Before and after at the Audubon Inn

I’ve known Keith Hill for quite some time now, having worked with him on a few hotel projects in the past. Recently, Keith made a move that would surprise many of you working comfortably within a larger hospitality organization. He abandoned the corporate world, bought a small hotel in Mayville, Wisconsin, and has begun restoring it to its former glory alongside building a new tourism base in this small town.

What motivates such a radical shift? How can a hotelier apply his or her skills to resuscitate an 18-room inn? Let’s find out.

Larry Mogelonsky: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Keith Hill
Keith Hill

Keith Hill: My hospitality career started while in college, serving tables to make ends meet. I was somewhat introverted prior to my service career and appreciated the way hospitality impacted me as a human.

I eventually found myself working in flagship New Orleans restaurants, including Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, the original Brennan’s and Restaurant August. My first management position came within a hotel restaurant, and I held various F&B management positions before crossing over into the rooms division, where I assumed a director of operations role. From there, I helped reposition a property as general manager as well as oversaw a portfolio as an asset manager.

LM: What prompted you to buy an inn and become your own boss?

KH: I found that working regular hours in an office environment simply didn’t challenge or stimulate me enough, and I missed working hands-on with the service teams and patrons. I had always dreamed of having a place to call my own, so my wife and I decided that diving into ownership at the onset of the current hospitality industry swoon would be worth the risk.

Audubon Inn before
Audubon Inn before

LM: How did you come across the Audubon Inn?

KH: We were open to considering just about any location in the U.S. We had fairly specific criteria in mind for our first acquisition. After exploring dozens of possibilities, it became evident that the perfect opportunity for us happened to be in Mayville, Wisconsin. We found The Audubon Inn via the Internet through a specialty listing service focusing on small hotels and B&Bs.

Audubon Inn after
Audubon Inn after

LM: What due diligence did you undertake prior to the acquisition?

KH: We looked at market feasibility — not only long term as a “destination,” but in the short term as a drive market-based “staycation” during the repositioning process. There are nearly 30 million people within a tank of gas and more than half a million visitors annually to the Horicon Marsh, which is right in our backyard. There are also several significant industrial companies based in and around Mayville, driving midweek corporate business from the likes of John Deere & Co., Metalcraft, Tab Products, Gleason Reel and Mayville Engineering Co. to complement our weekend leisure business.

LM: How did you fund the purchase?

KH: A combination of personal savings, investment capital and institutional debt — the classic stack of capital.

LM: What has been the response by the local community?

KH: The community has been overwhelmingly supportive and extremely grateful that we are caring for one of the region’s greatest tourism assets. Richard Kollath and Ed McCann of Kollath-McCann Creative Services are brilliant designers and such a pleasure to work with. Some community members have been moved to tears when they see what we have accomplished here thus far, and they are excited about our plans for improvements down the road. This historic landmark belongs to them as much as it does to my family, and we take the responsibility of our stewardship here very seriously.

LM: Are you more or less enthusiastic than when you commenced?

KH: I believe in this property as a viable boutique luxury hotel even more today than when I arrived. The possibilities are endless here for a truly unique destination experience.

LM: Would you recommend this move to someone else?

KH: I have not taken a day off in three months, and I am spending about 400 hours a month here on property to ensure our success here. You must come to terms with the possibility of expending that kind of effort upfront before considering this initiative for yourself. This business is not for everyone, but if you have passion, vision, creativity and perseverance, you might not want to do anything else for the rest of your life. Every victory is intoxicating.

LM: What are your long-term plans?

KH: For this property, we have essentially completed phase one — a cosmetic restoration of our lobby and F&B spaces in addition to a light refresh of our guestrooms. Phase two will include a more extensive effort on the guestrooms while phase three includes restoration of significant structural features that have been lost over the years — a rooftop bar that overlooks the Rock River Valley and an onsite microbrewery.

We would like to acquire other unique, independent properties in the region and develop a cluster of sister properties here. Wisconsin has much to offer travelers year-round and is an up-and-coming hospitality destination.