Thursday, January 20, 2011

Looking back - the first 30 years

It was on a cold winter day early in 1981 that my father, mother and I first met Harold Winters, the caretaker of what was known locally as the "Grafton Castle".  At the time, I was living with my parents in a renovated farm house in Nashville, Ontario.  My parents had spotted a real estate ad that piqued their interest.  The place was all boarded up - there was no heat, and no furniture.  Harold took us through room by room with a flashlight.  The building was not in good shape.  Large chunks of plaster were hanging from the ceiling.  Water running through the roof had lifted the veneer on what was once intricate pine panelling.  The floors were painted yellow and blue, the walls were faded.  And yet, we were all intrigued.  Perhaps by the thoughts of lives that had been lived here, by the incredible sweeping views toward the expanse of Lake Ontario, or by the magnificence of the stone walls, the walled courtyard and the turrets.  After all, who wouldn't want to live in a castle, even if it wasn't just a little run down?  After some back and forth with the lawyers for the Blaffer family, a deal was struck, and we took possession the 1st of June.  I moved in right away with my high school friend, John Wood and we started work on cleaning years of algae from the walls of the massive swimming pool, thinking that in the days ahead we would need a place to retreat to from hard, hot days of dirt and dust.  For 2 years, I did my best to lead a group of skilled tradesmen in the renovation.  In 1986, Tom Hanks starred in the movie "Money Pit" - I went to see it and found that it was like watching a home movie, not only because I had a bit of a resemblance to him at the time, but also because of the similarity between his story and ours.  My father was working at IBM in Don Mills, and eventually he and my mom moved in as well.  We were all living in camp-like conditions, mattresses on the floors, bats flying in and out of the attic at night, no heat, and construction everywhere.  Before too long my brother John and his wife Nancy moved to Grafton as well, along with Ed Christensen, (our farm hand), his family and a couple of hundred Charolais cows.  Everybody pitched in, and it wasn't long before this vacant building started to feel like a home.  Those of us who were young men and women at the time all thought that once this place was finished it was going to make a great party house.  Well, my dad had a different idea.  I remember sitting around the kitchen table one night when he threw out the idea of starting a bed and breakfast.  I'm sure the cost of the renovation, (which ultimately exceeded the original purchase price of the property) was starting to tax him.  He surmised that with a little elbow grease and some luck we might some day be able to generate revenues of $100,000 a year with a bed and breakfast business.  We all thought he was crazy, and besides, how could we have a party house if it was full of couple looking for a quiet, romantic escape to a quaint bed and breakfast?  Well, I guess he wasn't crazy after all.  In 2010 we exceeded our previous highest revenue record, we maintained over 150 fulltime jobs with a payroll in excess of $5 million, and thanks to the people occupying those jobs, we have a strong reputation for an unpretentious approach to rest and relaxation.  Many things have changed over the years of course.  The bed and breakfast morphed into a country inn.  We doubled our square footage with a series of extensive building projects, and we introduced the incredible power of healing through human touch with the introduction of spa treatments.  I guess the only thing that hasn't changed is that our bankers still think (after 30 years) that this "spa thing" is a short lived trend, prone to economic downturn, and that we fit their traditional "seasonal Canadian hospitality model" to a tee, despite years of consistent growth and 90+ year round occupancy rates.  God forbid that a made in Canada success story in an "emerging" industry (spas have been around as an extension of the health care system in Asia and Europe for centuries, but never mind that) might ever be considered anything other than a flash in the pan.  Oh well, apparently Canadian banks have saved us all from financial ruin thanks to their conservative approach (not to mention their substantial profits); I suppose I should be greatful.

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