February 14, 2018 | last updated February 14, 2018 11:28 am

How a Moosehead Lake Region inn earned recognition as one of the world's best

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Ruth and Dan McLaughlin, owners of Blair Hill Inn in Greenville, were accepted into the exclusive Relais & Chateaux worldwide association of hotels and restaurants. The inn was the only establishment in the United States to be added to the 550-member worldwide association.

Blair Hill Inn sits atop a 21-acre hilltop in Greenville overlooking Moosehead Lake. Its westward views are celebrated enough to warrant a special tab on the inn's website, with owners Ruth and Dan McLaughlin reporting one unforgettable occasion when the entire dining room spontaneously burst into applause over a particularly exceptional sunset.

That world-class view is just one of the attributes of the gentleman's estate and breeding farm built in 1891 that appealed to the McLaughlins when they purchased the property in 1997 with the idea of transforming it into a boutique inn. Add in a farmhouse with lots of potential, old stone walkways, several gardens, woodlands and picturesque fields.

Twenty years and thousands of sweat equity hours later, the McLaughlins' Blair Hill Inn in Greenville has been recognized as one of the world's best by the exclusive Relais & Chateaux worldwide association of hotels and restaurants.

"We feel very humbled to be part of an association whose vision we admire and have come to know since becoming a member," Ruth McLaughlin said, noting that to be admitted into the exclusive worldwide network, Blair Hill Inn had to meet rigorous standards that include exceptional service, distinctive cuisine and a uniquely local approach to what Relais & Chateaux calls the "art of living."

"We are excited to be part of that," she said. "The humbling part is when you see the properties involved in the association and you realize you are part of that too — and to have this take place in our 20th anniversary year — it's been very special for Dan and me."

Last November — almost 20 years to the day they arrived in Greenville to begin their new lives as innkeepers — the McLaughlins attended a reception in Madrid, Spain, welcoming them as one of the nine hotels — and the only one from the United States — admitted in 2017 to Relais & Chateaux's association of 550 landmark establishments from 62 countries around the world.

There are only two other Relais & Chateaux establishments in Maine: the White Barn Inn and Spa in Kennebunk and the Camden Harbour Inn.

Hard work pays off

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
The 10-room Blair Hill Inn sits atop a stone wall.

Blair Hill Inn sits atop a 20-foot-high 900-foot-long stone wall that arcs around the 1891 mansion, which Ruth McLaughlin said had "great bones" but required extensive restoration to become the boutique inn that it is today.

But that was exactly the kind of challenge she and Dan were looking for when they bought the property, left successful careers in the financial software industry in Chicago and settled into their new lives in Greenville with two young children and big dreams of creating an inn and restaurant to match that would match that world-class view of Moosehead Lake and the mountains of western Maine.

They wanted a blank template they could transform into their own vision of what an elegant inn would be like … not someone else's vision.

"We are very hands-on," she said. "We work from morning 'til night … we do it all. As we rebuilt this property over the past 20 years, we never stopped and said, 'This is good enough.' Our focus has always been 'How to improve' — the dining, the guests' accommodations, the guests' experiences."

With the help of local contractors, they carefully restored the mansion into a 10-room inn with restaurant, cocktail lounge and spa. As their dream of creating a boutique inn in Greenville that could rival those found along the coast of Maine slowly took shape, the McLaughlins found their efforts affirmed by countless guests, including some from within Maine adventurous enough to seek out an inland getaway experience.

"I can't tell you how many times I've heard guests say they had no idea how beautiful and moving this area is — especially folks from Maine who've finally ventured inland," Ruth said. "They also frequently tell us they regret not experiencing it sooner. … If you live in Maine, you tend to head to the coast."

The Libra connection

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Inside a guest room, with a westward view to Moosehead Lake.

McLaughlin says a few years ago she and Dan checked out what it might take for their inn to be accepted into the Relais & Chateaux's worldwide association. The prestige it would bring them was tempting. But they set the idea aside upon learning the combined cost of the application and membership fee — which combined can total almost 30,000 euros for hotel/restaurant applicants.

"It made it very very expensive, especially since the application fee was non-refundable," Ruth said.

Then, a lucky break.

She remembers two guests at the inn casually mentioning, "Have you ever considered looking into becoming a Relais & Chateaux property?" followed by her honest reply, "'Yes, but we can't afford to do it."

"They checked out and left and I thought that was an interesting coincidence," she recalled.

Shortly after came a phone call from the Libra Foundation. It turned out the guests who spoke to her about the possibility of joining the Relais & Chateaux association were Owen Wells, the foundation's former president and CEO who now serves as vice chairman and trustee, and his wife, Anna.

"We have something we'd like to run by you," is how Ruth recalls the phone conversation from Libra. "Would you apply for Relais & Chateaux membership if we assisted with the startup costs? Let us know what you think."

McLaughlin said she and her husband felt both excitement and some trepidation as they researched the idea. The key question: "Will we bring in additional guests by being part of the Relais & Chateaux association, or will we underachieve?"

In the end, despite some of the ongoing costs they would incur to remain in the association, McLaughlin said she and her husband accepted Libra's offer.

She said they both realized: "We never shied away from a challenge before, so why would we now?"

They filled out a "daunting" 200-page application and received two surprise inspections. After the first one, Ruth recalled, the Relais & Chateaux inspector started to tear up and told her, "This epitomizes what we want our places to be like."

How important was Libra's assistance?

McLaughlin said the application fee, alone, wouldn't be covered by whatever she and her husband could reasonably expect in increased bookings.

Revitalizing Piscataquis County's economy

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Blair Hill Inn's restaurant features Maine-sourced seafood and vegetables.

"We took the risk out of it for them," said Erik Hayward, president of the Libra Future Fund, a nonprofit created by the foundation in 2005 and the entity that paid Blair Hill Inn's Relais & Chateaux application and membership fees. "We told them we would cover their expenses for joining and then, after the first year, Blair Hill would pay about one third of the annual fee, with Libra paying the rest," he said, noting that those arrangements would be evaluated on a yearly basis by both the McLaughlins and Libra.

"This dovetails with our ongoing revitalization efforts throughout Piscataquis County," he said, alluding to Libra's Monson initiative that launched last spring with a $1 million investment to buy and restore several vacant properties in Monson seen as having strong potential for reuse. The initiative falls under the rubric of "creative placemaking" and involves athree-pronged economic growth strategy for one of Maine's poorest counties built upon the region's arts, agricultural and recreational heritage. A keystone investment is the completely renovated Monson General Store, which features Pineland Farms products and other locally source food items.

Supporting Blair Hill Inn's successful application to be a member of the worldwide Relais & Chateaux's worldwide association of 550 independent boutique hotels, inns and restaurants, he said, is very much a strategic investment to complement its investments in Monson, which is less than 15 miles from Greenville and an easy drive for inn guests eager to discover what inland Maine has to offer.

"We have two Relais & Chateaux inns in Maine that are on the coast, the White Barn Inn and Spa in Kennebunk and the Camden Harbour Inn," he said. "But there was nothing inland. What we want to do is draw people to that area. It's similar to what we're trying to do in Monson in relation to the arts: We want to renew interest in the arts and cultural heritage of inland Maine."

Hayward said Libra's view is that all of the towns of Piscataquis county are intricately linked to one another in a regional economy, so that if Greenville and Monson begin to see more tourism activity the benefits will spill over to other communities as well.

"They're all part of the tourism infrastructure of that part of Maine," he said.

America's Crown Jewel

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Moosehead Lake, "America's Crown Jewel," is an obvious attraction for guests staying at Blair Hill Inn in Greenville.

Steve Levesque, president of the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., agrees.

"Monson is part of our regional effort," he said, referring to the "America's Crown Jewel" initiative launched three years ago by international branding consultant Roger Brooks and a grassroots group organized by the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp. "If you draw a 30-mile radius around the lake, it brings you up to Jackman and beyond Monson to the south. One of the keys to creating a four-season community is to have a multitude of things to do, boating, hiking, biking, skiing."

Levesque, who also is the full-time executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority overseeing the successful redevelopment of Brunswick Landing at the former naval air station, said one of the lessons he's learned in his long career in economic and community development is "that if you don't tell people about what you have, people won't know about it."

The America's Crown Jewel brand, he said, is reflected in the Moosehead Lake Region EDC's completely revamped website, which is replete with stunning photographs and text touting the region as both an "ideal destination to recharge and reboot" in pristine wilderness and a "home to independent thinkers, adventure seekers and artisans."

"Obviously, we're all very excited for the McLaughlins," Levesque said. "It's really a testament to what they've done to make the Blair Hill Inn a quality location. It truly is a world-class facility."

With the inn now being part of the worldwide association of Relais & Chateaux inns, Levesque said the listing "raises the bar for the rest of the businesses in the Moosehead region to make sure those [Relais & Chateaux] visitors have a quality visit and they return."

The advantage of a worldwide brand

Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
Courtesy / Blair Hill Inn
The inn features a spa that offers massages and a hot tub for unwinding after a day of hiking.

Ruth McLaughlin said being part of the Relais & Chateaux network is a huge asset that's already becoming apparent to her and her husband.

Typically, she said, the Blair Hill Inn doesn't get a lot of reservations in November and December. Since joining the association, the inn has received more reservations for this time of year than the norm, with at least two, one from France and one from Denmark, being from Europe.

"Here we have an independent company, not local to Greenville or having any ties to Roger Brooks, and they take it all in and come back and determine our brand is real and significant enough to be included as a member of its worldwide association," she said. "It affirms what Roger Brooks said three years ago — that the Moosehead region is world-class. This is one of the great lakes of North America. This is a world-class resort. By branding it 'America's Crown Jewel," Roger Brooks has summarized everything I really wanted to emphasize about this area. That's why the brand resonated with me."

From Day 1, Ruth McLaughlin said she and her husband have seen their efforts to create a distinctively local yet elegant inn and restaurant — whose menu is locally sourced and features creative dishes with an international flare — within the broader context of being a key part of Greenville's economy. They have 20 employees, hire local contractors for the work they don't do themselves and buy as much as they can from local farmers.

She credits the Libra Foundation and its Libra Future Fund with being "visionary" in their support of Piscataquis County and the Moosehead Lake Region.

"They see how having a Relais & Chateaux inn changes the image of the area, that people who wouldn't ever think about spending time in inland Maine might say, 'What? There's a Relais & Chateaux inn in that area? Let's check it out.'"

Levesque, who plans eventually to retire to his home in the Moosehead region when he's ready to step down as full-time executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said The Libra Foundation has an impressive track record throughout Maine, including some key investments in Aroostook County, of investing in endeavors that "have an impact." The McLaughlins' inn is very much a part of that, he said, quipping that it "raises the bar for the rest of the businesses in the Moosehead region to make sure those [Relais & Chateaux] visitors have a quality visit and they return."

"We're implementing Roger's plan," he said. "There's a lot of energy behind it. The whole idea is to create economic vitality to help diversify the economy. The idea is to grow a sustainable year-round economy. I'm vested in that. I've been all over the state and I've made my career in economic development and the amount of community energy going into the Moosehead initiative is exciting to see."

Read more

Moosehead Lake region lands $55K in grants to aid economic development

Libra Foundation launches significant investment in Piscataquis County

AMC taps Moosehead region contractors to build new Medawisla Lodge

Grassroots branding initiative seeks to boost the Moosehead Lake region's year-round economy

New branding effort promotes Moosehead Lake region as 'America's Crown Jewel'


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