Posted on 1/2/2014 by David M. Dion
In our last issue of Valley Views we announced the sale of the White Horse Inn at the base of Sugarbush's Mt Ellen in Fayston. Here is a recent interview we conducted with the new owners Bob Heffernan and Allen Zeiner to find out how things are going:
When did you "officially" open your doors for business?
Saturday, December 14th after an intense 9 weeks of reconstruction.
It's only been a month, but how have things gone so far?
Long before we were ready to open, people were calling trying to make reservations. Our first week we hosted ski racers for competitions at Sugarbush Mt Ellen. New Year's weekend we had a ton of reservations. All of this without any marketing!
What feedback have you received from your guests?
In the words of a ski coach: "I've never eaten food like this for racing." One of his high school students phoned us days later to say, "You have an amazing place." Another coach confided, "We're torn about recommending you because once the word gets out about the new White Horse Inn your place will fill up and we won't get back in."
What is the "target market" for the White Horse Inn?
With 26 rooms, we're the third largest inn in the Mad River Valley behind the two Sugarbush Inns (Claybrook at Sugarbush and the Sugarbush Inn). So we are going after the group market in a very big way. We have several ski tour groups taking up almost the whole Inn for several weekends in February and March. Three weekends in September and October are completely sold out to families blocking all our rooms for their daughters' weddings.
What has your experience been opening a new business in the Mad River Valley? (Response from other local businesses and vendors.)
Totally unexpected and amazing has been the welcome of people and businesses in the Valley. Everywhere we go, people introduce themselves and wish us well. Dozens have stopped by for personal tours. The area's fellow innkeepers have been immensely supportive with their advice and sending customers to us when they're full. The day we were erecting our new sign outdoors, a car stopped and the driver hollered out the window, "Good luck with it. The Valley needs you!"
What were your expectations for the business before closing, and how have those expectations been met thus far?
Without any real marketing, we completely sold out the Inn one Saturday night - all 26 rooms - just two weeks after opening in December! We served almost 60 breakfasts the next morning to lots of compliments. We expect our challenge will be attracting business to the Inn in the off-season. The success of the White Horse Inn will come in the April thru November time period, so we will focus hard on corporate retreats, reunions, weddings, hiking-biking groups and the like.
Now that you and Allen are business owners in the Valley, what new businesses would you like to see in the area?
Everybody - and we mean EVERYBODY - is lobbying us hard to become a breakfast restaurant open to the public. The people tell us there is a dire need in the Valley for it. We may very well do that some day, but we first need to perfect our breakfasts for our lodging customers before reaching out to others.
What has been the biggest challenge thus far?
Putting together the team to help us reopen the Inn was a big challenge. So many professional like plumbers, carpenters etc. are taken during "stick" month of November that it was hard to line up labor. After closing on the business October 9, we were already behind schedule, so we raced to get open for the ski season. Our building was closed for 2 years, so there have been many issues such as plumbing, electrical etc. State regulators were allover us and imposed more than $60,000 worth of improvements before they would grant us the 5 licenses needed to reopen.
What advice would you give to someone that wanted to start a new business in the Mad River Valley?
Start with Susan Klein at the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce. She is a supreme resource. Our hero was Erik Reisner of David M Dion Real Estate who believed in us for months and did reverse cartwheels to help us take over the White Horse. Every recommendation and piece of advice he gave us was totally on-target. We'll always be so indebted to him.