Posted on 1/15/2015 by David M. Dion
Last January we did a profile on the owners of the White Horse Inn in Fayston. They had recently purchased the Inn that had sat vacant for more than two years. Bob Heffernan and Allen Zeiner had long dreamed about owning and operating an Inn, but had no experience in the field, and had to walk away from successful careers in order to make this leap of faith. Now that they've been in business for a full calendar year, we thought we would talk to them again to see how things are going and growing:
When you were in the process of purchasing the White Horse in, you had a detailed forecast and budget projecting your estimated business goals for the year. How did that compare with your actual business results from 2014?
Our first-year sales were 71% higher than we forecast. The biggest surprise was the strength of our sales in the "off-season". Every weekend had sold out nights from July 1 through November 15. Our October had sales as high as for the highest ski months.
How many guests did you host in 2014?
5,378 guests stayed at the Inn last year. We are amazed, because the Inn had been closed for two years.
What was your biggest challenge during your first year of business?
The previous owners fled owing huge debts and took all the records with them. So we bought a defunct Inn with no history to guide us. Every day of 2014 was a learning experience. We basically had one shot to get this right. We poured all our assets into the White Horse, so the fear of failure was a pretty strong incentive to succeed. The Inn revealed many secrets, including a lot of infrastructure weaknesses that had to be corrected (plumbing, heating etc.). Happily, the Inn's revenue kept pace with expenses in our first year -- not many can claim that in their first year of business.
Now that you've been in business for a full year, has your business model/target market changed at all?
Our strategy turned out to be 100% on-target:
1. Embrace local residents and local businesses. They have sent a TON of business to us.
2. Set our lodging rates at prices of good value that fill our 26 rooms. Our philosophy is "the most expensive hotel room is an empty one." Makes no sense to price them high and only attract a few customers.
3. Focus on food. Chef Allen's talent in the kitchen draws high compliments for his baking and breakfasts.
4. Focus on clean, comfort, and homeyness -- not luxury.
5. Deliver the Vermont experience. 95% of our guests are out-of-staters and Canadians who come here to feel Vermont.
6. Go after the group market. In 2014, we served over 55 different groups (weddings, ski clubs, retreats, reunions, tours, workshops, receptions, dinners, etc. )
If you were to start over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Find a way to get more sleep and more hours in the day.
It's clear that you've had great success right from the start. What advice would you give to someone starting a business in the Mad River Valley?
Talk to leaders like the Chamber of Commerce, town leaders, fellow business people. I remember back in 2013 my first conversation was with Susan Klein, then Mad River Chamber Executive Director, who told me flatly, "The White Horse Inn is a gold mine waiting to be tapped by the right talent." She was 100% right. Erik Reisner of Mad River Valley Real Estate continues to this day to be one of my best sources for advice. Sugarbush sends us so much business, as does our fellow innkeepers.
We've heard nothing but rave reviews about the White Horse Inn experience, and Allen's famous breakfasts and pastries. Any chance you'll be opening to the public for breakfast?
As we have more and more sold-out nights, this becomes more unlikely. Our first obligation is to our overnight guests. Practically speaking, we really do not have enough parking space when we have a full house to take in outside breakfast diners.
Any new and exciting plans for 2015?
We keep expanding our capacity, by bringing in more beds. Most popular at the White Horse Inn are the family rooms that have a queen bed and bunk beds for kids. We will soon be adding an ice machine available to guests. We still want to bring in a hot tub someday. And we only started to work on landscaping the grounds outdoors. Our bedrooms keep getting improvements, such as new mattresses and artwork etc.