Not Your Mom-n-Pop’s Hotels
Meet three sets of hospitality entrepreneurs reinventing the Up North experience for the next generation.
By Ross Boissoneau | June 29, 2019
Owning a hotel is hard enough. But building another? Then buying a third?
Welcome to the world of Peter and Megan Schous, among a number of hoteliers bringing new life to old hotel traditions across the area. They’re joined by Cooper and Emily Heston, who continue to refurbish Falling Waters Lodge in Leland, while up north in Charlevoix, Paul and Jennie Silva and their crew are rolling along in a complete renovation of The Lodge — a.k.a. Earl Young’s Weathervane Lodge — now renamed Hotel Earl.
Like so many people, Megan and Peter Schous fell in love with the area after vacationing here. But working in corporate America meant living in the Detroit area, until Peter got a promotion and they moved to Chicago. Which Megan loved.
Living in downtown Chicago was perfect. She was able to stay home with their baby daughter. Life was good. Very good.
But while Up North visiting their in-laws, who had a home in the Empire area, they noticed the village’s only motel was for sale. “Peter said, ‘We should look into buying that.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” said Megan Schous, adding for good measure, “‘You’re nuts.’
Well, maybe not. “We ran the numbers, and it made sense. In 2013 we bought it and ran it for the summer,” Megan said. While the “we” that bought it was the couple, the “we” that ran it was really Megan; Peter still had his day job in Chicago. After returning to Chicago when the summer season ended (the inn was only open in the summer), they bought Tiffany’s ice cream in Empire with Peter’s parents.
That’s when Megan told Peter he had to quit his job, and in October 2014, the family made a permanent move to northern Michigan. They subsequently sold their interest in Tiffany’s to Peter’s parents, but noticing they were frequently selling out their rooms, they decided to expand, and began building another Lakeshore Inn a block east.
While that was under construction, a Realtor friend of Peter’s suggested they look into a property he was representing. Soon the Camelot Inn of Elk Rapids became a third Lakeshore Inn — which worked out well, as construction was taking longer than they thought at the second Empire location. It finally opened this summer, though landscaping is still in progress.
Today the Schous family — all six of them, as the couple has subsequently had three more children — lives in Traverse City, a good midway point between Elk Rapids and Empire. They say they are all dedicated to providing the best experience possible for the people who stay there. “The best thing is being able to see people happy on their vacation,” Megan said.
Falling Waters Lodge
Emily and Cooper Heston were pretty familiar with Falling Waters Lodge in Leland. After all, they had both worked there for a number of years — Cooper since high school, as it was owned by his grandfather.
So purchasing it from his family after his grandfather passed away made sense — at least on the surface. But it also meant a lot of work. Much of the general maintenance had been deferred, and updates were sorely needed as well. Nevertheless, the couple closed on the purchase March 30, 2017, opening only a month and a half later. In between, they ripped out carpet and replaced floors, updated furnishings, and installed a Wi-Fi system that works throughout the property. “We started with the basics,” said Cooper.
Just after that first round of renovations, they took a bit of time out to get married. For their honeymoon, they went to — wait for it — Falling Waters Lodge, which was filled with family and friends.
Work continued, including replacing the old and unsafe deck. They built it in the parking lot behind the lodge and craned it over the building to where it was welded on. Updating the rooms, including new kitchenettes and a lighter, brighter décor, brought the property into the 21stcentury.
Heston was both astonished and gratified to find their guests seemed to appreciate the changes as much as he and Emily did.
“The most surprising thing was I did not expect the guests to feel as excited and passionate as I did. We’ve had people just about burst into tears. I’m invested, but it’s spectacular to see their joy. The best part of the job is to hear the oohs and ahhhs.”
Then there was the need to re-establish a sense of fellowship with the town’s residents and other businesses. “We had an open house for the town after the first part. My grandfather was lovely to some people but not all. It’s been [important] for Emily and I to say we’re opening our arms to Leland — we want you to see this.”
They close the lodge for the season each Jan. 1, giving them a few months to catch their breath and start in on the next round of renovations.
Owner Paul Silva said renovating Hotel Earl is a project he’d long dreamed of. He and his wife, Jennie, owned one of builder Earl Young’s famed mushroom houses, and were long enamored of The Lodge.
“We vacationed in Charlevoix for about 20 years. It stood out as a project I wanted to tackle some day,” he said. When he heard the property was for sale, he jumped at the opportunity.
He has a background in real estate, with Silva Associates in the Detroit area, a construction, real estate and management firm. Good thing, too, since the renovation of the hotel was massive: addinga third story with 17 additional guest rooms; new windows, doors, restored balconies; enclosing the exterior corridors and adding a new elevator and ADA-compliant stairways. Plus a new swimming pool, a high-tech 12-seat boardroom, and a 1,500 square foot presidential/bridal suite. Whew.
As might be expected, such massive changes and additions, plus the state’s notoriously fickle weather, led to delays. “It was a rough winter. That held the project back,” said Ian Fleming, the general manager for Hotel Earl.
Silva said the weather actually led to foundation issues and forced a shutdown in operations for a while. “We had to rebuild and reinforce it,” he said.
Silva’s goal was to preserve the look and feel of the unique midcentury modern building, and to use as much of the original material as possible.
“It’s been a challenge to keep as much of the original façade and feel as possible. The team did a great job,” said Silva.
Fleming pointed to the use of the original witch’s hats, the pointed peaks on the building, and utilizing original stonework wherever they could. “We wanted to keep the same history,” he said.
The project is now on schedule to open the end of this summer. “We hope to open Sept. 1 or sooner,” Silva said. While they live in Detroit, the couple comes up virtually every weekend to enjoy their summer home — and take in the ever-changing view of the restoration and expansion of Hotel Earl.