From academia to big-scale innkeeping

An interview with the owner of The Hotel Saugatuck

Al Heminger, owner of The Hotel Saugatuck B&B, was interviewed by Sandy White for the Michigan B&B Association in November 2016, a few weeks after he opened Saugatuck’s newest bed and breakfast.

Not two years after acquiring the Huron House B&B in Oscoda with 14 rooms, you buy the old Twin Gables Inn and transform it into The Hotel Saugatuck B&B with 18 rooms. Most B&B owners confine themselves to a much smaller set of rooms in one house in one town.

Go big or go home?

What led you to become a bi-coastal B&B owner with 32 rooms?

Four, five, six years ago, I started thinking seriously about becoming more entrepreneurial. Everyone has a window of opportunity to do something different with their life, and you don’t know quite when that window will open and when it will close. My wife Karrie and I knew if we didn’t strike out and do this, we’d always look back and say ‘what if?’ I do want to acknowledge that she and I are partners in the business, although she’s primarily focused on our three children. (From 2 years to 8 years old.) Also, my brother Tim, who is a engineer for Norfolk Southern, is an investor in The Hotel Saugatuck.

Had you worked in the hospitality business?

Not at all. When we bought the Huron House, I left a job as director of admissions at Howe Military Academy, a college preparatory co-ed boarding school in Indiana. I had also served as head football coach there.

Huron House led to Hotel Saugatuck

Is it fair to say your work at the military school did not prepare you for decisions about thread count?

True. But I had begun to develop ideas about the kind of accommodations Michigan needed more of. High quality but not pretentious. Appeal to the senses with jetted tubs, fireplaces, decorator touches and evening dessert delivered to your room. A lodging experience more personal and individualized than a hotel, but more private than smaller B&Bs can offer. Neither Huron House nor The Hotel Saugatuck offers much in the way of common areas. Breakfast is room-delivered at the time of your choice. Couples can choose whether to strike up a conversation with other guests or to remain in their own little world.

What led you to buy Huron House?

We looked first at the old Twin Gables Inn in Saugatuck, but the foreclosure process needed to play out. Meanwhile, the owners of Huron House

had cultivated it as a romantic getaway destination on the beach in Oscoda, and it was for sale. We thought it had a lot of upside potential, and that has proven to be the case. We refreshed and remodeled, improved the food, got some great photography, and reached out via the Web. More and more new people are discovering it year-round. Many guests return again and again.

How has the experience of creating The Hotel Saugatuck been different?

Much more extensive. When we closed on the sale in November 2015, the place had sat vacant for three years. Some of its structural and deferred-maintenance issues went back many decades. Five Dumpsters worth of trash came out of the basement of the main building. We had a Bobcat running back and forth underneath the middle cottage to shore up the foundation. It would have been cheaper to bulldoze and start anew.

Everything old was made new again

I see no evidence that this building dates to 1865.

We updated every system, installed new windows, and recovered, repainted, rebuilt or replaced almost every surface. Twelve suites were created here (the main building). The three cottages, which were built in the 1920s, became duplex bungalows with porches.

Sandpiper room at Hotel Saugatuck
The first-floor Sandpiper room has a lake view and private patio.

All 18 suites of The Hotel Saugatuck have king beds and all-season fireplaces. In addition to a jetted tub, each has a tiled shower with rain shower head and body sprays. With an eye to sustainability, our renovation has followed the path to LEED certification, although we have not sought to be recognized for our “green building” practices.

A lot of the art on the walls reveals the past lives of this property.

We had wonderful assistance from the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society and the library. And for authenticity we also may have preserved a couple creaks in the floor.

You can’t be in both Saugatuck and Oscoda at the same time.

Talented innkeepers are in charge at each place. I spend most of my days working on operations, processes, quality improvement, and marketing. On those occasions that I interact with guests, if they ask what I do here, I tell them I’m the guy who pays the mortgage.

Going on four years after you got into the B&B business, how do you like working for yourself?

Every day is different, and I like that a lot. But I’m not working for myself. I’m working for every guest who comes through our door. All of us are.