Tour de Force

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Stowe is home to a powerful travel services company with an international reach

Trevor Crist and David BorgendaleTrevor Crist (left) is one of that not-so-rare breed of Vermonters who founded a company, sold it, and, when the buyer went belly up, bought it back. The company is Inntopia, a provider of technology and services to the travel industry with headquarters in Stowe. Crist is president. He and David Borgendale, the chief financial officer and chief technical officer, are the equity stakeholders in the parent corporation, Sterling Valley Systems Inc.

Trevor Crist has spent a lot of time in the last few months learning the intricacies of doing business in Canada. That’s because, thanks to a $250,000 technology infrastructure loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, Inntopia — the company he founded — is creating data centers there. There’s good reason to do so.

Based in Stowe, Inntopia is a leading supplier of reservations-related technology and services to the travel industry. Its main product is an online platform that allows hotels and inns, chambers of commerce, destination marketing operations, and their call centers to use their own Web sites to make and track bookings to multiple properties. The platform allows each client’s preferences for elements such as billings, commissions, and payment plans to be customized and incorporated.

“One of our strong suits,” says Crist, “is the ability to tie disparate systems together; so in a place like Crested Butte — which takes reservations for the entire area, not just for its ski resort — we might take a reservation, then our system hooks into their lift ticket system; into the airline system for booking; directly into Hertz, Avis, or Budget for car bookings; into their property management system, and sends reservations to all of those.

“Typically, our clients are selling a whole bunch of travel products, and we’re the glue that ties it together.”

Crist has had a couple of chances to make a go of his business, so it’s hard to take him seriously when he says, “If I had known what I was getting into starting the company, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s not till you get in over your head that you realize what you actually thought it would be like.”

He found his way into the world of Web technology when it was very young. Having learned to ski in Colorado — about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from the High Plains of western Kansas, where he grew up — when it came time for college, he opted for Middlebury, where he studied film with a minor in Italian.

Patrick Miller, John Spencer and Lee SchargesInntopia’s online platform allows hotels, inns, and destination marketing operators to book reservations at multiple properties from their Web sites or online. Patrick Miller (left) is one of the support staff; John Spencer is a software engineer; and Lee Scharges is a support staffer.

Following graduation in 1993, he moved to Colorado, where he spent the next two years “as a ski bum.” Vermont had made an impression, though, and in 1995, not knowing what he was going to do, Crist came back.

“I was looking for a ski-related job,” he says, “maybe with one of the manufacturers in Williston or a resort.” He landed a position as the first webmaster and the snow reporter at the Stowe Mountain Resort.

He discovered an affinity to Web technology and began to explore it and grow as it grew. After a year, Digital Frontier, the Stowe Web developer that had created the site, offered him a job. The next couple of years, he spent building Web sites and learning programming for online applications. The original Inntopia booking engine grew from that.

“It was probably in ’96 or ’97,” says Crist. “We were doing Web sites for ski areas and chambers of commerce. A lot of our clients were starting to get e-mails from people inquiring about reservations, and they said, ‘Hey, it would be great if we could take a reservation online and not have to have these e-mails back and forth.’”

The original application was called onlinereservations.com, and in 1998, Crist and a partner spun it off as its own corporation — Inntopia.com Inc. — with money from private investors.

“We raised a little money, ramped up the company a bit, did some more development, and in 1999, we were acquired by Unexplored.com Inc.

“Unexplored.com was founded by three people out of investment banks and venture capital firms in San Francisco,” Crist continues. “They were attempting to roll up a number of travel sites and technical providers and create a larger umbrella organization that essentially had several divisions; Inntopia was one division.”

Unexplored.com raised close to $20 million in capital, says Crist, “and had maybe 80 employees at one point, including several of us here in Stowe, and offices in Johannesburg, London, and the main office in San Francisco. In the course of 18 months, they went through that $20 million and went belly up.”

It was an interesting experience, he adds drily, because “I had a front row seat for the dot-com bubble and burst.”

When everything collapsed, there were 15 to 20 employees in Stowe, he says, and a few employees scrounged up money from friends and family and bought the company back. “At that point, we went down to two of us who were full-time: an administrative person and myself.”

The next few years were spent in skunk works mode, focusing on existing clients and building new software. “For a couple of reasons,” Crist says. “First, we had learned a lot about how we should have built it in the first place and had learned better ways to do it; and second, the technology we had built the system on in the early to mid ’90s was really outdated.”

Microsoft had produced a lot of off-the-shelf software that could help, says Crist, “so we rebuilt what is now cutting-edge software.” The new platform was released in 2004. One of the opportunities the company saw was the development of a call center system. Until then, properties were using separate systems that did not communicate with one another for booking in call centers and online.

Jules Hickory, Hayin Leung and Jim LillyInntopia’s headquarters are housed in a 100-plus-year-old farmhouse on Vermont 100 in Stowe’s Lower Village. Jules Hickory (left) and Hayin Leung are account managers; Jim Lilly is director of sales and marketing.

The technology infrastructure was improved enough by then to make it feasible for places such as Stowe to have high-speed Internet service, a necessity for interfacing with an online platform.

Helping out part time as one of the founders of the new corporation — called Sterling Valley Inc., doing business as Inntopia — was David Borgendale, a network engineer, who had been one of the first hires when Unexplored bought Inntopia. Today, he and Crist are the only equity stakeholders: Crist is president and Borgendale is chief financial officer and chief technical officer.

Borgendale laughs as he compares his full-time designation these days his part-time work in 2001. “I’m like 80 hours a week!” he exclaims. “Back when I was part time, it was 40 hours a week.”

A lot of the complicated back-end detail of the platform is crafted by Borgendale, a native of rural Minnesota who had parlayed his education — an undergraduate degree in economics and political science and an “unfinished graduate degree” in business — into a career in the entertainment business.

Out of school, he worked for a CPA firm for five years before being hired by a company called Lieberman Enterprises, which, with Borgendale’s help, eventually became a New York Stock Exchange company called Live Entertainment.

“The reason you never heard of us,” he says, “is that we ran the music and video departments in big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Bradlees, Sears ... I could go on.” Borgendale was the company’s chief information officer, having been hired away from the CPA firm as controller, when Lieberman was a client. When a computer disaster followed a big acquisition and expansion, the president asked him to take over the IT department.

He was there nine years until the company was bought out and, in 1987, he landed a job with Artec Distributing, a music and video distributor in Shelburne, where he worked until 1991.

Having a severance agreement of one year’s pay, he left, and went to Portland, Ore., for a year and “sort of knocked around.” Back in Vermont, he continued doing IT consulting, becoming one of the very early Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers. He was hired by Unexplored and Inntopia in 1999, having encountered the company through his consulting work.

Inntopia is “the biggest player in what we call the advanced reservation software business for the ski industry,” says Crist. “We don’t work exclusively in the ski industry, but it’s our strongest market.” The system is used at Western resorts such as Crested Butte and Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Telluride, Durango, Winter Park, and Big Bear, and in Vermont at Mount Snow, Stowe, and Sugarbush. The number of employees has grown to 15.

Which brings us to Canada, where sales have become quite strong in the last year or two. Canadian resorts include several in British Columbia, says Crist, “and in the next two to three months, we’ll be in Mount St. Anne up in Quebec, and there are probably more coming.”

Inntopia recently signed a deal with Tourism British Columbia, the provincial tourism promotion board and one of the main booking agents for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Because Tourism British Columbia is what’s known as a Crown Corporation, it is subject, more than most companies, to the Canadian privacy laws, says Borgendale.

“There is a lot of privacy protection under Canadian law for Canadian citizens, and one of the laws that Parliament passed — I think back in 2003 or 2004 — applies to these crown corporations: that they may not store any personal information about Canadian citizens on computers in the U.S. The reason is the Patriot Act. The Canadian government was concerned that the U.S. government would be able to snoop in personal information about Canadian citizens that the Canadian government can’t do under its own laws.”

This posed a challenge for Inntopia, but the VEDA loan has made it possible for the company to soon open a sophisticated data center in Montreal, and one is planned for Toronto.

Although Crist and Borgendale work long hours, they recognize the value of play. Each pursues a wide range of interests, both personal and community. Crist runs, skis, gardens, camps, fly-fishes, and plays drum and occasional guitar with a local band. Through college and after, he played in bands around Burlington, the main one being Construction Joe. He and his wife, Karen, have two children.

Borgendale has been married, but is not currently. He has two biological daughters and three stepdaughters. He confesses he’s overcommitted on volunteer activities — he’s an officer and director of the ACLU of Vermont and a longtime member of the Montpelier Planning Commission. He says he hasn’t skied in a couple of years, but might start again. He’s a sailor, too, but his avocation is cooking, “some of it fairly elaborate. And I’m working on getting back to playing the piano.”

Often employees will head to the mountain before work, an activity Crist wholeheartedly supports. “It improves your outlook if you come in refreshed because you’ve been on the mountain,” he says.

Meanwhile, the company continues to thrive. “We’ve built up our reserves and managed our business to be ready for upturns and downturns,” says Crist, “a luxury I didn’t have back at the beginning.”

Borgendale says the company has survived the “garage shop” days and it’s now “going through what I guess I would call ‘corporate adolescence.’ We’re having to grow up and get more structured.” •