Homes Away From Home
Turning a love into a lifestyle
by Will Lindner
Husband and wife John Nelson and Christine Fraioli turned their experience as innkeepers and their interest in vernacular architecture into a thriving endeavor, Vermont Home & Lodging Properties on Court Street in Middlebury.
When Mary and Hugh Bargiel, owners of the beautiful and historic Strong House Inn in Vergennes, concluded it was finally time to sell their business and retire, the easiest decision they made was choosing a Realtor. It was as simple as picking up the phone and calling Christine Fraioli and John Nelson, the husband-and-wife team who operate Vermont Home & Lodging Properties, based in Middlebury.
“I’ve known John for 24 years,” says Mary. “When I was a new innkeeper he was very kind to me, showing me the ropes of the business. Basically, he was a mentor. And we’ve maintained a friendship all these years.”
When the Bargiels entered the innkeeping business, Nelson wasn’t a Realtor. He was proprietor of the Swift House Inn, a gracious building set back on a slope of lawn from busy U.S. 7 and a landmark on the northern end of Middlebury. Nelson, who is now 76, owned the Swift House for 18 years, purchasing it with his late wife, Andrea, in 1985. (“Andy” died in 1997, and Nelson created The Andy Fund, which supports glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor research; pamphlets for the fund are never far from Nelson’s reach.)
“It was a bed-and-breakfast with five guest rooms when we bought it,” he remembers. “We walked in the door as guests, and fell in love with the place.”
Before leaving, they told the innkeeper, “If you ever want to sell, give us a call.” Within a week or two it was theirs. They moved up from New Jersey, where Nelson, who earned degrees in management and finance from Rutgers and Lafayette College in the 1960s on the G.I. Bill, was employed with IBM (a career that lasted 28 years) and they dived right in. Nelson continued with IBM, in a Vermont-based role, until 1991, multi-tasking between his corporate duties and his new life in the hospitality business. Andy, fulfilling her culinary aspirations, anchored herself to a great degree in the kitchen. After her death, Nelson met and married Christine Fraioli, and they operated the Swift House Inn for five more years, before selling it in 2003.
Nelson’s business acumen, his vision and determination, were revealed by the changes he made in that property.
They saw lots of possibilities. Over the years they bought two additional nearby properties: The Gatehouse, a large Victorian; and Jessica Swift’s original Carriage House, converted in 1991 to luxury rooms.
By the time Nelson and Fraioli sold the Swift House Inn it was a $1 million-a-year business with 22 guest rooms, a 65-seat restaurant, and a staff of 30.
The question for the couple was: Now what?
Fraioli’s course was set. Even after marrying Nelson and embracing her role at the Swift House, especially in the gardens and kitchen, she had retained her job as assistant curator and registrar of the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
Her concern was for her husband.
“We live on a dead-end road in Lincoln,” she says. She envisioned “me being at the museum and John out there twiddling his thumbs.”
Their solution was to start the business that became Vermont Home & Lodging Properties.
“We saw a great opportunity to create something we could do together,” says Fraioli, particularly in a field that so ideally merged their interests and experience.
For while Nelson brought a background of finance and management to their new venture, Fraioli’s lifelong passion and profession lay in art and art history, including the expression of aesthetic tastes in Vermont’s grand historic homes — the homes that in many cases have become inns and lodges.
Fraioli was born in 1951 and, like Nelson, grew up mainly in New Jersey. However, her family frequently visited relatives in Manchester, and her ties to the state were strengthened by the fact that her parents had met as students at Middlebury College. That’s where she headed, too, earning a degree in art history, after which she obtained a master’s degree in museum studies in Colorado. She returned to Middlebury College, and worked there for 25 years, 23 of those in its museum.
“I had a love for old homes, and had studied Vermont vernacular architecture,” she says. “Many of the properties we help people buy and sell are fine old family homes and estates from the era of carriages and horses.”
Their commercial portfolio is far broader than inns; it also includes such establishments as restaurants, motels, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and ski areas all over Vermont and into New Hampshire. But they realized from the outset that the real estate market would not be large enough to specialize solely in such properties, so they include residential sales as well.
That blend of commercial and residential experience worked well for Paul Horn of New Haven. He and his wife owned a 200-year-old farmhouse that they ran for 10 years as a bed-and-breakfast, but which became merely their residence after his wife returned to teaching. When they decided to put it on the market they discovered that, with this history of usages, there were complicated zoning issues that needed to be untangled.
Like the Bargiels, Horn had known Nelson since their days in the hospitality industry.
“One of the strengths he brings is having that business experience and knowledge about the hoops you go through,” says Horn. “Our property was difficult to sell because of those problems, but he hung in there and helped us work through them.”
The Horns finally had their closing in May. Says Horn, “John definitely earned his money from our sale.”
When Nelson and Fraioli launched their real estate practice — which they operate as independent contractors working out of Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty in Middlebury — they sent flyers to all the hospitality properties in the state, which at the time (this was 2004) totaled around 1,500. The commercial component, they realized, would be a promising, but narrow, clientele. One reason was cost: Fraioli says the inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and similar properties they handle sell in the range of $300,000 to $2 million.
Another is that, as Fraioli puts it, the lifestyle “is definitely not for everyone.” It takes a successful blending of personalities: “front-of-the-house people” with social and organizational skills, and “back-of-the-house people” adept at financial and organizational analysis. Married couples, she says, can often bring that blend.
But more goes into it than that. Nelson, who is adept at reading between the lines on profit-and-loss statements, describes how he helps potential buyers evaluate a purchase.
“One property, for example, had 15 guest rooms, but the majority of the income came from the restaurant and bar,” he says. “If neither of you is a chef, your revenue is going to come down because you’re going to have to hire for that position.”
For the right people, he and his wife agree, innkeeping is a wonderful profession, because the owners are buying a lifestyle for themselves — an elegant home, fine dining, spacious and beautiful surroundings — which they might otherwise never experience.
But sales have gotten tougher since the Great Recession. Before the economy soured, well-qualified buyers of hospitality properties needed just 10 percent down on the purchase price (plus the usual fees) to get bank financing. Now, they explain, lenders are requiring 25 percent down. Even more strict is the requirement that buyers provide an additional 25 percent in “working capital,” which must be deposited in the bank that’s making the loan. That combination can easily reach half-a-million dollars.
“A slim slice of the population has that kind of cash available,” says Fraioli, “plus the kind of personality you need in that profession.”
Yet the two are not daunted, and even a brief time spent in their presence is interrupted repeatedly by client phone calls and one or the other of them dashing off for an appointment.
Though they are no longer inn owners, Fraioli and Nelson are still involved with hospitality.
“One of the things we enjoy most at our home in Lincoln is being hosts for Airbnb,” says Fraioli. “Year-round guests from all over the world stay in the apartment on top of our barn.”
The Lincoln property, where Fraioli has lived for 38 years (though she and Nelson built another house for themselves there in 1999), has 80 acres.
That’s where she indulges her passion for gardening — “acres and acres of gardens,” she says. They also have a close circle of friends, and Fraioli loves hosting dinners for them. “Food!” she says. “We’re all about food.”
They keep a boat on Otter Creek, and love to motor out to Lake Champlain. What they don’t have enough time for, though, is visiting their children. Nelson has three daughters — Karla and Linda, who live in California, and Gail, who’s in New Jersey. He also has two grandsons. Fraioli has two sons: Sam, who lives in Montana, and Ben, who lives nearby in Middlebury.
Nelson is glad to enjoy the fruits of his wife’s obsessions — the beautiful gardens, the hand-crafted Italian dinners — but he smiles in silent agreement when she says, “What John enjoys is business.”
It’s clear she knows what she’s talking about.