Ari Nikki, left and Robert Dean
Innkeepers of the Year: Robert Dean and Ari Nikki, Juniper Hill Story and photos by Joyce Marcel
n the crest of a hill overlooking majestic gardens, terraces, a park, and a lake sits Juniper Hill, built by millionaire Maxwell Evarts in 1902 for himself, his family and his famous friends. And when I say famous friends, I mean people like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It’s an impressive Colonial Revival home, this mansion on Paradise Heights in Windsor, with its Palladium windows, colonnades and forest of old growth birch, oak and juniper. It is described in the National Registry of Historic Places as a fine example “of an optimistic age of relative opulence in this area of the Connecticut River Valley.” The Evarts family were important players on the local, national and international scenes. Maxwell was the son of William Evarts, who was Attorney General under President Andrew Johnson and who defended him during his impeachment trial. He was also Secretary of State under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Maxwell, among other things, was the president of two
Windsor banks, the chief backer of the Gridley Automatic Lathe, manufactured by the Windsor Machine Co., a state representative and a Morgan horse breeder. Because of his involvement with the Union Pacific Railway, he was instrumental in bringing trains to Windsor; in fact, he had his own personal train station. Roosevelt was a college friend who visited often. William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson either ate at Juniper Hill, spent the night there, or both. In fact, one wing of the house was especially constructed so that its occupants would be out of the line of fire from any direction – after all, Roosevelt became president only because William McKinley was assassinated. Juniper Hill once sat on hundreds of acres, but those have dwindled down to just 14. It stopped being a single-family home and became an inn in the mid1940s. Over the years, it’s had its ups and downs; in the 1970s it was a safe house for battered women.
Today the mansion and grounds have sprung back into life as a bed and breakfast owned and run by Robert Dean and Ari Nikki. As innkeepers, the couple has been so successful that they went from closing on the $1.6 million place in the Fall of 2005 to winning the 2008 Vermont Hospitality Council B&B Innkeeper of the Year award. The pair came from New York City after looking at over 200 properties in several states. They chose Vermont because of what Dean calls its “branding.” “Branding is worth millions and trillions of dollars,” Dean said. “Whenever we had friends over in New York, they would ask, ‘Where did you go this week?’ We’d say upstate New York or New Hampshire or Pennsylvania and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s nice.’ But if you say Vermont, they go, ‘Ahhhh! I love Vermont!’ It’s about rural purity, a good solid citizen, a true American farmer, entrepreneurship – it’s pure, clean, wholesome, fresh. It’s what America used to be. And Vermont has done a really good job of fighting for that. I
respect the people who have maintained that character. It’s easy to give in to putting billboards on the side of the roads and having massive developments. It increases your tax base.” Living in a millionaire’s mansion might sound like a romantic dream, but Juniper Hill is a large business which requires strong finances and an incredible attention to detail. It helps that Dean, 44, has not only been an entrepreneur practically since kindergarten, but that he has also been a successful interior designer in New York, Cincinnati and San Francisco. And that Nikki, 54, a native of Finland who recently received his U.S. citizenship, has a strong corporate background. Dean estimates that the pair has put between $400,000 and $600,000 into renovations, not including the furnishings. They employ 14 people. The inn is structured as an LLC, with Dean’s mother and Nikki as the shareholders. Dean jokes that he’s the “hired employee.” From the beginning, being respected members of the Windsor community
fish pond which sits under some beautiful old birches. Old growth pine, oak and juniper surround the gardens. Creating beautiful settings is just one of the many skills innkeepers need to keep their guests happy, Dean said. “If you have 16 rooms and they’re all full, that’s 32 different personalities,” Dean said. “And you’re dealing with the dynamics of each couple as well as their individual ones. Plus, how do they mix with your other guests? A successful innkeeper can read the desires and needs of their
A successful innkeeper can read the desires and needs of their guests and actually match them with other guests who they can have a memorable time with. That’s really the key to successful innkeeping.
guests and actually match them with other guests who they can have a memorable time with. That’s really the key to successful innkeeping - on top of absolute cleanliness throughout, good food, a heartfelt welcome, a sincere desire to please people, and the care and maintenance of the property.” Sometimes, Dean admits, he’s made mistakes. “The times we’ve had shortcomings, or had people who weren’t completely satisfied, it was because we couldn’t read the guests properly,” he said. “You get people you cannot please, or who don’t get what we’re doing. They say our rooms are overpriced for the size of them. Or you think they’re here for a romantic getaway and don’t want our
engagement, so you leave them to themselves. We had one person who accused us of being absentee owners. We’re a lot of things, but absentee is not one of them. Now we just point blank ask. If we can’t read someone we go up and find out what they want. Then you can really help them capture the moment that they want. And that’s what inns are really about - people come to inns because they want to feel the community in which that inn exists.” Ten-Year Plan Dean and Nikki have developed a tenyear plan. Once the cafe has been transferred to the museum, they will get to work on the Vermont Culinary Arts Center. “We noticed that people would come here and stay to take a baking class at King Arthur Four,” Dean said. “That’s all about baking and deserts. We thought we needed to augment that with entrees and soups. We want to add hands-on cooking classes and demonstration classes.” They don’t plan to compete with the New England Culinary Institute, however. “We’re home cooking and NECI is professional,” Dean said. “We want to support the local farm network and local restaurants. Did you know the coffee percolator was invented in Windsor? We’d eventually like to have a museum of items devoted to food. That’s a new idea, something for the future. It will be another reason to come to Windsor. My goal for Vermont is to not take business away from any existing businesses. It’s to have so many people want to come here that there’s too much business for all of us. I have told the state tourism people that if we were smart, we would have Vermont, this little sliver of land, be the Napa Valley or the Provence of the East Coast. It’s about promoting what we’ve already developed - a brand of purity freshness and wholesomeness. From our little farms of tomato growers to Cabot Cheese and Ben & Jerry’s, there’s immense talent in cooking here.” Windsor seems to be the perfect fit for Dean and Nikki. “Windsor is supportive,” Dean said. “The people here were welcoming - they love people who love their community. Lot of people have been pioneers here. And Windsor is certainly skyrocketing now. It’s a great place to be. People are happy about what’s going on.” The two are committed to their goal of helping to build Windsor into a thriving tourist destination. “This is probably the hardest, most labor-intensive business I’ve ever been in,” Dean said. “I was an interior designer before this, and that was hard, but you could go home at the end of the day. Here you’re on 24/7. Before, I was 110 percent invested in my clients. But when we said goodnight, I went home and had a life. Here, this is my life. Luckily, it’s a wonderful life.” Joyce Marcel is a freelance writer and author from Dummerston. Her new book, a collection of her columns called, “A Thousand Words or Less,” is now available. Learn more about her and how to order the book at her Web site: www.joycemarcel.com.
A businessman is someone who can see in an entrepreneur their possibilities, but understands that business realities must be respected.
was important. “We didn’t ask for tax abatements because we wanted Juniper Hill to be an asset to the community, and we felt that paying taxes is part of that,” Dean said. “If we can’t make this go legitimately and pay taxes, we really aren’t an asset.” In the three years they have been in business, Dean estimates that they have doubled revenues to just under $1 million. Events and rooms are the big moneymakers, and they just introduced a la carte dining, which they expect will earn even more. So far, the shaky economy has left the inn untouched, Dean said. “We’re doing better than ever,” Dean said. “Even though I know the industry is a little shaky. And by speaking to other innkeepers, I know they are somewhat concerned. The Dow’s down and up, and it’s so artificially high anyway that it’s clear there’s going to be an adjustment. And I think the people who come to Juniper Hill understand that adjustment, and are probably prepared for it. Our rooms range from $135 off-season to
$350. People can save for that, but we do have a fairly exclusive clientele.” According to studies, Dean said, the average guest at an inn spends $2 in the region for every $1 they spend for lodging. “Our guests, we’ve done a survey, spend just a little over $4,” Dean said. Dean handles advertising, marketing and hospitality. Nikki manages the finances, the gardens and the grounds. The boyish Dean is animated, voluble and theatrical. He talks a mile a minute and tells entertaining stories about the Evarts, his grandmother the silent screen actress, his mother, the famous beauty who was possibly a spy, and his own childhood entrepreneurial efforts. Friendly but shy, Nikki, who drifted in and out of our conversation as he met with accountants and gardeners, is tall, blond and extremely handsome. Dean calls him “kind of a stunner, a great dancer and our secret weapon.” To describe their differences, Dean told me this story: “A guest stopped Ari and asked him what was for dinner. He said, ‘I don’t know, but there’s a slab of red meat on the counter in the kitchen.’ A little later she asked me the same question, and I said, ‘A fabulous herbcrusted beef tenderloin with a blackberry demiglaze.’ She said, ‘I knew you would have a better description.’ Yet when Ari gets going, he’s charming.” The pair met cute on the A train in Manhattan five years ago. (Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington would be so proud!) and have been a couple ever since. Neither was intimidated by the scope of the project they were taking on. Dean calls himself a “genetic entrepreneur.” “An entrepreneur is someone who is great at vision and sees the possibilities and doesn’t allow the negativity of others to stop them,” Dean said. “Often they fail if they aren’t smart enough to pay attention to the solid business minds around them. I’ve had my failures. I’ve had good partnerships and bad partnerships. The entrepreneurial life is not a life for everyone. But the possibilities are almost limitless. On the other hand, a businessman is someone who can see in an entrepreneur their possibilities, but understands that business realities must be respected. That’s why Ari and I make a good combination. He’s fiscally-minded. He comes from a corporate environment. He employs a lot of structure. Entrepreneurs typically don’t have that. They have the vision, and can actually structure the whole thing, but it might not be a realistic structure.” The couple has succeeded in becoming an integral part of the Upper River Valley community. Dean is the president of the board of the Cornish Colony Museum. The inn just held a masquerade ball as a fundraiser for Opera North. As proud owners of Sophie, a toy poodle, and Samba, a pug, Dean and Nikki became involved in the Upper Valley Humane Society, throwing its fundraising parties for the past two years. This year’s party raised 70 percent more than last year’s, said President Jill Harris. “Robert actually contacted us after they moved in the area because they are such animal lovers,” Harris said. “They
were very interested in getting involved in the community and becoming a part of the social fabric. We started talking, and they have been incredible, wonderful, generous partners on our ‘Evening to Paws’ auction event. The inn is such a special and magical place that it very much adds a flavor that attracts people. Robert and Ari embody the spirit of caring and compassion.” Soon after coming, Dean and Nikki quickly bought an empty storefront downtown and turned it into the No Name Cafe. “First of all, there was no good espresso in town,” Dean said. “Then, a lot of people needed jobs, and they didn’t necessarily have the educational backgrounds for the higher tech jobs. Also we wanted to make sure guests didn’t see a bunch of vacant stores downtown. We wanted to help create an interesting downtown. So we opened this cafe. We had a naming contest and No Name got the most votes.” Now, Dean and Nikki are in the process of turning the cafe over to the museum. In its place, they have plans to develop the Vermont Culinary Arts Center. This year, in fact, Dean’s business plan for the center won a $5,500 award from the Southern Windsor County Incubator. “Robert and Ari have a lot of great energy,” said Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp. and a board member of the Southern Windsor County Incubator. “They are among a few folks in the region who are bringing resources and energy to the community, and are genuinely embracing the community. Robert and Ari want to not only be successful, but they also want the community to be successful. The inn is obviously a treasure for Windsor, and Robert and Ari are certainly wonderful stewards of the inn. But beyond that, they took the extra step of making sure the inn is an integral part of Windsor. They have energized the community.” Vermont’s Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, Bruce Hyde, is especially pleased that Dean and Nikki are trying to attract more people to the area. “It’s really great to have relatively new owners come into a community like Windsor and get so engaged and do so many projects,” Hyde said. “They’ve done a great job and I look forward to working with them.” It was Dean and Nikki’s community involvement that won them the Innkeeper of the Year award, said Vicky Tebbetts, vice-president of Vermont Hospitality Council. Each year, the council accepts nominations for the award. Then a committee composed of board members and past winners meets to select the winners. Juniper Hill received several nominations, Tebbetts said. “The award is for people who demonstrate excellence in the operation and management for a smaller-sized inn,” Tebbetts said. “Mostly with Robert and Ari, they are absolutely engaged in their community. In their three years, not only have they turned a profit for themInnkeepers page 12
Cabin Republicans, a political PAC of gay business people. “I was on the founding board,” Dean said. “My goal was to infiltrate the party in a Trojan Horse kind of way. At the time, I was the president of the most successful club. But politics is a nasty business, and I got out of it. Ari is very liberal. I tend to be liberal socially but more conservative when it comes to public spending. After Dean sold his limo business, he tried to create a network of independent limousine services. “I had an investor in Philadelphia, so I moved there,” Dean said. “LimoNet was one of my unsuccessful businesses. It was a great idea and ahead of its time. We were trying to link small, independent limo services through one 800 number and the Internet. We wanted to be for ground transportation what the travel agents’ computer reservation service was to the airlines.” After LimoNet failed, Dean turned to interior design. He was living and working in the Cincinnati area when one of his good friends moved to San Francisco. “Then his partner of 25 years became quite ill,” Dean said. “He called me after his partner died of cancer. He was very low. I asked him what he was going to do for Christmas, and he said he would just watch television. For me, friends come first. So I got a plane and went out for Christmas and I just stayed. I started a little antique shop and then an interior design business, and ended up becoming very successful. I found that interior design was a lot like being a
shrink. I told people, ‘Interior designers haven’t had time to think of ourselves.” of them bedrooms. It is furnished in don’t save your life. We enhance the life Nikki comes from a family of five in a startlingly eclectic way. Some of the you live.’” Helsinki. His father was a youth counselor furnishings come from the Evarts famBy this time Dean’s parents had and then an executive in a toy company, ily - wallpaper designed by Evarts himself, moved to northern Kentucky to be “before that industry moved to China,” he for example, and a long dining room table closer to him in Cincinnati. So when his said. His mother was a housewife. where Roosevelt once ate; it was sold, father became ill, Dean sold his invenHe came to the United States right discovered again after being stored at a tory, disbanded his business and moved out of college to work for United Paper farm for 40 years, and returned to the inn, back to help his parents. Mills, the second-largest paper com- where it has been passed down from inn“My father was supposed to have six pany in the world and a mainstay of the keeper to innkeeper. There are pieces from months, but he lasted for two years,” Dean Finnish economy. other homes of the era. said. “He was a wonderful man. He died “He came from a family where pride But most of the paintings and antiques the day after Sept. 11. Needless to say, that in your work and craft was important,” are from Dean’s own collection. They date is not a very happy one for multiple Dean said. “He was the national direc- range from contemporary paintings to reasons. My father was a war hero and a tor of customer service when he retired. Dutch Masters and from Ming Dynasty patriot, and to see those attacks really was But he didn’t really retire. He was turquoise carvings to Victorian furniture. devastating. He had congestive heart dis- downsized. They cut the highly paid Tours of the place are popular. ease and emphysema, and he had a mas- executives first.” “There’s a theme here,” Dean said. sive heart attack and died. It was a trying By this time, Dean was keeping his “Every owner left something behind, time in our lives.” large collection of art and antiques in and everything relates to everything else, During this time, Dean was again a storage facility. So after Nikki was and everything here has a story. When doing interior design. downsized, the couple decided to buy you walk into a home - and I relate this “Wealth was never my motivation,” a house. to my interior design experience - you he said. “I’ve always lived well because “We decided we would buy a country can tell a lot about the people who live I know how to buy things. I’m a hunter. house instead of paying for storage,” there. An inn needs to reflect the interI love deals. I’ve never personally been Dean said. “We wanted a nice lifestyle. ests and history of the community, so a multimillionaire. My investors have We wanted to travel and live well. And people can have a sense of where they made good money. I’ve mostly done yet we wanted to maybe grow a busi- are. The power of place is a very signifithings on a shoestring.” ness and be in an area where we could cant part of the inn experience. What affect positive change. And as we started we try to do, and why I think we’ve been Take The A Train looking around for a business, we were successful, is that we really think of our Dean happened to be in New York, staying in inns. And we said, ‘We can regional assets and incorporate them helping relatives, when he met Nikki on do this.’ In fact, some innkeepers were into our home.” the subway. nasty. They have to deal with so many The outside of the mansion is as “We struck up a conversation and personalities and adjust to each one on spectacular as the inside. Near the beaubecame instant friends,” Dean said. “We the dime. It’s a real talent to be a fabu- tifully kept gardens, which Dean and haven’t been apart since the day we met, lous innkeeper.” Nikki plan to double every year, is a and that’s four years ago. But we’re not colonnade, an 1,800 square-foot brick married. We’re not C-U’d. We’ve been so Juniper Hill terrace overlooking the lake and the busy with weddings for everyone else we Juniper Hill Inn has 28 rooms, 16 mountain, flower gardens, a pool, and a
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selves, but they became involved at the ground level with the community and a number of nonprofit organizations in the region.” Harris said the key to Dean and Nikki’s success is creativity. “Robert is a visionary,” Harris said. “He has incredible ideas. He’s always thinking of new things to try and do. He and Ari are also caring. They care about others. They care about our community. I think that’s why they’re successful as innkeepers. They bring the same caring to their work. They’re fantastic people and we’ so happy to have them here.” Born Entrepreneur Dean was “a late life baby,” meaning he was born after his parents had been married for over 20 years. He comes from an entrepreneurial family. His great-aunt started Mrs. Smith’s Pies. His grandmother was a silent film actress and then a singer. His mother, he says, was once a secret agent. “She was quite lovely, and was under contract with MGM at one time,” Dean said. “She had a fabulous operatic voice. My father, too, was a singing sergeant in the air force. He was also an engineer and jewelry designer.” Although Dean was born in Hawaii, the family left there shortly for Virginia, where his father started working in building maintenance for the Smithsonian. He ended his career as the director of several important galleries, including the Fine Arts and National Portrait Galleries.
As a child, Dean never received an allowance, so he took to the entrepreneurial waters early. He started with a lemonade stand and worked himself up to selling baby hamsters. “I bought a pregnant hamster,” he said. “I didn’t know it was pregnant. It was named Teddy, after Teddy Roosevelt. But it became Theodora when I woke up one morning and there were millions of little hamster babies. I had to figure out a way to get rid of them, so I went door to door selling hamsters. That was pretty successful. I had a number of little businesses like that.” When he was nine years old, for example, he sold chinchillas. “I saw the ad in the back of Popular Mechanics and thought, ‘Wow, they’re adorable; I’d love to make money,’” he said. “They were blue point Russian chinchillas. I sent $1,000. I got a couple of females and one male, bred them, and bought another male. Then I had all these chinchillas. When it came time to sell the fur, I packed them into the neighbor’s van - I had 31 of them - and took them in. They said, ‘OK, we have to euthanize them.’ I was shocked. I thought you sheared them like sheep. So I ended up selling all of them as pets.” Always precocious, he said that Family Circle magazine published his first recipe when he was nine. It was for “chicken turtles,” or chicken breast stuffed with a vegetable ratatouille and goat cheese. How many other nine-year olds know about goat’s cheese? Innkeepers page 14
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Dean graduated high school at 14. “There was a time when they thought I should be put back,” Dean said. “One teacher, thank God, went to my parents and said, ‘Do not allow them to do this. The opposite is true. He is not slow, he’s ahead of them, and he’s bored.’ So they advanced me, after quite a fight, and I ended up going to summer schools to get early credits. And I got out of there.” Antique Cars By graduating so early, Dean found that he was too young to go to college. So he and his father took on a project
We didn’t ask for tax abatements because we wanted Juniper Hill to be an asset to the community, and we felt that paying taxes is part of that. If we can’t make this go legitimately and pay taxes, we really aren’t an asset. together - restoring an antique 1959 Cadillac limousine. “It was what I was going to drive,” Dean said. “But I was too young to drive, so we ended up renting it out. That’s how I started a limousine service.” Dean went to get some business cards printed at a store in a quiet mall and found a way to expand his business.
“So I parked my limo all the way ‘I want to speak to your boss. I want to at the front of the parking lot to get a rent some limos,’” Dean said. “I asked little free advertising,” Dean said. “I put him how many he needed. He said a sign in the window: ‘Limousine for ‘Three a week.’ I said, ‘I am the boss.’ Rent for Special Occasions.’ Because of He said, ‘Come to my office.’ And it the look of the car, people started pull- was NYNEX in New York. They hired ing off the road to look at it. I saw them me. That was my lead-in to New York. and thought, ‘Wow, I could start to sell It was a huge account. And I learned as antique cars. And I could use this as my I went. Limos are basically a B&B on car lot.’” wheels. I’m selling hospitality, cleanliSo Dean developed a book of coupons ness and a good attitude with my drivers, for the mall merchants that he could hand who are now my employees. From the out to his customers and set up shop in the moment you are on the phone with us lot. Soon he was renting parking spaces to the person who is chambering your to people who wanted him to sell their room to the person who is planting a antique cars. plant, they are our drivers, They are “My car lot grew,” he said. “I took up representing our company.” three rows of parking spaces. And it did At 17, with his parents’ support, Dean great things for the mall, because it looked moved to New York. like it was busy. Then CNN came out and “My parents knew they had a different did a story on me. Here I was, 15 and type of person on their hands,” Dean said. not old enough to drive, and I had this “But I never felt bad in being different. My car lot.” grandmother always said, ‘Robert it’s good The CNN story was seen by a New to be different. You’re not the same as York businessman who owned a flounder- every other spotted cow on the field.’ Yes, ing limousine service and asked Dean to she really said that.” come up and consult. Dean refused. Dean ended up running a 200-car “I said I was really busy, and he would limousine service with over 100 employhave to make it worth my while,” Dean ees in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles. said. “But the truth was that my mom The gross revenues, he said, were in the wouldn’t let me.” millions of dollars. He made the cover of Dean eventually gave up on selling Nation’s Business Magazine, published antique cars because they weren’t profitable. by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He “ People loved them, because they was 21. liked to reminisce, but they wanted to And then he sold the business. rent them, not buy them,” he said. “So I After 21 rented them.” The limousine service, however, was At the time, Dean was living alone in going well. New York and learning about art and col“I did one wedding, and a guy said, lecting antiques. But he wasn’t happy. He describes himself as a workaholic. “I was working way too hard,” he said. “And I had gone through some personal issues. Coming out was one of them. Very difficult for me, although you would never know it now.” Dean was uncomfortable in New York’s gay community. “I’ve always been theatrical, but I’m a really serious business person when I need to be,” Dean said. “I can be pretty straight-laced. I would see the gay pride parades with shirtless women and bikers with chains on their nipples, and it was not the world that I related to. I was a suit-and-tie type, and my business was all about that. It was older men with cigars.” It makes sense that later, Dean would go on to be a founding member of the Log
Innkeepers of the Year