Inn-Ovation

An inn crafted from the ancient Vermont landscape

by Janet Essman Franz

stoehof0212In 2000, with his wife, Susan, Christopher Grimes followed a longtime dream and bought the 46-room Stowehof Inn & Resort in Stowe. Their son Chris (CJ), who joined them that same year, is hotel manager. After nearly 12 years, and extensive, ongoing renovation, the inn offers modern amenities, even as it retains its Old World charm.

Chris and Susan Grimes’ flair for entertaining guests, refurbishing antiques, and discovering great places has made owning a historic Vermont inn a satisfying second career. Adapting time-honored traditions to meet needs of modern travelers is a challenge they have mastered.

The Grimeses and their son, Chris Jr. (CJ), are proprietors of Stowehof Inn & Resort, a legendary lodge near Stowe Mountain Resort ski area. They purchased the property in 2000 and made many improvements to meet evolving expectations of vacationers.

Vermont architect Larry Hess created Stowehof in 1949 as a business for himself when America’s ski industry started to bloom, explains the senior Grimes. “The idea was to come to Vermont for a week to ski, sit around the fire, have drinks, and play cards with other visitors.”

Hess chose the hilltop site for its picturesque views of Mount Mansfield and the Stowe valley. He used a Swiss-Austrian Alpine design and materials from rural Vermont, including barn board reclaimed from local farms and hand-hewed beams recovered from the Ethan Allen homestead in Burlington.

He modeled a gathering room after a traditional Vermont covered bridge, held in place by preserved maple trees taken from the property, completing the original, 13-room inn in 1950.

More rooms were added over the years, and today Stowehof features 46 guest rooms with private baths; a restaurant; pub; indoor and outdoor pools; and alcoves for reading, chatting, and playing games.

Early on, insurance entrepreneur and Stowe ski area developer C.V. Starr frequented Stowehof with senior managers from his company, American International Group (AIG), the major owner of Stowe Mountain Resort.

In 1968, under Starr’s leadership, the resort purchased Stowehof from Hess and used it as a retreat for AIG directors. In 1976, AIG executive Peter Bartholomew purchased Stowehof from the mountain company and operated it with his son, Tim.

In the 1970s, Susan and Chris, now both 65, were starting their careers and family.

Chris hails from Saranac Lake, N.Y., where his father owned a small newspaper and radio station. After his parents died when he was quite young, Chris was raised by his extended family. They enjoyed canoeing and skiing in the Adirondacks, and he skied on his high school team.

Susan grew up in Albany, N.Y., where her father, the late Henry Merrill, was vice president of Behr-Manning Corp. Her Vermont roots run deep: She descends from General John Strong, Revolutionary War patriot and early resident of the DAR John Strong mansion in West Addison.

As she was growing up, Susan’s family vacationed in Vermont and frequently skied Stowe, where her father gathered with his Yale classmates who worked for AIG. The family typically stayed at the Tollhouse Inn at Mount Mansfield.

Susan attended Paul Smith’s College near Saranac Lake, earning a degree in hotel management. Chris attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1964-65, until a severe accident injured his lower spine and knee, forcing his return east.

He underwent spinal fusion at Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington. To stay near his doctors, he attended St. Michael’s College, graduating in 1971 with a degree in political science.

The couple met in 1967 at a bar in Lake Placid and married a year later. Chris took a job with General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., and in 1974 transferred to GE Armaments in Burlington. Susan briefly worked as office manager for the Old Board Restaurant in South Burlington.

They renovated an old house in Georgia Center, filling it with antiques they restored together. In 1984 they moved to a 1920s house in St. Albans, and in 1990 they built a house on Fairfield Hill with sweeping views of Lake Champlain and surrounding mountains.

They raised three sons: CJ, 38; John, 36; and Edward, 32. When the boys were young, the family skied frequently at Smugglers’ Notch, Jay Peak, and Stowe, and savored Vermont’s scenic beauty.

While the boys grew up, Susan operated a business from their home in St. Albans specializing in window treatments, upholstery, and furniture.

Chris’s job required frequent travel overseas, and the family often vacationed in Europe. In 1988, he was named director of business development for the Eastern Mediterranean, and they moved to Rome, where they lived until 1990.

When they returned, Susan went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Vermont, followed by a master’s degree from St. Michael’s. She found a job teaching fourth grade at St. Albans Town School.

Living in Rome, the Grimeses had earned a reputation for hospitality. “We invited people on tours and hosted dinner parties,” says Chris. “Our friends said we should do it as an occupation.”

Each year between Christmas and New Year’s, the family went to Zermatt, Switzerland, to ski and stay in their favorite hotel, The Butterfly. We returned year after year and became very excited about the hotel business,” says Chris.

As his 30th anniversary with GE approached, Chris contemplated the next phase of his life. He and Susan decided to buy a hotel in Vermont similar in vein to The Butterfly.

“We had our eye on Stowehof,” Chris reveals. “Stowe has a community spirit that drew our attention.”

The Grimeses purchased Stowehof from the Bartholomew family in August 2000, and Chris retired from GE the same year.

Susan and Chris moved into a 1,200-square-foot chalet attached to the inn, where they still live. “It’s a beautiful place with great views,” says Chris. “Deer and moose walk by our windows.”

They hired a contractor to renovate the inn. “The building suffered from lack of updates — to the paint, wallpaper, leaking pipes. It was a huge challenge for us,” Chris admits. The multimillion-dollar overhaul included new plumbing, electrical systems, carpets, and tile. Improvements are ongoing.

“We’re at it constantly,” he says. “Fixtures get corroded, carpeting wears out, and mattresses have to be replaced. We also have 26 acres of grounds to maintain.”

Upgrades are not strictly cosmetic, which initially took the Grimeses by surprise. They have had to catch up to changing technology to satisfy guests’ evolving expectations.

To illustrate, Chris says that when they purchased the inn there were no televisions in the rooms. “We put in cable and TVs with VHS players in each room. We thought it was monumental, but within a week people were complaining that we didn’t have Showtime.” Today, he continues, “we have a problem if our Wi-Fi goes down.”

Even with modern amenities, Stowehof maintains an Old World charm. Scattered fireplaces and sitting areas invite guests to linger, and draft horses provide scenic sleigh rides around the property.

The inn restaurant, Emily’s Fine Dining, is open for public dining and features classic French Alpine cuisine and an extensive wine collection. The popular Coslin’s Pub is the only place in Stowe to find fondue.

Staff size ranges from 12 to 40 employees, depending on the season. Stowe’s busy seasons span May through October and December through March.

Private affairs for up to 275 people provide a major revenue stream. The resort hosts 25 to 30 weddings a year and employs two full-time event coordinators.

Weddings produce two-thirds of the annual revenue, Chris says, and off-season conferences are a significant focus. “Having business here at times when we were otherwise empty is great, and it’s good exposure. Many guests that come for conferences return with their families.”

Employees of the Merrimack Valley division of AAA in southern New England concur. For more than a decade, the automotive association has held its annual planning meeting at Stowehof, and the president’s son is planning his wedding at the inn.

Barbara Robitaille, executive assistant to the president, says AAA returns to Stowehof for its ambiance and attentive service. “The Grimeses treat us like family. They are very warm, accommodating people, and they make us feel special. It feels like we’re coming to visit good friends.”

CJ joined his parents at work in their first year of ownership. Having graduated from McGill University with an environmental engineering degree, he studied business at UVM.

He was a foreman at Belden Wire & Cable in Essex Junction. Chris says he persuaded CJ to help at the inn, “to bring younger blood into our business.” CJ became hotel manager and oversaw the staff while Chris managed the facilities and Susan kept the books.

CJ met Kristin McCobb, now his wife, when she was a guest, visiting from Boston to attend her sisteer’s wedding at an inn up the road. They married in 2002 and settled in Stowe. They have three children ages 2, 4, and 6. Their oldest, Christopher III, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a brain cancer, in 2009 and is in remission.

Chris says that Stowe residents provided great help and moral support to his family during his grandson’s illness, cementing their strong feelings for the community.

CJ, who was made a partner and assumed management of the Stowehof in 2007, redefined the business plan. Chris explains the changes and economic triggers that compelled them.

“First, the idea of coming to a lodge to sit with other like-minded guests has faded,” he says. “When we first got into this, the same people would come for the same week every year. The day they left they would book next year’s reservation.”

Travelers today, he continues, want private facilities and reserve online after searching the Internet for the best deals. “Now we don’t deal with travel agents at all. We deal with Expedia.com.”

Second, economic recession forced changes in marketing and pricing. Vacationers want deals. CJ follows hotel rates daily to make sure Stowehof always has some rooms for less than other local establishments. Discount packages include a Ski Bum Special at $56 for lodging and breakfast for two.

“Ten years ago I thought, ‘People will see how beautiful Stowehof is and that will bring them here.’ Now I see how silly that is in today’s reality. We don’t make money by bragging about how special Stowehof is. We make money by filling our rooms.”

This attitude helped make 2011 the best revenue year in the inn’s history, Chris says. “I attribute that to adapting to the realities of the market.” •