Inn Business

Innkeeping is more than a job -- it's a lifestyle -- for Frank and Jane Emanuel of Middlebury Inn

by Portland Helmich

(Photos: Jeff Clarke)

Frank and Jane Emanuel have used creative marketing to keep the Middlebury Inn viable through all seasons. One-half of the inn's business is generated between July and October.

Tender loving care is what Frank and Jane Emanuel have showered on The Middlebury Inn for more than 20 years, producing an atmosphere where guests not only step into the past, but where -- most important -- they feel at home. "At meetings, we tell our staff that we certainly can't be the biggest or the greatest inn in New England," says Jane, "but we can be the friendliest."

The owners spent several years upgrading the historic structure after they bought it in 1977. "We couldn't afford to do everything at once," explains Frank. There are 77 guest rooms.

The Emanuels' efforts to create a cozy, family-style retreat are apparently working. "We sometimes have people come down the stairs in their stocking feet," remarks manager Jeff Costello, who began his association with the inn as an outside contractor hired to do renovations in 1978. Costello says everything about the inn is personal. "We don't have furnishings to look at; we have furnishings to use," he explains. Historic touches from the 1926 bellman-operated elevator to the homemade baked goods to the finger bowls and real silverware engender a nostalgic feeling that is carried through to the service guests receive. "We stress that staff be the first to approach guests in the morning," Costello says, "and it's amazing to see the looks on people's faces when they get a friendly greeting. They're taken aback."

Creating this warm and casual environment definitely did not happen overnight. Renovations have been ongoing since 1977, when Frank and Jane bought the establishment from the Beach family, longtime owners of the Basin Harbor Club. The structure was 150 years old and required a major overhaul to bring it up to date. "The trick," says Frank, "was to do it in a way that retained the historic dimension while still providing for modern comforts." A four-year effort, new wiring was installed so rooms could be individually heated and cooled. More than one-third of the inn's 100 rooms did not have private bathrooms, so began an eight-year project that involved turning groupings of three rooms into two rooms, each with a private bath. (There are now 77 guest rooms.) Tub showers and built-in hair dryers were installed, and color televisions were placed in every room over time. "It was terribly costly, and we couldn't afford to do everything at once," says Frank, "but we had to make the place viable."

"We learned early on to make something out of nothing," adds Jane, who holds a bachelor's degree in home economics education from SUNY/Buffalo and a master's in textiles from Cornell University. Tasks such as sewing curtains and tablecloths encompassed part of her time as the inn's primary decorator. Moreover, for five years after acquiring the historic structure, Jane, who hails from New York state, and Frank, a New Jersey native with a bachelor's degree in hospitality from the University of Vermont, continued to rely on the income they derived from teaching at UVM, where they met in 1967. She taught textiles, clothing, and merchandising; he taught hospitality courses.

"Hospitality had been my primary activity for years," says Frank, who served as a food service officer of the Second U.S. Air Force in the Philippines from 1959 to 1961 and later managed resort properties including The Woodstock Inn. "Jane only got involved when we got married, poor soul," he chuckles.

His wife admits the daunting task of buying, restoring, and running The Middlebury Inn wasn't hers. "My memory," she says, "is that Frank wasn't interested in the corporate world. He always wanted to have a place of his own."

The two looked at "every place in northern Vermont," deciding on The Middlebury Inn over smaller B & Bs, for example, because they wanted someplace large enough to support a manager of operations and other staff. "We wanted to have time for renovation, innovation, creativity, vision, and marketing," explains Frank. Such skills have definitely been needed, as periodic downturns in the economy and Vermont's less than resort-like weather throughout much of the year -- one-half of the inn's business is generated between July and October -- have forced the couple to find inventive methods of attracting guests.

"They were clever in the way they marketed the inn," says Pennie Beach, co-owner of the Basin Harbor Club. "They went after the seniors market before it was popular to do so." Instead of approaching huge companies that arranged motorcoach tours, the Emanuels went directly to the source -- the seniors themselves.

They did presentations at senior citizen groups throughout New England, promoting multi-night packages that included meals, an in-house tour escort, admission to local attractions, and entertainment every evening. "Very few people wanted motorcoach tours at the time," remembers Frank. "Some of these tours were horribly expensive. They weren't second-class, but guests were treated that way. Most hotels made them come through the back door. The first thing we did was put them at the front door and roll out a red carpet when they arrived."

The creativity didn't stop there. As a reaction to the recession that began in the late '80s, the dedicated innkeepers took an idea they had heard about and made it indisputably theirs. "We create in-house murder mysteries," declares Frank. "Most places hire actors to come in and do murder mysteries, but our staff actually writes and acts them out."

Married for 32 years, Jane finishes her husband's thought. "Guests have clues," she says, "and they form detective agencies. They actually go to the police station for the police report and the hospital for the autopsy report."

Frank then sums it up: "We really are in show business here. People come here for an experience. If they just wanted a place to stay for the night, they'd go to a national chain."

While murder mysteries do attract guests, they aren't fitting entertainment around the holidays, another slow period in the Emanuels' industry. Thus, the pair has also developed Christmas house parties, a well-established tradition that -- because of its popularity -- now begins in early November. "When they first started doing the Christmas program," says Beach, "people thought they were nuts. They thought they were rushing the season -- until retailers started realizing guests were buying things." The inn is decorated, and guests, who stay for two or three nights, are treated to an eggnog party, a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, and a visit from Santa, who comes bearing gifts.

"This will be the 15th year Maine Line Tours has brought a group, and some of the people were in the first one," remarks Jane. "It's like they're coming home for Christmas."

Caroling, of course, is another of the featured activities, and, as with the murder mysteries, staff absolutely takes part -- a crucial difference between The Middlebury Inn and many other lodging establishments, according to Frank. "At very few places today," he says, "do you see staff involved with guests. They serve them, but they're not involved with them."

Costello feels the staff's involvement not only benefits guests, but staff. "It lets them be part of something else," he says. "They're not just a desk clerk or a cook, but they're Santa Claus or an actor in a mystery. That builds morale and self-esteem."

Approximately one-third of the more than 60 employees have worked at the inn at least five years, which doesn't surprise Richard C. Hubbard, a member of the inn's board of directors since 1937. "Frank and Jane," he notes, "have developed employees that are true to them because of the manner in which they're treated and trained."

The couple admits filling staff positions is more difficult today because of the economy, but say their efforts to provide employees with opportunities for advancement have probably paid off. "For 23 years," says Frank, "it's been our goal to promote from within and to develop staff to their greatest ability." This means everyone: The Emanuels were proponents of hiring the disabled long before it was commonplace.

"One thing that's part of our work philosophy," offers Jane, "is that staff do -- within reason -- whatever needs doing when they're here. We don't say, 'It's not my job.'"

No one knows this better than the Emanuels. "It's only been about two weeks since I took a plunger to a room," jokes Frank.

Jane is in accord. "I've bused a lot of tables and cleaned a lot of rooms over time," she nods.

The inn strives to be a comfortable, family-style retreat. "We sometimes have people come down the stairs in their stocking feet," says manager Jeff Costello.

For the Emanuels, the challenges of owning and operating such a large inn have been steep at times. "There's very little privacy," admits Jane. The couple and their two sons -- son Ty is now general manager -- lived for 17 years in part of the Porter House Mansion, a separate building beside the inn that houses 10 guest rooms. (They have since moved to a house all of 100 feet away).

"This will be the 24th consecutive Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's that we've worked," Frank adds, "and that's tough." Toughest, though, are the times when cash isn't flowing. "The first part of this decade was the absolute bottom for the hotel business in this part of the country," Frank recalls. "A number of our friends lost their hotels."

The benefits their business provides do seem to outweigh the hardships, however. "It never gets boring," concedes Frank, "and I think both of us get a big reward out of making somebody else's life a little brighter." One way they do so is by hosting Vermont senior house parties twice a year, which they started when they managed the Tyler Place in Highgate Springs, before buying The Middlebury Inn.

At an extremely reduced rate -- rooms normally run between $76 and $365 per night and include a "hearty" continental breakfast -- seniors are invited to four days of regular meals and in-house activities such as guest speakers, exercise classes, cooking demonstrations, and musical entertainment. "It's our gift," says Frank, "because we have been so blessed. We originally wanted to do it free, but Vermonters don't go anywhere without carrying some of their own weight."

"For the most part," continues Jane, "many of these people live all alone, and they love having the people around. They'll be in the lobby talking after midnight."

While repeat guests hold a warm place in the Emanuels' hearts, "repeat staff" are the ones they know contribute most to the inn's overall charm. Tom Phelps, now referred to as "Chef Emeritus," was in charge of the kitchen from 1972 to 1988. Today, two NECI graduates share the responsibility of putting out three meals a day, but Phelps still prepares treats for daily afternoon teas and contributes to Sunday brunch.

Frank points out that people such as Phelps and Costello are why he and Jane are "a bit embarrassed" when they're singled out for the contributions they've made to the field. In June, the two were honored as "pioneers of hospitality" by the Vermont Lodging & Restaurant Association (VLRA) at an annual awards celebration. The award has been given out only five times in 74 years. "We have no success by ourselves," stresses Frank. "It's because of all these other wonderful people."

Staff members write and perform in-house murder mysteries for guests. Pictured: general manager Ty Emanuel.

Kathleen Sweeten is president of the VLRA, and she believes the Emanuels are more than deserving of the award. "Not only have they been around a long time, but they have been mentors to so many people in the industry," she says. "The biggest thing they give is their time; they're always willing to talk to someone new to the business."

More than talk, the two have volunteered on many committees. They served on the board of American Hotel & Motel Association for several years, and both were members of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. "It's been important to us to be involved in such things," Jane notes.

It hasn't come easily, but the Emanuels know they have something of which to be proud. "We certainly have put everything we have -- blood, sweat, and tears -- into this for all these years and pulled it into one of the relatively few historic hotels in America," says Frank.

While Jane admits that she and Frank are now eligible for Social Security, she also asserts that they're still going strong. "When the time is right, we'll go on to other things," she says, softly.

To the delight of The Middlebury Inn's many guests and longtime staff, that time hasn't arrived.

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer and television producer who hosts "Rural Free Delivery" on Vermont Public Television.