Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 1, 2011
Fred Clausen is a well-known figure in the Weirs Beach area. He typifies what a good Lakes Region tourism/hospitality business owner should be. Friendly, always willing to sit and visit with the many guests who stay at Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages in the Weirs, Fred and his wife Maureen have upgraded the cottages and motel at Proctors over the years. He speaks fondly of their life in the Lakes Region, and gives an honest insight into what it really takes to run a seasonal tourism business.
1. How long have you lived in the Lakes Region and what brought you here?
Fred: “I have lived in the Lakes Region since 1996. Previously, I lived about two hours away in Medfield, Massachusetts and vacationed here beginning in the late 1980s. Prior to that, we lived outside of Albany, NY for my insurance company job and vacationed in the Adirondacks. That is where I built my first small cabin on Minerva Lake. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was a lot of fun and that’s how I became interested in lakeside living.
“Our first purchase in the Lakes Region was in The Heights section of Southdown Shores in Laconia. It is a great place for a family vacation. We were drawn here for the fun of exploring Lake Winnipesaukee by boat. In 1996, the insurance company where I had worked for over the past 25 years, closed our line of business. I moved up to our summer vacation spot and bought a group antique store, all the time looking for a hospitality place to buy. The antique store lasted about three years while my wife, Maureen, stayed in Massachusetts to work and waited for our youngest child to finish school. Maureen moved up to New Hampshire in March of 2003.”
2. Can you describe your job as owner of your business, because it is a rather unusual occupation?
Fred: “As owner of Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages, there isn’t anything I don’t at least try to do. As the owner of a small seasonal business, in times when you can’t make money (in spring, fall and winter) you have to save by doing most of the work yourself. So many people think running a seasonal business is easy….six months on and six months off – NOT SO! It’s really a month to open up, then six months open and finally a month to close down and you must throw in another three months of early reservation calls, so that leaves Thanksgiving to Christmas to truly relax!
“We do all the bookkeeping, payroll and reservations ourselves. We do have help with the housekeeping with John working here longer than we have owned Proctor’s and Lissi working here for 10 years now. Then we also have another one or two housekeepers on the weekends. Every day we are working right along with our staff on housekeeping and maintenance issues. On Saturday, the prior weekly guests (usually about 14 units or so) leave by 10 am and the incoming weekly guests start arriving by 3 pm. Once everyone is checked-in, the daily financial reconciliation goes on till about 8 pm.”
3. How long has Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages been around, who started it and how and when did you get involved?
Fred: “John and Mary Proctor bought Pine Tree Lodge from Luddy Williams (a Ziegfield Follies girl) back in 1947 with just three cottages and the main house in which they rented out rooms. They promptly renamed it Proctor’s Pine Tree Lodge. Back then, there was no beach; the beach was added when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Weirs Channel and ‘blew’ the sand along the shoreline. Over the next 20 years, the number of cottages grew from three to 12 and in the 1950s, when “motels” were in vogue, the garage was remodeled and sprouted wings and it became an eight-unit motel. I purchased the old Proctor’s Motel and Cottages in March of 1999 from their daughter, Jean Ginn, who had run it for 20 years.
“Proctor’s was about the sixth lodging place around the Lakes Region that I seriously considered purchasing over a three-year period. At first I was hesitant about getting interested in Proctor’s because all the other places had fallen through. I made a reasonable offer but couldn’t close till a year in the future and of course, someone else made an offer the next day for full price with an immediate closing! I had met the former owner, Jean, and told her my plans for Proctor’s. She chose my offer – she took less money so she could have a year to say goodbye to all of her former guests. It must have been meant to be that Proctor’s was THE place for us. If you wait long enough, things just work out.”
4. What’s it really like to own and run a busy cottage/lodging business in the Weirs?
Fred: “It’s a challenge. The Weirs is the busiest vacation spot in the Lakes Region. There are so many competitors within five miles. We tend to be more expensive than many of them, because we are located directly on the lake and have one of the most ‘kid-friendly’ beaches. We restrict our property to registered guests only, so it is never overcrowded and our guests have a great time. Our location is very close to the Weirs Beach Boardwalk and many other attractions and restaurants.
“Most of our competitors are our friends, so if we are unable to help a prospective guest, we always try our best to send them to another lodging place in Weirs Beach that will meet their needs. Many of the Weirs Beach lodging establishments are members of The Weirs Action Committee, an organization that works to beautify the Weirs Beach community.
“Setting our rates is also a challenge. Of course, off the lake places are much less expensive since they are not paying waterfront taxes. The Weirs Beach area is an extremely seasonal business environment. We have about 10 weeks to make a living, yet we pay property taxes all year long. Then you throw in the weather factor and the business model gets very complicated.”
5. Tell me about your background; where did you grow up, what was your occupation before this and what brought you to own Proctors?
Fred: “I was raised in the year-round hotel business. My father ran large hotels all over the US, including The Pierre and The Sherry-Netherland in New York City, The Balsams in Dixville Notch, NH, the Saranac Inn in The Adirondacks, The El Mirador in Palm Springs, Cherry Hill Inn in New Jersey, and many others. My brother currently runs a Best Western in Waterbury, Vt. They both chose hospitality as a career, whereas I chose it as a lifestyle.
“I spent most of my childhood in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and then graduated from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 1969. I worked for two insurance companies as a sales rep of Employee Benefits and ended up as a Regional Sales Vice President. That lasted until August of 1996 when the health care business started to fall apart. Not wanting to continue in the corporate world, I bought Country Tyme Antiques in Belmont, NH.”
6. The busy Bike Week is coming up; what is that like and do you have any interesting stories of running a lodging establishment during that busy time?
Fred: “We LOVE Bike Week! That being said, it is always a real challenge to end up with the right guests. If it wasn’t for the past 12 Laconia Bike Weeks income, we would never have been able to turn Proctor’s into the great resort that exists today. Our location is perfect for walking to most of the Bike Week activities. About five years ago, we were 80 percent occupied with full weekly guests and the other 20 percent were choosing a shorter stay. Now we are down to under 10 percent for weekly stays with most stays being a four-day minimum. Of course, that means much more housekeeping and higher expenses. We tend to be somewhat restrictive and we do not allow non-registered guests to be on the property at any time. We also tend to be primarily a couples place and we limit the number of guests in groups of all guys or all girls. Most of our stories about Bike Week are good ones. I must say that after 12 Bike Weeks, I sure have learned a lot….and seen a lot! We have never had any damage during Bike Week – just a LOT of recyclables!”
7. What are your favorite seasons in the Lakes Region; can you also tell me what your favorite times of year are at Proctor’s (I assume you stay open into the fall?)
Fred: “We only stay open till Columbus Day. By then we have had such a long season
that even if the foliage is good in the Lakes Region, we start our closedown process. The fall is our favorite season because we are able to enjoy the lake right along with our guests. The summer is just too busy here at Proctor’s to get away for a day on the lake.
“The summer is a great time on the Proctor’s property since we get so many wonderful families that stay with us from year to year. We get a chance to be a large part of the kid’s (of those families) growing-up process. They experience fun here that they will remember for many years to come. We have so many guests that have stayed here in the past 64 years and many are bringing their children and grandchildren back to enjoy what they enjoyed so many years ago.”
8. Where do your customers come from and what do they like best about staying at Proctors?
Fred: “Most of our summer guests come from New England, although we do have many that drive down from Canada and up from Virginia and Pennsylvania. The most enjoyable activity at Proctor’s is relaxing on the beach. We also provide pedal boats, a ping-pong table that is over 50 years old, and a swim raft within the swim line for the kids. Being on the Weirs Channel no wake zone allows our guests to be boat watchers , as hundreds of boats go by daily, especially on the weekends. During Bike Week and NASCAR races, most of our guests come from Canada and upstate New York.”
9. In this day and age of computers and social networking/media, how do people find out about Proctor’s? What sort of people stay with you?
Fred: “Our best sources of booking reservations are our repeat business, as well as referrals from previous happy customers. But no matter how wonderful a guest’s stay is at Proctor’s, life has a way of changing people’s lives and they are not always able to return every year, especially in the past three years. Getting people to our website relies on many search engines and other related New Hampshire websites like The Lakes Region Tourism Association and New Hampshire State travel website. Over the past two years we were chosen to be featured on Channel 5 TV, Boston Chronicle with Ted Reinstein. We also have set up a Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages business page on Facebook and currently have 188 ‘fans’. Our next project is to increase our exposure on a website called Trip Advisor. We have a very customer friendly website that shows Proctor’s as a family-friendly resort. That is the type of customer we attract.”
10. What do you do in the winter months when all the tourists are gone?
Fred” “The winter is never long enough for me. I have so many side interests, such as model boat collecting, old Lakes Region paper advertising – especially in regard to lodging places, collecting die cast toy cars, and especially visiting with our two children and their families in Massachusetts.”
11. Tourism/vacationing has changed a lot over the years. What do you miss about the way vacationing used to be (the old days of cottage colonies) vs. today’s vacationing?
Fred: “So much of today’s vacation planning has become last minute. In the past, our bookings had been 60 percent weekly stays generally booked right after the 1st of January. The regulars still book that way, but a lot of the newer guests will start with a long weekend to try us out. We have been successful in converting many of them to weekly stays the next year.”
12. What do your kids think of your business?
Fred: “The first year I bought Proctor’s, 13 years ago, my son (who was a sophomore in college) spent his whole summer helping me learn the business. The first two months were really great, but the third month, we were ready to kill each other! The problem was that I wasn’t willing to listen to his ‘young’ ideas….which I still regret today. Even as of today, he would love to move north and take over Proctor’s. But with two young boys and a wife from Massachusetts, he has more long-term potential in his sales job in Massachusetts.
“Our daughter and her new husband (they met in Laconia) come up from Massachusetts frequently and are always willing to lend a hand. For both children, when it came time for their weddings, they wanted the reception to be at Proctor’s. They looked at other venues, but in their hearts there was no other appropriate place but Proctor’s.”
13. What do you do to get the business open and ready every spring? And what is involved in closing up for the winter?
Fred: “As previously mentioned, the open-up process takes about a month. We used to plan on opening the last Friday in April, but with the recent economic conditions, we now open for the start of The Winni Derby fishing event, which is usually the second weekend in May.
“With recent harsh winters, it is hard to predict when we can get into the units and safely turn on the water. The list of necessary open-up items is well over 100 things to do. I always have help from my wife and my two long-term employees. In the last four years, I have been lucky to have the added help from a former guest turned friend, Chris, who is able to do most of the things I can’t do.
“Close down is a similar process, but just in reverse and it also takes about a month. We always put the kitchens and linens away clean for the winter, since we never know how much time we will have in the spring to open up.”
14. You are a collector of antique toy motors/boats as I recall. Are you still adding to the collection? Tell me about what led you to collect the motors and what is your collection like?
Fred: “Yes, the model boat collection is always growing. I used to display many of the special boats in our office at Proctor’s, but that wasn’t fair to the youngsters who weren’t allowed to touch. Now we only display ‘touchable’ toy boats. We even have a coin-operated ride-on boat on the porch for the kids – no coins needed!
“The whole idea of collecting model boats started because of buying Proctor’s. I thought it would be a great idea to have them on display in the office and the units. Upon buying some of them, I realized how nice they really were and none of them made it to the units. And there were so many different types….but they have to be of the kind of boat one would have seen on Lake Winnipesaukee back in the 50’s and 60’s. I truly have no idea how many I have!”
15. Do you miss owning an antiques shop? Do you and your wife still collect antiques and if so, what sort of antiques?
Fred: “No, I do not miss the antique shop. It was a group shop similar to the new Laconia Antique Center in downtown Laconia. At the time I lost my job with the insurance company, it was a good thing to do to get me up to the Lakes Region. We were never antiques collectors, just enjoyed having items we liked. I just have too many things I like.”
16. Other than Proctor’s, what is your favorite spot in the Lakes Region?
Fred: “At one point, before Proctor’s, we owned a lot out on Mink Island. It was 3.5 acres with a beautiful sandy beach. It had a run-down cabin 10 feet from the edge of the lake facing east. The sunrises were beautiful. We restored the cabin over a five-year period and the whole family used it frequently. Once we bought Proctor’s, we no longer had the time to get out to the island. It was my son’s ‘favorite spot in the world’ so needless to say when we sold it, he was quite upset with me. On Lake Winnipesaukee, just off the shore of Mink Island, was the spot he picked to propose to his wife.”
17. Do you have a boat or any special way to enjoy the lake?
Fred: “Did you say boat or boats? At one point I had three boats on the lake – all different. Right now we have a pontoon boat that we keep in front of Proctor’s. Our guests and friends kid me because they say it never moves. Working on the lake is totally different than playing on the lake. We do actually put the NO VACANCY sign on at least once a week and go out for a cruise, many times only to be called back because someone wants to rent a room.”
18. What are your future plans?
Fred: “This is the start of our 13th year at Proctor’s. Every year it gets harder and harder to do all the things necessary to keep the place going. We are extremely grateful for all the help we get from our employees, family and friends. It’s also amazing when you have guests that ask to help and actually pick up a tool without asking, such as raking the beach. Even with all that, we are planning our ;escape’ and looking forward to the end of our second careers – with no plans for a third one.”