Inn Style

Bed, breakfast and marketing savvy attract solid bookings in the Mad River Valley

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Anne Marie DeFreest and her partner, Tim Piper, run the Inn at the Round Barn Farm, situated on 245 acres in Waitsfield, and its sister business, Cooking From the Heart Catering at the Round Barn Farm.

It's a cool, rainy day in Vermont. Threads of mist tease the crevices of the Mad River Valley, and the heavy fragrance of wood smoke hovers on the air. Up ahead, the shape of a round, yellow barn coalesces, and next to it, a large, inviting yellow house, surrounded by ponds and gardens and 245 acres of Vermont landscape: the Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield.

More people in Boston and Connecticut than in Burlington know about the Round Barn Farm, say Anne Marie DeFreest and Tim Piper, owners/innkeepers at the Round Barn Farm.

"A lot of people have given our company credit for building the destination wedding market in Vermont," says DeFreest, who runs the catering end of the business, while Piper sees to inn sales and marketing. "Ninety-six percent of our weddings last year were destination weddings people coming from out of state bringing friends and family. It's great for the economy, for the whole area."

While weddings might account for a good chunk of business, it's by no means the only chunk. "We truly believe that for an inn to be successful in Vermont, it has to have diversification," DeFreest says. "If we ever had to survive on just 12 rooms, we couldn't make it. If we tried to survive by just renting out our Round Barn for weddings, workshops, parties, business meetings, concerts, corporate outings and art shows, we wouldn't have made it. If we tried to just have a stand-alone catering company, I think I would have slit my throat by now," she quips. It's the mix that makes things work, she says, adding that she's never had to let somebody go due to lack of work.

It's evident after only a few minutes' conversation with DeFreest and Piper that the Round Barn Farm is more than a job for them it's a passion, supported by a solid base of savvy marketing, careful management and hard work.

What's funny is that the creation of this impressive Vermont property happened by accident and a stroke of luck.

The property had belonged to the Joslyn family for seven generations before DeFreest's parents, Jack and Doreen Simko, bought it. The original house was a small cape built in 1810, says DeFreest. "Around 1850, a large addition was built in the Greek Revival style, and ... maybe 10 years later, they built an attached horse barn where they milked the first group of cows, kept horses, all the carriages and equipment until 1910, when they built the round barn."

The Simkos bought the farm and its original 85 acres in March 1986. Although their residence was in New Jersey, the family had spent every school and summer vacation in the Mad River Valley since 1976.

"My father had been driving by this place for 10 years watching it falling apart, not due to lack of caring, but because the Joslyns, who were in their late 80s, didn't have the money."

Gardener David Loysen (left) and Innkeeper Tim Piper tend late-summer blossoms in one of the inn's numerous gardens.

DeFreest says her parents were approaching 50 and looking to buy "a small, four-bedroom house on 10 acres with a beautiful view. The Realtor called and said, 'I haven't found you your four-bedroom house on 10 acres, but you're not going to believe what's on the market today!' My father said, 'I'll take it.'"

Before they would sell the property, the Joslyns interviewed the Simkos for four hours, DeFreest says. "They wanted to know how many children did they have, were they all properly educated, where were my parents born, what kinds of businesses did they have. Mrs. Joslyn died about three weeks after we bought this place. It was like she finished this and she could die in peace."

For the next 18 months, the Simkos worked to renovate the 16,000-square-foot house into a six-guest-room inn.

Jack and Doreen Simko were no strangers to restoration. Their home in New Jersey was "an old, huge, broken-down parsonage of a church," DeFreest says. "They restored it, lived in it 25 to 30 years and sold it at the height of the real estate market in New Jersey."

The funds from selling that house, added to the proceeds of the sale of the Simkos' business a company that manufactures cut flower bouquets for supermarkets to their son John, gave them the financial stability to restore the property.

While the restoration continued, DeFreest, who had graduated from Emerson College with a degree in journalism, was working for a Boston television station and catering at Harvard University. She had no intention of helping to run her parents' Vermont inn.

"I ended up here because I'd gotten sick and had to have a serious operation," DeFreest says. "The doctors thought it was the best thing for me to take a break from my hectic lifestyle in Boston, so I decided to come up to Vermont and write my parents' brochure for their inn. That was May of 1987, and they opened the inn in September of '87. During those couple of months, I took a leave of absence from my job and was going to write up the brochure and set up a reservation system and a little bookkeeping system. That was almost 17 years ago."

"I met Anne Marie and her parents about my third day here in the Sugarbush Valley," says Piper. That was also 1987. A Pittsburgh, Pa., native, Piper had landed in the hospitality business following graduation from Westminster College with a degree in business administration. "I had worked for my father, a building contractor, since I was 12 years old," says Piper. "I had two job offers, but I just didn't want to do it." He decided to travel the country and find the perfect spot to settle. After two years, he found himself in Ocean City, N.J., and took a job at the Flanders Hotel, an old seaside resort, as maitre d'hotel.

Seven years later, newly married, he and his wife had the opportunity to live anywhere in the country and moved to New Hampshire, where Piper found a job doing conference sales and service for Waterville Valley Resort.

A year and a half later, in 1982, he was offered a job as director of sales at Toptnotch in Stowe. Piper stayed at Topnotch for four years and is grateful for his experience there: After four years at Topnotch, he was ready to be named general manager of the Sugarbush Inn Conference Center and Golf Course.

The Simkos were just beginning their work on restoring the Round Barn property, and Piper liked their vision.

The property required a great deal of restoration. Those first 18 months were taken up with structural engineering, building a new foundation, pouring new concrete, installing new plumbing, heating and electric, and designing and creating six rooms in the inn.

By 1988, the family realized work had to start on the round barn. "That happened sooner than we thought, because it was ready to fall down," DeFreest says.

The Simkos hired Arnold Graton, the man responsible for moving and putting back together the round barn at the Shelburne Museum. Jack traveled to New Hampshire to meet him.

"He said, 'I have a round barn that you have to put back together,'" says DeFreest. "He asked my father if it had to be moved someplace; my father said, 'No, it just has to be lifted up a little more, maybe moved a little to the left.' He said, 'OK, I'll fix your barn.'"

They shook hands and two years later, the project was complete. The family's appreciation is etched into a stone in the barn's lowest level: "This work is as sturdy as the men who did it. Thank you, Graton & Crew. (signed) Jack, Doreen and Anne Marie."

Fixing the barn required jacking up the entire building using more than 5,700 pieces of cribbing 10-by-10-inch beams that are 4 feet long stacked on top of each other. That allowed the pouring of a new foundation. While the barn was being raised, cables wrapped around it were cinched tighter and tighter to return the sagging structure to its original shape.

When the Department of Labor and Industry arrived to look at the project, the Simkos learned they had to make one change, says DeFreest. "They told us that the five ponds my father had put in the back yard, one of which was 15 feet deep, were not going to be an adequate amount of water for the sprinkler system. We had to put in a 16,000-gallon holding tank."

DeFreest's mother came up with a creative solution to the dilemma: a lap pool 60 feet long and 10 feet wide in the basement of the barn. Equipped with a roll-back cover, the pool has become an added value for guests.

Innkeeper Anne Marie DeFreest stands at the divider between the inn's kitchen and breakfast room, where guests can help themselves to coffee, juices and light fare as they anticipate the inn's sumptuous breakfasts.

After two years of barn-raising and restoration, a rest was called for. "We took six months off," says DeFreest dryly. At that point, we realized that the six rooms in the inn were always full, and it was not going to accommodate the demand." The family decided to build four more luxury guest rooms.

About this time, a dairy farmer who owned land across the road from the inn, dropped by to ask if he could move the fence a bit and graze his cows. The Round Barn Farm had bought acreage there to protect their property's value as well as the cross-country ski trails they'd created and groomed. DeFreest was the innkeeper on duty that day. The dairy farmer was David DeFreest, her husband-to-be. The marriage, which produced two children, now ages 10 and 9, did not last, but the friendship remains.

DeFreest and her parents also stayed friends with Piper, who sent business from Sugarbush to the Round Barn. "We did a lot of conference business," he says. "I approached Anne Marie and her family and said, 'I have a lot of groups that would be very interested in coming over to your facility.' They said, 'Sure.'"

This was before the Round Barn had a banquet kitchen, says Piper, "so we were bringing in our own food and beverage staff. I ended up booking a lot of functions there, like Ben & Jerry's, Prudential-Bache and UVM Cardiology."

By 1995, the Simkos were ready to pull back. DeFreest bought the business from her parents and took on a partner in the catering business, Annie Reed-Rhoades. By the end of the century, DeFreest had added two more guest rooms and vowed never to pound another nail.

DeFreest was getting tired, and she knew it. Rhoades' son was approaching 18. "Annie had always told me when her son turned 18, she was finished. They decided to sell the inn.

"Annie had taken off for Hawaii for two months, and I was under a tremendous amount of stress trying to manage this," says DeFreest. An offer with deposit was on the table, but DeFreest was hesitant to sell to the couple.

She had never seen the wife smile. "I had a nightmare, and she barked a real bark to a regular guest. I woke up in a cold sweat."

It was November 2001. Piper had divorced a few years before, and he and DeFreest had recently found their 15-year friendship blossoming into something more and started dating. She took her concerns to Piper's office.

"I said, 'I don't know what to do: sell to a woman I never saw smile or keep going.' He kept asking, 'What do you want?' and I said, 'I want you to quit your job and run it with me.'"

"That conversation took place in November 2001," says Piper, "and I started in March of 2002."

Their business partnership has blossomed, as well, to the inn's benefit. Wedding parties come from all over the world: South Africa, the former Soviet Union, Sweden, London, Thailand and Canada, as well as across the United States. The catering company does on- and off-premises catering, and Charlie Menard, the chef, lives in the caretaker's apartment and handles after-hours guest safety and late check-ins.

For Vermonters, the Round Barn hosts an annual, juried art exhibition and hosts the Adamant Music School's three-week piano camp. A few years ago, St. Dunstan's Episcopal Mission needed a temporary home and began holding services in the Round Barn. What began as a 13-member church with a part-time vicar has grown to a congregation of more than 120. "They have church every Sunday, as well as a full Holy Week around Easter, and we had upwards of 300 people for Christmas Eve Mass," says DeFreest.

DeFreest and Piper are continually seeking ways to make the property work for their guests and neighbors. They recently added a golf component called "Four Play," says Piper. "We'll take care of all the arrangements, with vouchers and tee times, at Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury, Sugarbush, Green Mountain National in Killington and Vermont National in South Burlington. A couple of them are not open to the public, so businesspeople from out of town can impress their contacts with privileges at the clubs."

Anne Marie DeFreest and Executive Chef Charlie Menard compare notes in the full-service commercial kitchen in the Round Barn, where regional dishes and elegant creations help create memorable celebrations.

George W. Bush visited the inn when he was running for president, and DeFreest sent a copy of her cookbook, Recipes and Reflections, to Mrs. Bush.

Perhaps guests say it best. Joan and Steve Michaud from Holmdell, N.J., describe the feelings expressed by other guests in letters, notes and comments. "It's the best place we ever stayed!" they exclaim. Celebrating their 43rd wedding anniversary, they read about the Round Barn in a magazine. They tell about asking the gardener for information on a bush in the garden and finding a computer printout regarding the smoke bush when they returned to their room. "We love Patches the cat, we hear the bullfrogs every night."

Originally published in August 2003 Business People-Vermont