Family-Owned Business, Part II: Sustaining Serenity Springs for 20 Years
In Part I of my conversation with Laura, we talked about the vision and founding of Serenity Springs, and its identity as a family business. In this section, we talk more about the work it has taken to keep the business going for 20 years.
Katie: So, what are some of the biggest challenges of owning and running a business?
Laura: Well, let’s see... I think finding good help is probably the most challenging. And I do have good help — but it’s taken a long time, and especially for what I’m looking for: people who will really enjoy and take pride in their work.
We are like our own little family. If I need to bring in someone new, as a part-time person or just as an extra hand, it’s hard to find somebody who really fits the shoes. Everybody that we have right now — they’re family, and we care about quality. Here, you don’t cut corners. If you’re gonna do it, you gotta do it the right way. And take pride in what you do. You can’t bring a person to their cabin, find out that the fireplace switch isn’t working, and say, “oh well, it’s August — you don’t need the fireplace switch anyway.” No. Everything works no matter what. And if that means that you’ve gotta take that extra little time to fix something or have it fixed, you do it. We don’t like people who brush things off or make excuses.
So, I would say our biggest challenge has always been finding good help, and finding the right help — people that fit. It takes a special person to fit — to enjoy and be comfortable with all that the job requires.
K: How can you usually tell if someone’s gonna be a good fit?
L: Well, usually someone who’s a little older...someone that has enough life experience to know how they would want to be treated, if they were the guest.
We do a lot of multitasking. A lot of times, we’re working on plan A, but things happen, so we have to jump to plan B… so it’s important for people to have a flexible mentality. To understand that the procedure today when we have five guests may not be the same procedure when we have guests in all 36 cabins.
K: Yeah, it must be hard to disconnect or unwind from that.
L: Well, yes, and I answer the phone 24 hours a day. I mean I get calls at three in the morning, six in the morning. And I answer the calls, because if we have a guest on the property, and there is an emergency, they have to be able to call and say whatever it is… “my husband fell” or “we need medical attention.”
So that’s why I answer, but because I answer I get people who maybe...their nighttime is our daytime...our nighttime is when they’re working. So they’ll call at two in the morning and say, “do you have availability?”
It’s a 24/7 job for us. In a sense, we never get away from it. When we do try to take a vacation, it’s still a lot of prep work to make sure everyone has what they need, to try to put somebody in charge who can handle things. To me, I’m constantly worried about things if I’m not there.
K: Now that we’ve discussed some of the challenges, let’s talk about some of the more enjoyable aspects. What’s been your favorite thing about running Serenity Springs?
L: My favorite thing is the guests. When they walk into a cabin, they kind of...they get the wow factor. And when I hear from them that it’s more than what they expected, that the photos don’t do it justice, and “I’m telling my friends about this place,” the positive feedback reassures me that we’re doing something right, we’re on the right track, we’ve got the right product, and we’re presenting it well.
I know what we have is something special. I don’t think we would have stayed in business for 19 years, otherwise. In Business 101, they’ll tell you: if you’re gonna start a new business, and you can make it through seven years, your chances of making it are pretty darn good. And when we opened in 1999, it was, you know, a slow start, and then we had the real estate drop, the recession itself, and then we had 9/11 — all of that was within a couple years. But we were able to sustain, hang on, and pull through, though it was very difficult through those years. And now we’re on a springboard going up again.
K: During those times, were there just fewer guests than normal?
L: Yes. During those times, people didn’t have the expendable income. This wasn’t a priority. They had to worry about the bills that they had to pay. It was hard.
With 9/11, the whole nation was shaken by what happened, and most people were afraid to travel by plane. We actually started seeing more guests, people wanted to be with the people they loved, but were looking for someplace a little closer to home. People started being open to the idea of 1-tank trips, and thinking a little differently about staying near home.
K: This kind of gets into our next question a little bit: how have changes in the world and in technology affected the way that you run Serenity Springs?
L: I would just say as major things have happened, whether it be when gas prices have gone up or events have occurred that remind people to spend time with their loved ones, we’ve been able to remind people to think about the situation positively. Instead of doing that one-day, two-day drive trip somewhere, come to us in three hours and save money on gas. We just try to present ourselves differently, based on what’s going on.
As far as technology, we would be nowhere without the internet, as I think would most businesses nowadays. The internet is the main tool of marketing and advertising.
Word-of-mouth is always the best, but then even if someone hears about us from a friend, their next step is to go to the website to find out more information.
K: Can you share any of the key tactics that you think have helped you adapt the business for continued success?
L: I think I would say that having unique features, such as the horse and carriage and the butler door, has set us apart from most other locations.
Service, too — we’re just very service-oriented, trying to pamper people, and avoiding a sort of “drive up, sleep, then drive out” experience, which you find at other places. What we’re trying to instill is the whole service, and we’re trying to create a relationship with you, so you feel you are a guest in our home. We try to make you feel very welcome so that you feel like more of a guest… you’re not here to just spend the night and then leave.
So, it’s kind of back to basics. We’re working to create a relationship with each guest, and to make their stay very memorable. Who talks about “oh, we spent the night at the Holiday Inn”? What’s there to talk about? Whereas with us, we’re trying to create a whole experience.
K: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your 20 years of owning a business?
L: Wow. Hmmm, lesson? I guess...if you have a dream, you don’t know if you can succeed unless you try. And I would say that when we first started the whole concept, most people said “you’re crazy — how are you gonna do this? Even if you had the money to build the place, how would you have the money to maintain it?” and “how are you going to get people to come, in order to make money to keep it going?” It took blood, sweat, and tears — it took the hard work and vision that Rich has always had. We just work hard, and it’s been successful. We just have a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to develop and sustain.
K: Is there any one business decision that stands out as having made the biggest impact? One example of a big decision might be, potentially, the choice to build more cabins — going from five to 11, 11 to 18, 18 to 36….
L: Well, at the very get-go, all 36 foundations were dug. We kind of knew what the finished project would be, though we didn’t complete them all at once — we did it in stages. We got the first five up and running, and we saw how that worked, and then we thought, “okay, it’s going fairly well — let’s complete the next section.” So the foundations were already dug and done — they just had to build the frame and interior. Rich always had a vision of the completed development.
As far as other business decisions, I guess there were a bunch of small ones, based on the comments people have made. We have all the comment cards since Day 1. We’ve kept them all. And we’ve always taken people’s suggestions into consideration through the years.We opened the first five cabins with the amenities we thought people would want, and it probably was two or three years into it when we started noticing that some people would write down “it would be nice if there were a grill.” So we said, “well, I guess if they want to make their own food… here we were thinking they’d rather order and have the food brought in, but there are a lot of people that enjoy grilling. That’s relaxing for them.” So it was because of those people’s input that we put a grill on every cabin. There were a few other things we did just as a result of people’s comments. Simple things, like, “it’d be nice to have a broom in the cabin.” Well, it had never occurred to me that people would want to sweep their own cabins. So now there’s a broom in every cabin.
Some of the comments over the years have been silly, but some of them not. But it’s important to read them all, listen to their comments and suggestions, and act on them!
K: Do you have any very memorable comments? A favorite comment, or something?
L: Oh, there’s countless ones — countless. Not that I could pick a particular one, but I mean through the years, we’ve had...oh, marriages rekindled because of their stay with us, we’ve had mother-daughter getaways after mom had just finished her last round of chemo, and this trip gave her some much-needed time to relax. I mean, there are a lot of memorable comments, but I can’t say that there’s one or two that I can remember verbatim.
K: Do you feel like there are a lot of guests that you’ve built up a long relationship with? People that you now know a lot about because they’ve come a lot?
L: Yes, I mean we have quite a number of what we call VIGs, because we know when they come that they’re big coffee drinkers, so we give them extra coffee, or that they like bubble bath versus the bath salts. For one gentleman, I always make sure that there is cottage cheese and Reese’s peanut butter cups in the cabin for him when he arrives. I guess that’s just part of me naturally that I like to have that attention to detail and make people feel that I’m noticing them — it’s not just that flat across the board everybody gets the same thing.
We had one of our VIGs — this was five or six years ago, or it may have even been longer — they had a trip planned to Hawaii, and it was maybe their 30th wedding anniversary. Well, they ended up having to cancel the trip because her mother was ailing with Alzheimer’s, and just not doing well at all. But they called to reserve a three-day stay with us, and they [the couple] had come several times, so we knew who they were. Because of this story, we decided to put them in the cabin called “Paradise,” because that was the most tropical, and on the second night of their stay, I arranged for us to give them a surprise luau in our clubhouse. I gave them a note in their butler door that said, “be ready at 6:00 — we’re going to pick you up.” So we brought them over to the clubhouse, where we had a full spread, Hawaiian music, real leis, and one of those cutouts that you stick your head into with the guy and the girl. And we just had a real nice evening with them, with pulled pork sandwiches and cornbread, and tropical stuff, because I felt horrible that they had to give up their trip to Hawaii.
I really wanted to show them how much I appreciated them coming to us, and that I understood what they had had to give up. They thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated it. And, if anything, that just made our connection with them even stronger.
K: That’s a great story! Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experience?
L: In a nutshell, I would just say I’m very proud of what we’ve developed, and that we’ve been able to stay in business. When I go to different shows or various meetings or whatnot — because I’ll do a bridal show or home show occasionally — when I’m just introducing myself, or people are walking by my table, I’ll hear, “oh, my girlfriend has stayed there!” or “oh, I’ve heard of that place.” It’s always reassuring to know that people know of us, and they’ve always heard good things.
Curious about what Laura and her family have worked so hard to maintain, and what guests continue to give regular 5-star ratings to on all the main review channels? Call Serenity Springs today and book your stay!