Inn business guru recognized with Stafford Smith Award

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BRATTLEBORO — Bill Oates, co-owner of Inn Partners, received a lifetime achievement award for his impact on the hospitality industry.

"It really was an honor," he said in an interview.

Inn owners had recommended Oates receive the Stafford Smith Award, which his wife Heide Bredfeldt accepted on his behalf at the annual Association of Independent Hospitality Professionals in Cincinnati, Ohio, last month.

The award was "in recognition of a lifetime of superior contributions and outstanding support of the innkeeping industry and Select Registry," which is a list of distinguished country inns, bed and breakfasts, and boutique hotels throughout the United States.

Oates "is often referred to as the 'Guru of the Inn Business,'" according to a biography on innpartners.com. "His thorough knowledge of the inn business is tempered by a real understanding of the human component."

Oates began consulting about inns, primarily with regards to buying and selling, about 36 years ago.

"I've done hundreds of transactions," he said. "In the good old days, it would be about 10 a year."

Oates said his group was "particularly pleased" with getting inns on the Select Registry, which has gone through numerous name changes over the years and presented the award at the conference. He's seen many properties get invited to be on the registry because of their high quality including the Inn on Putney Road in Brattleboro and the Chesterfield Inn in New Hampshire.

His group also provides training to prospective innkeepers.

"We used to get 20 to 25 people to the seminars and offered them six to eight times a year," Oates said. "It's quite a chore but it's also quite interesting."

Bredfeldt is an equal partner in the business. With her training in psychotherapy, she would analyze potential buyers to see if they made good innkeepers, Oates said. The goal was to protect the industry from unqualified people.

Oates arrived in Vermont after college in order to teach at Sterling College then he went to graduate school, where he worked on a dissertation on Indonesian history. Upon his return from Indonesia, Oates became a partner in a company that sold businesses.

"But my specialty and loyalties were to the hospitality part of the businesses that were available," he said.

Oates kept his residency in Vermont despite living in the Netherlands, Chicago and Indonesia for stretches of time. He said he grew to love the state.

"Those were fun adventures but they didn't lead to anything much, unless you wanted to be a college professor," he said.

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A house of his in Brattleboro is used for office space. Oates now lives on an old farm in Williamsville.

About five years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

"I probably had it some time before then but just didn't notice," he said. "I can't travel. I'm immobile."

His 26-year-old grandson Eben Viens works for Inn Partners. In the future, Oates plans to hand the company to Viens if he wants it.

"He's very good so I'm hoping he will stay," Oates said. "Indications are that he will."

Bredfelt's son David Hiler, co-owner of the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, worked briefly for Inn Partners.

"I think he felt a little constrained by the relationship but he took skills we helped him to develop and certainly had a lot of success with the Whetstone Station," said Oates.

Bredfelt told conference attendees Inn Partners "plans to be around for some time" with employees like Viens and Megan Smith, tourism and marketing commissioner for the state of Vermont from 2011 to 2016.

Oates "predicted and influenced many of the changes that have occurred and a few that didn't," Bredfelt said. "He enjoys telling stories about himself. One in particular had to do with a heated discussion at a conference, where Rick Litchfield of Captain Lord Mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, had discovered variable rates based on demand. Bill's position was that one should never discount rates because it cheapens the product. Guess who won that battle?"

Bredfelt said she knows Oates will treasure the award.

"As his partner in life and work," she added, "I too will treasure this well-deserved award."

In a slideshow presentation at the conference, Chesterfield Inn co-owner Judy Hueber was quoted as calling Oates "the Yoda of innkeeping."

"He is always the smartest guy in the room, and he has a wealth of knowledge that he is always willing to share," Hueber said. "I can go to him to get a straight answer and good advice every time."

John and Cindy Becker, owners of the Inn on Putney Road, were quoted as saying: "Those of us who have been lucky enough to know Bill have had their lives enriched. Those of us who call him friend are truly blessed."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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