000, and that opened up a partnership that had IBMers generating huge amounts of business all over the country.” SMS Host is available for either the RS/6000 or the Local Area Network with Novell Netware.

George von Trapp & Nicole Carignan

Chief operating officer George von Trapp and director of research and development Nicole Carignan (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

In 1992, the company received a boost when it was awarded the contract to install a customized version of Host at Hilton Hotels. In 1996, it entered the overseas market with an installation in a Malaysian hotel managed by a company with plans to install the system in all of its 19 properties. Over the years, partnerships (with such companies as Premier Resorts International, the world’s largest resort condominium management company) and alliances (with, for example, IBM Canada Ltd. and Intrawest, a Canadian resort and real estate company whose properties include Stratton Mountain Resort, Panorama resort in British Columbia and Mont Tremblant in Quebec) have assured continued growth for the company. “If you have a big property,” says Springer-Miller, “3,000 to 4,000 rooms, we’re it. And we’re managing detailed history for them, so with guests coming in and out and millions and millions of folio transactions, all that information is available in our system.”

Knowing what he now knows about the hotel industry, Springer-Miller says he believes his system was developed by pure luck, “because we were in Vermont at the time. We could have been in New York and developed transaction-type business, but being in Vermont with all these properties focused on guest services and history, it’s naturally something we gravitated to.”

In addition to corporate headquarters in Stowe, comprising Springer-Miller’s grandparents’ farmhouse on the Mountain Road (tripled in size to 7,000 square feet since he bought it in 1989) and The Barn, a 3,000-square-foot conversion farther up the Mountain Road that houses human resources, marketing, sales, accounting and on-site training, the company has a 10,000-square-foot facility in Las Vegas for its 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week software support operation. While the lion’s share of the company’s 150 employees work at these two sites, there are also sales offices in Georgia, Oregon, Washington state, North Carolina and Florida, and Malaysia.

Springer-Miller is a generous neighbor. Because of his love of the performing arts, the company contributes to such organizations as Stowe Performing Arts, the Vermont Mozart Festival, Stowe Theater Guild and the Clarina Howard Nichols Center for distressed families. “We have contributed to a couple of films made in the state,” he says, “and put up a fairly substantial amount of money for ‘My Mother’s Early Lovers,’ made by Norah Jacobson here in Vermont.” Springer- Miller is secretary of the board of directors of Copley Hospital in Morrisville, and the company sponsored the Governor’s Council on the Arts Award a few years ago. “We also try to give to education where we can,” he says.

As much fun as he’s having – and he truly does love what he’s doing – Springer-Miller says, “To a great degree, I feel as though this computer business is a diversion, and eventually I’ll be able to get back to my real life, which is theater. One of my dreams is to open a significant theater, have a resident company and do nothing but that. I’ve always thought I would like to do that in Stowe – I have a piece of land that’s perfect for it. But it’s just not sane for anybody to start a business in Vermont today,” he says.

Abdel-Mawgood, Monti and Myhave

In 1992 the company was awarded the contract to install a customized version of its SMS Host System software at Hilton Hotels. From left: Ahmad Abdel-Mawgood, Tom Monti and Andrea Myhaver. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Not only is it hard to find people to fill job openings, Springer-Miller is frustrated by the sacrifices he believes businesses make to stay here. “The myriad policies that are put in place by a Legislature that doesn’t understand business make Vermont a very poor choice from which to do business, regardless of where in Vermont you live or work. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get bitten by the thought: I don’t know why people stay here. We’re a high-tech industry; our average salaries are more than double the state average; we have nothing but permanent, high-paid positions; we pay health insurance for all of our employees, a 100 percent company-paid benefit; we don’t do anything that’s dirty; and we import cash,” he says. “But it’s a real tough place.”

He tells about trying to help the Catholic church next to the company’s headquarters. “We sit on 10 or so acres, and we’re trying to transfer an acre of land to the church so they can solve their parking problem. We are both now into thousands in legal bills because the state is screwing this up. It’s so asinine. I’ve done business in several states, and anywhere else these are things that take you a day or two.”

The company recently donated its software to the Stowe Area Association toward the goal of linking all the hotel/motel rooms in town through the association’s central reservation system, thus making Stowe operate as one big resort and be more competitive nationally. It would be a first in the country. “Stowe’s ideal, because it’s kind of a linear town – you basically have 40 or something properties between the town and the mountain. There’s plenty of other areas where this is likely to happen soon, and we would like very much to set the standard for it. The view of the world of Stowe would be far bigger. You could stay at one property, go somewhere else for a balloon ride and charge it to your room. We’re putting up funds to do it,” he says, “unless Vermont really chases us away once for all.”