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Trapp Family Lodge survives discord
Youngest son carries out business vision
By Candace Page | Free Press Staff Writer

Published January 2, 2001

STOWE Johannes von Trapp has found his own happy ending to his family's famous story.

Three years after a family feud threatened to force the sale of Vermont's best-known inn, the Trapp Family Lodge is thriving in his hands.

Johannes lost the headline-grabbing court battle but nevertheless emerged with control of the 2,700-acre resort he had managed since 1969 for the family mythologized in "The Sound of Music."

For the first time, he can carry out his business vision unimpeded by the family's doubts or opposition.

Since 1995, he said, revenues have doubled and profits tripled. A luxurious new wing opened this winter. Ski magazine just named the lodge one of the country's top 10 hotels in ski country.

These are sweet, personal successes for a man who for nearly 30 years had to harmonize a chorus of sometimes discordant family voices.

A family story

Johannes is a tall, athletic man who prefers a forest trail to a hotel lobby. He would rather talk about plans for new hillside condominiums than relive the family history.

But at 61, he still cannot escape the celebrity imprinted on him by a story that ended before his birth.

Every moviegoer knows the tale how Maria, a convent novice, was sent as a reluctant governess to seven children, married their naval hero father, founded the Trapp Family Singers and, with the family, fled Nazi-occupied Austria.

Johannes, the youngest child, was born three months after the family arrived in the United States. They settled on a rundown farm in Stowe when he was 3.

Under Maria's strong-willed guidance, the family home evolved into a lodge that became a tourist destination when "The Sound of Music" turned the family into cultural icons.

Johannes has said he missed a real childhood. He spent much of every year on the family concert tours. He was home-schooled except for the 18 months when his voice broke and he could not sing.

He began to carve an independent life at Dartmouth College and then the Yale School of Forestry, but stepped into the struggling lodge business in 1969.

"My mother had great charm, but she wasn't a business person," he said. "The guest spending $30 with us was costing us $35, so things weren't in good financial shape.

"I planned to clean things up and install professional management, then go get a Ph.D. But my family kept
running off the managers I hired."

He stayed.

The family, now grown to include many grandchildren, still treated the lodge as home and chimed in on business decisions. Though they were very close, Johannes and his mother clashed often over the business, both digging in their heels.

"I finally learned to leave things the family was bugged about," he said. "If I fixed the torn carpet or the screen door to the kitchen, they just moved on to something else."

Family arguments

Ultimately, 33 von Trapps brothers, sisters and their children owned stock in the Trapp Family Lodge.

The business grew: Johannes opened the first commercial cross-country ski area in the United States; rebuilt the lodge after a disastrous 1980 fire; and developed 100 timeshare condominiums across the road.

He earned the respect of the Stowe business community.

"All the creative things that happened up there, happened because of Johannes," said Arthur Kreizel, a longtime Stowe resort owner who sits on the Trapp board. "Just because you slap the Trapp name on something doesn't mean the money comes in. Without his creative ability and ability to round up financing, they would have been out of business after the fire."

At home, things weren't so simple. After Maria von Trapp died in 1987, family tensions broke into the open.

What Johannes perceived as meddling in the business, other family members saw as an attempt to exclude them.

Most of the siblings ultimately sided with their youngest brother, although even they describe him as strong-willed.

"Johannes wants to do everything his own way. He had nine older brothers and sisters and he doesn't want anybody to tell him what to do," said his sister Rosmarie, 71, who still leads sing-alongs for lodge guests each week.

"It's painful that we can't tell him anything, that he won't take advice from us, but that's the way it is in families," she said.

One point of contention was the Montana ranch Johannes had purchased for the company. The ranch was losing money, Kreizel said, and other family members wanted to sell. Johannes who still speaks of ranching with great love did not.

Other siblings had grievances recalled from childhood, rooted in the complicated dynamics of a large family of children and stepchildren.

"It wasn't the sound of music up there, it was the sound of arguing," said Kreizel.

In 1993, a group of family members ousted Johannes and installed a new president. The Montana ranch was sold.

Johannes won back control the next year and reorganized the ownership structure. Most family members cashed in their shares.

"I couldn't believe how resilient Johannes was," Kreizel said of that time. "Someone with less strength would have folded."

Soon after the buyout, the youngest von Trapp sister, Eleonore Campbell, and 16 nieces and nephews sued, saying their stock was worth double the $2.5 million they had been paid.

In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed. Johannes was ordered to pay relatives an additional $3 million.

The rift in the family is still not healed, Rosmarie Trapp said. Eleonore Campbell declined to be interviewed; her brother won't discuss the subject either.

Cementing control

During the final stages of the court fight, Johannes thought about selling "It would become 'Marriott's Trapp Family Lodge,''' he said at the time.

3He did not sell. Instead, he paid off his relatives and launched a 23-room expansion of the lodge. He also began buying back stock from an outside investor who had provided cash for the original buyout.

To finance all of this, he sold 16.5 acres under the 100 timeshare units for $3.7 million and and borrowed from the banks.

Today, he owns a majority of the company. He is a happier man.

"I don't have to go to 30 stockholders everytime I want to do something. I don't have to worry about what they are going to say. That's a nice feeling," he said.

He sat last week in a paper-strewn office across the road from the lodge, the walls adorned with maps and aerial photographs of his acres.

The lodge was full, at the average holiday rate of $320 a night. Skiers glided along the resort's cross-country trails. The Austrian Tea Room was busy. A long line of families waited for sleigh rides.

'Meeting a von Trapp'

As president, Johannes' main job is the one he has always preferred, planning the company's future growth.

But the company also counts on him for an important and somewhat less comfortable role: Being Maria's son.

"For some guests, it's a very important experience, almost religious, to meet a von Trapp," said Hans van Wees, the lodge's vice president and general manager.

Sixty-one years of celebrity has been wearing. It's no accident that Johannes built his new home at the end of a -mile, unmarked driveway.

"My mother was like a politician, energized after shaking 2,000 hands. I'm energized by going into the forest alone," he said.

Nevertheless, he spends time at the lodge most days, often chatting with guests, being photographed by "Sound of Music" fans, answering questions.

With van Wees, he has recently built a business somewhat less dependent on the Trapp mystique.

The Trapp Family Lodge of 2001 offers luxurious accommodations, rooms for small conferences and lots of seasonal promotions.

But the dilemma remains: Marketing the family story is one key to the lodge's success. That means providing a visible family presence.

Leaning against a table in his office is a life-sized cutout photograph of Johannes, pasted to cardboard.

It was a joke gift from the staff, he said, "So I'll never have to be photographed again."

A new generation

Gaining full control of the company has re-energized Johannes' plans for the resort and its nearly 3,000 acres.

Plans are under way for a phased development of 100 condominiums near the lodge. He'd like to tear down a motel-style annex, which blocks the lodge's eastern view, an replace it with below-grade parking to hide the cars.

There's "the spa issue" whether and how to develop a wellness business that helps guests enjoy the woodlands around the lodge.

He hopes the condominium development will allow him to reduce or eliminate the lodge's debt. And he still would like to get back into the ranching business out West.

For now, he looks with satisfaction at the aerial maps of the forest-covered hills he owns.

"With so much land we control our own destiny, as much as anybody can," he said, with the air of man who has learned how much that means.

The Trapp Family Lodge

SIZE: 2,700 acres with Austrian-themed main lodge, 116 rooms and 100 timeshare chalets

WHERE: Trapp Hill Road, Stowe

VALUE: $11.8 million on town tax rolls. This does not include a $4.5 million expansion since last assessment. `

Just under $10 million in 1999-2000

WHAT'S OFFERED: Conference facilities, executive suites, 100 acres of cross-country ski trails, in-house restaurant, Austrian Tea Room, fitness center with indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, children's program, spring sugar-on-snow parties.

ON THE WEB: www.trappfamily.com

Von Trapp family profile

Here is a look at what became of the family immortalized in "The Sound of Music."

THE PARENTS: Baron Georg von Trapp was 47 when he married 22-year-old Maria. He died in Stowe in 1947; Maria continued to run the Trapp Family Singers, and later the family inn. She died in Stowe in 1987.

THE CHILDREN: Baron von Trapp had seven children with his first wife, Agathe Whitehead, who died in 1922. Rupert, the eldest, was born in 1911. He became a doctor in southern New England and retired in Stowe, where he died in 1992. Agathe, 87, is a retired kindergarten teacher in Maryland. Maria, 86, a retired missionary, lives on Luce Hill near the Trapp Family Lodge. Werner, 85, is a retired dairy farmer in Waitsfield. Hedwig returned to Austria, where she died in 1972. Johanna, an artist, died in Austria in 1994. Martina, youngest of the first family, died in childbirth in 1951. The Baron and Maria von Trapp had three children: Rosmarie, 71, lives in Waitsfield and leads sing-alongs at Trapp Family Lodge. Eleonore, 69, lives in Waitsfield. Johannes, 61, is president of Trapp Family Lodge and lives nearby with his wife, Lynne.

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