GREENSBORO - For the last 57 years, three generations of the Smith family have embraced locals and guests alike at the Highland Lodge. But last week the family concluded that it was time to close. The changing times, a world of technology, and the recent economy all contributed to this decision.
When you can no longer keep technology out of the dining room, the traditional inn model is too far outdated.
The Highland Lodge was a place many guests came too because of its simplicity, said Alex Smith. His parents David and Willie are the owners of the lodge and Alex and his wife Yukiyo have run it for the last year.
Guests were greeted by many faces they recognized from one year to the next. They stayed in simple, clean, traditional style rooms and cottages. They slept in beds covered with patchwork quilts. For fun, they hiked, biked, swam, canoed, sailed, played games, or just spent time with their families.
In the winter, they cross country skied or went snowshoeing. Once in a while, the one television on the grounds might be turned on for a sporting event or a children’s movie.
This simple, quiet, beautiful setting brought families back year after year and generation after generation, Alex said. Some of the adults that bring their children in fact grew up coming to the lodge every summer when they were children, Willie said.
But over the last decade that began to change. Willie said that families began to shorten their stays. After years of staying for two weeks every summer, or visiting two and three times a year, families began to come once a year for four days to a week. Where once families spent time together playing board games, computers, phones, and video devices began appearing in the hands of adults and children alike.
The lodge wanted to keep its identity as a family place. They adopted the motto “Unplug, Relax, and Reconnect” to emphasize the un-technical life of Vermont. This included banning all technological devices from the dining room during meals.
But the times have changed, Willie said. Today’s new families are made up of parents who were the first generation to live scheduled lives, and their children are used to having all of their time planned and occupied. The thought of sitting where it's quiet or where the only activities are individually driven isn’t appealing anymore, she said. Families now come for a few days to relax, then they move on to the shopping centers and resort towns where there are activities, golf courses, and restaurants all within walking distance. As this trend continues to grow, traditional inns are seeing their clientele shrink or disappear, Alex said.
Alex said the family really began to notice the shift five years ago. Since then they have worked on coming up with ways to change things. They worked to make the place more efficient, both physically and with the staff and procedures. They worked on marketing.
But, in the end, they realized people are looking for different things than what past generations found at the Highland Lodge. The model of bed and breakfast that was so popular and appreciated has fallen victim to the excitement, amusements, and tech savvy resort towns and tourist destinations.
“All of these problems existed, then the economic crash happened and exacerbated these issues. It then became not a matter of if this was going to happen, but when. But we still have great hopes for the lodge and the thought was, if we closed while we were all in a good position (the buildings physically and the family financially), then it would be easier for us to see the lodge through the transition into the next stage, whatever that may be,” Alex said.
That “quit while we're ahead” attitude and strategy may well serve the lodge in the future. The Smith family is actively seeking alternatives for the property. Willie said that she feels the lodge is a staple in the community. The main building began as a farm house in 1865. Then with the notoriety of the lodge and Caspian Lake over the last 50 plus years, the lodge is a part of the community. Many adults worked there as teens, even whole families worked there, couples were married there, and thousands of locals have eaten there.
“We became known as the anniversary place for the whole area,” Willie said.
With so much character and local history, Willie has been looking into preservation trusts with the hopes that the property can remain much as it is now. An alternative use could include a retreat destination and a place where camps and conferences could be held, but not by the Smith family.
While all of the Smiths, David and Willie and Alex and his family, plan on keeping a presence in Greensboro, none of them plan on running the Highland Lodge in its next reincarnation. Alex said that they will see it through its transition to the next owners but that is all.
After over 30 years of running the lodge on a daily basis, how do its owners feel about this huge change in their lives?
“I’m relieved,” Willie said. “I’m tired and the thought of opening up for another season is exhausting. I am ready to do something for myself. David is still working to shut the place down for the winter. He is still going through the routine. I don’t think he realizes that he can stop yet. But I am looking forward to normal life.”
Willis said that the hardest thing about running the lodge is that it hasn’t been part of her and David’s lives, it has been their whole life. She said that everything you do is public, your home is public. Whenever you talk to someone, they ask how is the lodge doing, or what’s happening at the lodge, there is no escaping work when work is your life. She said that she is looking forward to living a “regular life.” And though moving away from their home will be hard, all of the Smiths are looking forward to what comes next.
“I guess a good metaphor for us is that when we couldn’t keep the technology out of the dining room anymore it was over, that is a good metaphor,” Willie said.