Shaffin Shariff Interview
This is file # 41, cycle 3. Today’s date is July 9, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Shaffin Shariff who is one of the proprietors of the Wake Robin Inn. He is going to talk about the Wake Robin and anything else that he chooses, but first we’ll start with…
JM:What is your name?
SS:My name is Shaffin and my last name is Shariff
JM:How did you come to this area?
SS:By the miracle of on-line. Lakeville and Salisbury are dial-ups in a broadband age. There is something about that, the pacing and just one good step back from our lives. We found the listing for this place on Elyse Harney’s website (See file #5, cycle2, Elyse Harney) when we were searching for inns in Connecticut, Sale and those key words back in 2001 came up with the Wake Robin, among other properties. We just kept coming back to it in theory because the specs of it seemed as the more we explored the area on line, Lime Rock, the character of the area and what was available on line at the time, it was promising. That is how we came to knock on its doors.
JM:What is your background?
SS:I have a varied background. I was a reporter and editor in Canada for 10 years. I worked the for Bank of Montreal which owns Harris Bank in Chicago, which is how I came to be transferred to Chicago to work for Harris Bank. This was in the mid-1990s. That is where I met Michael Loftus who is my business partner. He had the hotel background. He worked for Hilton Hotels. He worked for the Palmer House in Chicago. He was the resident manager of the Palmer House. He said 1600 beds and 1200 employees.
JM:How large is this property?
SS:The property is completely unique: it is 11 ½ acres, hilltop. The inn and the immediate area uses roughly 3 ½ acres for the buildings, for the functions and the parking.
JM:How many rooms do you have?
SS:We have a total of 38 rooms.
JM:Do you use the motel?
SS:We do. We use both buildings. This main inn has 23 -25 rooms because he have a couple of extras. We have 15 room in that building built below which we call the Summer Building because it is open only in the summer when we were open year round. That name for us has stuck. We have 15 there, 23 plus in the main inn for a total of 38.
JM:When did you actually buy the inn?
JM:How do you share the responsibilities between you and Michael?
SS:The way we share responsibilities with everybody on staff which is to say everybody does as much as they can and as much as they want to without bringing into it whether they are the proprietors because we have no titles here. It does not matter whether you are proprietor or staff. It depends on interests and capabilities and there are some key responsibilities that you are hired for, but other than that we don’t believe in title. Everyone does their job to the best of their ability.
JM:I am going to do a little bit of the early history. We will start with Jane Hunter,
JM:who ran the hotel from 1914 to 1945. There was a quote that she had that you really subscribed to. Would you share that quote with me?
SS:Yes and I’ll give you a little bit of context to that. The context for the quote was and is the business plan for the Wake Robin because we were applying for financing with banks and such. We needed a philosophy, more than just numbers; we needed a philosophy for the Wake Robin. That is where it would start. You could throw in any numbers you wanted in a business plan; typically in banking they are meaningless. They are mostly for getting approval. What is more important is doodling in your head and getting to a place where you know what the place is going to be about. On line we found the quote from Jane Hunter who I believe was also involved with the school.
JM:Yes, she was. (Taconic School for Girls was built about 1898. Jane Hunter taught Greek and Latin there. She left in 1903, got married, had a child, divorced her husband in 1912, and came back to this area. She bought the building in 1913 and turned it into an inn. She died in 1953 Ed.)
SS:She was always referred to as Miss Jane Hunter so we never knew that she was married. When we found it on line, we thought that is it. I am going to read it for you. “The Wake Robin is a rather unusual hotel for people seeking comfortable beds, and peace. The hospitality is the kind a capable hostess sets before friends in a relaxed and pleasurable atmosphere.” Jane Hunter, 1914
That is exactly what we do. We don’t have an operation manual. We go purely by making this day as comfortable and pleasurable for the guests as possible. It is unbelievable how when you remove the barriers for the guests i.e. the administrative structure of an organization sets the tone. If you have layers that actually gets in the way of the customer, but if you don’t have layers, and we don’t, then everything becomes meaningful for the guest. Nobody has to, unless they really don’t know the answer. The staff never has to say,” Let me check with the Manager.” There is none and they don’t have to check. You can see the directness that occurs when somebody need something or wants something.
JM:But they all have to buy into this same philosophy.
SS:Yes, we are small: we are 5 to 7 core staff who is operating during the season April to early November. That works for this staff. A lot of them have other jobs. We have flexibility of schedules. The way we work people fill in in case somebody can’t work. That flexibility is a mind set and it fits. Last night we finished after a busy weekend. There was a wedding and their guests were here; they were the main group; it was a great group. Afterwards after filling the place on a busy weekend, we all went out for dinner. We have that kind of comradery.
JM:I would imagine that your staff stays as long as they can.
SS:Yes, very much so. The one thing we found also is that they are a mature staff, both temperamentally and otherwise. They work tremendously hard and that has made all the difference. Some of them live in Torrington which is 35 minutes one way, but we think they enjoy it.
JM:You have to have good working conditions in order to keep your staff.
SS:Yes, so anybody listening to this it sounds relaxed, but in order to reach that state of relaxation for the guests, you have to put in twice as much work. Not everybody is built for that.
JM:Hospitality is a very transient trade.
SS:Yes, but the thing that saves us is we don’t have a mindset of “hospitality”. We don’t have the impediments. We don’t say, “Well I worked for so and so and this is how we did it.” Or “I worked on this other property in town and I never had to so this.” We never say that because we don’t know that.
JM:Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?
SS:It is completely bliss. We are Candides
JM:The best of all possible worlds
SS:We cultivate our garden. So that is how it works.
JM:After Jane Hunter there was Mrs. Chamberlain. She was from 1945 to 1977. Her philosophy was antiques, wind and the views. You pointed out to me that if the trees have not grown up you could see clear through to Salisbury School for Boys.
SS:Yes we did not have any mementoes left by the previous owners, we had to go on line and we found some postcards on line. We found memorabilia for the Taconic School for Girls, miraculously on EBay. Postcards and we put the postcards on the wall as prints so our guests would have a sense of history. We are also mindful of the history at the same time. One of the postcards shows the 2 peaks are Wake Robin and the Salisbury School. In the front if we in imagination cut down the trees, we could see Mt. Riga.
JM:So you have the triangular peaks.
SS:Yes, you do. It is tempting, but the flip side of that is the forest has its own peaceful atmosphere without the vista. The forest has benefits the way it looks now in our surroundings because you are always reminded that you are in the way of nature.
JM:You would not want to look at this area when it was in the height of the iron industry when all of the trees were clear cut for 40 miles around. This is much prettier.
SS:Yes, in this day and age of climate change and global warming, the more trees the better. The trees are also necessary for birds. Occasionally we will have guests comment on how they were woken up by bird song in the morning.
JM:There have been psychological studies that if you are in a green space, you are more relaxed. It is a much more meditative area.
SS:We are doing fine. This is an outcome we had not thought of, but with the forest and the birds there are no insects so we don’t use pesticides. The birds do it for us.
JM:In 1977 Tor Olsen had the property for about 10 years. Then it went to Henri Manassaro in 1987. He had it for about 9 years. Unfortunately it went into foreclosure at that point. It was put out to bid and Tor Olsen and Dean Hammond (|See tape #128A, Dean Hammond) both bid, but Tor got it and he ran it from 1996 until you and Michael bought it in 2002. Have I got that right?
JM:When you purchased it, did you do any renovation?
SS:We bought it as owner operators. We had some capital, but we also told ourselves that we would be disciplined enough to do renovations slowly because we thought that the building came with so much history that we did not know about , we knew some but not everything. If we came in like gangbusters, we would of it, make a wrong decision. We had to live with it first in order to see what we would do. The rooms were good sized. The prior owners had done the work by putting private baths in each room so it is not a bed and breakfast. It was more like a small hotel. We would do it cosmetically and systematically as things came in. We are sitting right now on the back side of the upper deck. There is a middle deck and a lower deck. We built the three levels. We extended that out because even then we wanted to do functions and weddings and things like that so we needed structure and we needed the outdoor space. The indoor space was already here. That is the main thing we did to attract people. Still it took us 10 more years to actually break down walls; for instance this wall that has been here for 100 years or more. That gave us access to the upper deck from the bar area. Then the wall that divided the restaurant and the living room came down which gave us a more expansive first floor. That freed up more space and provided freedom of movement for guests. We added French doors everywhere. All the doors inside and out connect so it is a loop. People are never far from each other and yet they have different spaces where they hang out as they like. That works wonderfully for guests and groups. They can flow and float. They are not impeded by us or the walls.
JM:I was amazed to come to this facility and see that it is no longer white. You changed the paint and the windows.
SS:And we changed the windows, you are right. There were two considerations: the white paint after a winter whenever we came back was always a nightmare. It would take a multitude of days touching up the white, being up on a hill top you get spider webs and other things. So we went through a look of colors and we went through pastels and colors that we saw in the area. Then we went a little bit broader and we did find a historic grey that existed. Then we went about finding it as a match. We found it in a Benjamin Moore color Kendall Charcoal, but we did like the finish. We did more research and found the White House was painted not with the same color but with the paint finish is a Sherman Williams Duration. We took that Benjamin Moore color and had Sherman Williams match it and then as soon as the paint can opened, we knew that was it because compared to the thinness of Benjamin Moore to the Sherman Williams, it was like water to milkshake. It gave you a totally different finish. It sealed the building. We have pictures we actually took huge chucks of wood out and replaced it because if we were going to paint it we needed to fix the boards. The bulk of it took about 4 months and then it continued for off and on for a year and there are still about 5 percent to do, for all intense and purposes it is mostly done.
JM:It looks wonderful. With the white building, it sort of looked like an iceberg perched on a mountain. With this color is settled into its environment and it looks more like it belongs.
SS:Yes, it matches the ledge. When you look, standing back, and you see the exposed rock and then you see the grey, it settles the building. Paradoxically it gives it a certain modernity because the grey and the white are very modern. People call it Victorian steam punk. It gives you the metallic industrial revolution. The grey finish gives you the slightly metallic look to fix it even more in those times.
JM:You have told me various ways in which your inn was different from the others in the area. One of them was the concierge desk, you don’t have one?
SS:We do have one, but what we don’t have is check in. People assume that our desk is a check in, but it is not. Our philosophy is we have a pretty good idea of the guest’s demographic because we do groups so they are tied usually to a group or two staying with us. The trick is when they come through the door, we have the door wide open.
JM:Yes, I noticed that.
SS: I would say 98% and 2 % of guests are freaked out by the open doors all the time. At night time in the summer it is cooler. There is no reason, people can come and go as they like. The whole idea is for people to come in because we are here: it is not as if it was unattended. There is nothing dangerous about it because we have lights, we have a back lighted building. Around 10 PM we close the doors. From the time you enter you flow through the building as opposed to stopping and standing in line and checking in for why? It makes no sense you have already paid, we already have your information so our
business is to identify you which we can ask you your name, certainly but through a process of attrition as people check in, it becomes easier to know who is who. That is what we do. We mentally psyche ourselves up for identifying our guests quickly. Then we tell them that check out will be as easy as check in. They do not have to stand in line. We don’t do incidental charges. Bottled water is complimentary; WI-FI throughout the property is free: they expect it anyway. Snacks are on the bar chocolate and snacks to which they can help themselves. You don’t start with a mind-set of stealing: upstairs on our floor we have all the amenities that you find in a bathroom, we have them in the hallways in baskets so that people can take what they need. The whole idea is not to have locked doors and limited items, so many per person. If you need it, take it. We don’t charge for extra or wine and beer.
JM:That is rare.
SS:It is part of our service. To charge somebody $5 for a bottle of beer or $1 for a glass of wine as an extra cost so that three weeks from now when they get their statement, it is not what they expected. It is not what they remember. They have long forgotten that they had a beer or a glass of wine. We don’t want them to stand in line to sign off on extra charge because that would be the last thing they remember. That is not a memory we want. They last memory is they has a complimentary continental breakfast that was very expansive. We encourage them to take chocolate and a bottle of water for the road because a bottle of water would be the first stop they would make when they left here so they do not have to stop. That is the memory we want. We want good unobtrusive memories. Even if our service proposition was not what they expected or they preferred, some people do prefer a more traditional hotel, they can’t fault us for doing what we do. That is the end-game.
JM:I ask about telephone charges, but in this day and age more people text or use e-mail.
SS:We get 2 bars of service so that is ample for phone calls. We tell people the front desk is attended 8 am to 10 pm. That doesn’t mean it is not attended thereafter: in that sense we are always on the property if a guest need something after those hours. We don’t leave and that makes a difference.
JM:When you check out, where do you leave your room key?
SS:Where ever you want, in your room or at the desk. We are not particular about that. It is a key: it is useless to them to take it. They can never use it elsewhere.
JM:Is it a key or a slot key?
SS:We decided not to use a card slot: sometimes that malfunctions. If it malfunctions and you are at the lower building or on the third floor, they would have to come all the way back to the desk to say “My key doesn’t work.” It has happened to me; no a plain old-fashioned key. As technological as we all are, it is nice to have a key. It is a physical embodiment of who we are.
JM:You don’t serve meals.
JM:What about breakfast?
SS:We do a continental breakfast in the breakfast room right there. We do a very nice continental. We have to be aware of gluten-free, paleo, vegan and aware of all that. Thankfully now you can purchase and make things fairly easily to accommodate that spectrum. People never have to ask.
JM:Do you have any transient trade or is it primarily groups?
SS:We do have transient guest, mid -week we will get transients, but weekends it is largely big groups, intentionally. It is not conducive for and it is not fair to guests or a couple that wants to get away for a weekend and then arrives and sees a function going on.
JM:That is intimidating.
SS:Yes, that is it exactly, even if they never experience noise, it is a way of segregating them that they feel that they do not belong. It is just a dynamic that is present that would not be present. We will leave rooms unbooked rather than book a couple. If we sense that it is a romantic get- away during a busy time, we will be frank with them about the group that we have and direct them to the other properties in the area. We direct people to other properties all the time because we don’t compete with them for restaurant times. The other properties by and large have restaurants to fill on top of rooms. While we compete with them on rooms, we don’t compete with them for rooms for transient or leisure guests which is 180 degrees from most hotels. It is important for us to differentiate: we don’t compete with them for restaurant or off-season lodging because we pick up the phone during business hours when we are not here off season, thanks to technology. We are forever directing people to other properties.
JM:You are closed from November until May?
SS:We are closed through March and sometime in April we come back. That dovetails with the Lime Rock season. The way we work is that we give priority to the school, primarily Hotchkiss, and Lime Rock Park. We go out of our way to figure out what their calendar looks like for the coming year and protect those weekends for them before we book others. If there is a doubt or we are not completely sure, we will hold off booking. We have experienced losses on weekend where we assumed it was a Lime Rock or Hotchkiss event and then it wasn’t. Things change. That’s ok. In this large scheme of things, doing what we do allows us to have half of our revenues reoccur, thanks to Hotchkiss and the track. They return, it may not be the same guests, but the same event or the same group or a large car event. It is completely manageable because it gives us the solid base that each year when we leave at the end of the season, we know half our year is already booked. Often it is more than half.
JM:Is this a destination for weddings?
SS:it is a destination for weddings, but I think people have figured out that it is a destination for wedding guests for celebrations that are elsewhere because we are agnostic on how or whether people
take the whole place for on-site weddings plus rooms. I gather other properties are more determined that people can only stay there if they celebrate their wedding on their site. We are happy to do on-site weddings, if people are getting married at Lime Rock which is a big draw, they need the extra space for their friends and family, we are more than happy to book them. That holds true for an on-site wedding. Once we have filled our 50% with our core local groups, Lime Rock and Hotchkiss, the rest is first come, first served. Our client is not the guest of either Lime Rock or Hotchkiss but the true client is Hotchkiss or Lime Rock itself. We have to be good enough for them to know that fact through their guests.
JM:Plans for the future?
SS:Three or four years ago we found a groove that works for us for a while which is the seasonality of it. People say, “Oh how relaxing in the off season when you get to go away.” Yes we get to go away, but it is not exactly relaxing because we still work 7 days a week wherever we are in the world. We work 9 to 5 Eastern Standard Time all of us, even in a different time zone. We are always accessible. From the point of view of the guest, they never know we are away.
JM:When I e-mailed you in February, I did not expect to get a response, but you answered immediately which surprised and pleased me.
SS:That’s what we do. Here I am going to give a shout out to technology. Only a few years ago we would not have been able to do that. Now we each are armed with an I phone, I pad and some of us Mac books. With all three devices things pop up at the same time; phone all, e-mail, and Text so thank you Apple. What you do on one device you can do on the others. We thank technology for that. We can put “Do Not Disturb” and go to voice mail after 6 PM Eastern Time in the off season. That works really well. Let’s say we booked a wedding group for Lion Rock Farm or even a wedding on site, those clients when they book us as a block, still have questions. They are not in their off-season, they are planning for their wedding so it is really important that we be responsive with them and we were to you without skipping a beat. Also their guests will invite people around the same time. We are responding to you in tandem with responding to a lot of things at the same time. It just works out really well.
JM:It forms a very good impression to get an immediate response.
SS: We get inquiries because we are closed and not everybody realizes that or they don’t read the website closely enough, we immediately give them websites of our competitors. If you are looking for this, try this. It is a very detailed response. We make friends with the other properties too.
JM:Anything I haven’t covered that you would like to add to this before we close?
SS:Something about the community I think. You looked at me when I said that we keep out door open. We are up on a hilltop, one reason we can do this is a tribute to the community. People are forever surprised that things are as peaceful and pleasurable and relaxing as they are. Coming back to Jane Hunter, that is what we offer. They have not experienced this when they come in, but the feeling before they get here on their way here, they start to feel it. The community becomes a form of
protection for what we do and a mirror of what we do. We think we are in tandem with the community .Often some properties are wonderful, but then you step outside and you are on a main street. Here the setting reflects the community. That mirroring that goes on helps us, it helps the community. It sets the tone for the guests. If they are relaxed here, when they go out to the Boathouse or the Woodland or Mannadew, they bring that relaxation with them, which we have encouraged.
JM:Thank you so very much.