The Inns at St. Albans taps Forrest Lee to guide it through a shifting hospitality industry
Dec 5, 2021, Story by Laura Miserez, Missourian Features Editor Photos by Julia Hansen, Missourian Photo Editor
When Datra Herzog first stepped into the expansive summer home that sits atop a large hill in St. Albans in the early 2000s, seeing the clay tiles dating back nearly a century gave her a sensation akin to opening a storybook. Herzog, a former lobbyist, had purchased and was running the former Malmaison restaurant in 2004, but she wanted to shift her efforts to historic preservation. She and her husband, David Herzog, purchased the Studio Inn around 2006 and began restoring it to its former glory.
Now nearly 15 years later, the Herzogs own and operate a luxury accommodation spanning 9 acres and housing a $4.5 million lodge with 12 rooms, cottages, the inn, two large wedding event spaces, a restaurant, a vineyard and more. At The Inns, the increased capacity has been coupled with another growing trend — a rise in experience offerings, everything from golf to guided hikes to cooking classes with celebrity chefs — and the property’s history is emphasized to make it stand out.
Herzog says this is what patrons of the hospitality industry value now, and the recent hiring of Forrest Lee as director of operations underscores that it’s become a top value of The Inns as well.
Lee’s background is in golf course management, and he formerly managed properties at Blackberry Mountain in Wallard, Tennessee, and the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, a property dating back to 1766. During his 20-year career, Lee said he’s had to help both respond to changing priorities among vacationers.
“It’s a cultural change that our industry has experienced in the last 25 years or so. There’s been a huge transformation in what is asked (for) and what is offered in amenities,” Lee said. “In the ’70s, ’80s and even into the ’90s, Mom and Dad took vacation without the kids. But we started to see a real change in the dynamic, and you had to start offering activities that the whole family could enjoy together.”
In his 15-plus years at Homestead Resort, Lee oversaw the addition of a lazy river, a putt-putt course and a zip line — all with the goal of providing guests with chances to make memories as well as relax, Lee said.
The shift is not limited to the hospitality industry, though that’s among the places it’s most visible. A 1998 book by authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore coined the term “experience economy” to describe the concept — that the memories formed from certain activities and events can themselves become the products that consumers are willing to pay for.
Among the most recent additions to The Inn’s list of offerings is a multiday cooking class taught through the Herzogs’ newly opened International Choux Co. culinary school. The first class was Nov. 5-7 and was led by artisan chef and forager Jeff Ross. The class started at $1,000 and included a two-night stay for a single person with a $450 charge for an additional attendee on the same room reservation. More events are being planned for 2022.
“People like to do things and create memories, so that’s the direction we’re going to head,” Lee said of his new role at The Inns, which was announced in mid-November. “We’re trying to give people a meaningful experience they can take home with them.”
In several ways, the mission echoes why the original St. Albans vacationers — mostly wealthy St. Louis families — sought the scenic surroundings in the early 1900s. The Studio Inn was built as a summer house for Irene Walter Johnson, whose husband, Oscar Johnson, co-founded the International Shoe Co. Its architect, Theodore Link, also designed St. Louis Union Station.
The oldest building on the site is the Old Barn, which was built in 1843 and housed a restaurant starting around the 1920s. It still had its original square nails and knob-and-tube wiring when the Herzogs purchased it. And although the Head Store has been renovated as a cafe, market and ice cream parlor since the Herzogs bought it in 2016, the 125-year-old building served as the general store for St. Albans as early as 1892.
For Herzog, highlighting the history of the property — whether by displaying topical pieces by artist Bryan Haynes or by offering historic presentations and tours — is essential. She hopes the history sets the property apart from others that offer many experiences, and she hopes the experiences set it apart from other historic vacation options.
Lee said he agrees that the history has a role to play in bringing in both newcomers and returning guests.
“To be quite honest, it would have been easier and cheaper for (the Herzogs) to have just knocked the buildings down and built something else, but they’ve been dedicated to preserving the original look of the town and the history of St. Albans,” Lee said.
Despite adding more experiences and further highlighting its history, The Inns remains popular primarily as a wedding venue. Herzog said that as an outdoor venue, The Inns has stayed busy during the COVID-19 pandemic, booking 19 weddings in 2020 and 33 weddings in 2021 compared with around 20 weddings in 2019. According to her, even the weddings are marketed as an experience more than a service or product.
“I often say our weddings are typically big family reunions with a vow exchange in the middle,” Herzog said. “It’s more about the family gathering.”
Family also will be at the forefront of Lee’s day-to-day experience managing The Inns in a special way, he said. His father, Tom Lee, was the manager of the Country Club of St. Albans in the late ’90s and got to know the Herzogs. When Datra Herzog first met Forrest Lee, she said she knew his family connection to the area would only be an asset to her vision for the property.
“The thing about Missouri is we’re not flamboyant people; we’re not driven by luxury brands,” Herzog said. “We’re driven by experiences and quality time to spend with family and friends. That’s what (The Inns) is about.”