Part three in a series — Inns and Outs — about the changing nature of innkeeping in Stowe.
For Valerie Sodano, owning Stowe’s Timberholm Inn started as something of an inside joke between herself and her husband, Michael Sodano.
The couple had been visiting Stowe during the winter for several years, renting different properties in town every time, and somewhere during the course of those visits, they were bitten by the innkeeping bug.
“Stowe has the trifecta of awesome — good schools, amazing ski mountain and a really great work-life balance. It was a really great spot for us to stay busy and be in a three-to-four season town,” Sodano, 34, said.
She wasn’t happy with her job in food service and hospitality, and kept Googling bed-and-breakfasts in Stowe.
“This inn popped up and I didn’t know where it was located. We called the broker. We kind of kiddingly looked at it and we said, ‘Well, can we even get the money?’ We figured that out.
“It was a viable business with a lot of room for growth. We jumped on it” in part because Vail Resorts acquired the ski operations at Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017, Sodano said.
“If we’re going to do something this wild, let’s do something when we know there’s going to be growth and opportunity in Stowe,” she said.
The Sodanos, who closed on Timberholm Inn in August 2017, aren’t the only newcomers to Stowe’s innkeeping scene.
Rachel Vandenberg took over Sun & Ski Inn and Suites from her parents, Michael and Debi Diender, in 2012, and Kim and Phil Joyce, originally from Virginia, snapped up Auberge de Stowe just about a year ago and changed its name to Little River Inn.
One thing these contemporary innkeepers have in common? Marketing savvy, and a deep desire to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Aiming for different
Vandenberg, who owns Sun & Ski Inn and Suites with her husband, Mark, never thought she’d take over the hotel from her parents, who sold Grey Fox Inn in 2004, by which time they already owned Sun & Ski.
A few years ago, Vandenberg was living in the Netherlands, and began yearning for home.
“We came back on vacation with our six-month-old twins in December of 2010, and we were driving from Boston to Vermont, and it started to snow and the mountains came in sight and over that Christmas vacation, it kind of came as an epiphany in the car on the way” that she might want to take over the family business, after all.
“I couldn’t believe I’d said the words,” Vandenberg said.
She was working as an operations manager, and said the key to Sun & Ski’s success is its cornucopia of offerings for families — a bowling alley, a restaurant and a mini-golf park, an indoor pool.
“I think that we fill a niche,” Vandenberg said. “It’s a pretty unique product, what we offer. It’s one of a kind in Stowe, and it’s one of a kind in New England. As far as we know, there’s no other hotel in New England that has an indoor pool, miniature golf and a bowling alley.”
Catering to families is how Vandenberg says Stowe inns — the ones that cater to the middle- to upper-middle-class travelers who want an affordable Stowe holiday — make their bread and butter.
“I really think there is still a place for the middle tier,” she said.
She says Timberholm Inn offers a quaint, traditional Vermont experience she thinks is slowly fading away in Stowe.
“A lot of my guests, they like the traditional component of coming into Vermont and having that traditional Vermont experience. Sometimes I feel like that gets lost, because so many people are trying to be super kitschy and different. There is a need for that traditional experience, and not very many inns and hotels are offering that elevated traditional experience,” Sodano said.
Sodano says everything in her rooms is upscale and new — towels, linens, bathroom fixtures — but the rooms themselves are small, and for the clients she’s trying to attract, that’s perfectly OK.
“I really go for that Norman Rockwell theme,” she said.
The price point
Is Stowe pricing itself out of the middle-range tier?
“I think there are some locations that, they want that higher-end clientele, but at the end of the day, you can’t make an entire town high-end. You still need to be able to be inclusive of everyone,” Sodano said.
That market is still healthy in town, too, she said.
Downhill skiing is expensive, Vandenberg said, but she tries to make sure her guests can participate in other winter sports, too, such as cross-country skiing, which can be a little more accessible.
“I think there’s so many other opportunities to enjoy that we’re not tapping enough into,” she said.
Phil Joyce — he and his wife, Kim, bought Auberge de Stowe last year — says while ski crowds might be looking for a higher-end lodging experience, Stowe is still a solid investment for smaller innkeepers because it’s a four-season resort town.
In the summer, families make Stowe their mountain-biking, running, camping, swimming playground, he said.
“We feel like we’ve been pretty successful with younger families and millennials. When they enter the workforce or they graduate college, a lot of these folks were hit right in the face with the recession. A lot of them have learned that whatever price point you’re looking at, you need to get value for your dollar,” Phil Joyce said.
The six-bedroom Little River Inn offers contemporary décor in a cozy setting, and Phil said it’s the perfect balance between value and a unique stay.
“They’re not necessarily looking to spend a lot of money on lodging. As long as it’s clean and suits their style, they see that as a good value,” he said.
Marketing to millennials
Vandenberg said online marketing and keeping up with technology are key, and are areas where some lodging properties fall short.
All reservations are automatic online, and credit cards are processed instantaneously, she said.
“We’re about to upgrade our use of technology to have better and more regular contact with customers,” Vandenberg said. “Everything has become digital, and really trying to target a very focused customer, based on the niche that we fill in the market, especially families.”
The Vandenbergs use a blog and social media to highlight their resort’s offerings.
Sodano says it’s also vital to market differently for each season. She says Stowe Area Association has helped her boost her sales.
Summer, Sodano says, “is more family-oriented; it’s hiking and biking, it’s playing in the river, seeing parts of Vermont, they’re here for a longer period of time.
“In the fall, we’re going after an older crowd — people who are taking a month off and doing a trip around New England, seeing fall foliage. This is a lifetime of savings for a lot of people. Their expectations are completely different. They go lower-end,” she said.
Sodano leans on email marketing to reach her customers, and says she’s using Google AdWords to update her website.
In their first year as owners of Little River Inn, Kim and Phil Joyce focused on building a foundation of warm reviews and trust with their customer base.
“We needed to make sure that our brand, when people looked it up, they saw good things,” Phil said. He has a background in information technology, and put up a website optimized for search.
“I definitely believe that the Stowe brand is strong,” Phil said.