When John and Eileen Loken walked in the conference center in the Twin Cities last week, leaders of the biggest, most expensive hotels in the state surrounded them.
“We felt like the country cousins going up there from Houston (Minn.),” says John Loken.
It is a safe bet that most of the executives at the Minnesota Lodging Association’s annual meeting couldn’t have found the small town of Houston on a state map. However, by the end of the night they knew about Houston and its small hotel, Loken's Sawmill Inn & Suites.
The Lokens won the association’s Property of the Year award for hotels with 50 rooms or less. With its mere 14 rooms, Loken’s Sawmill is the smallest hotel to ever win the award.
“It felt pretty special. There you are being honored by all of these big hotels,” says Loken. “It was real exciting to win, since we’re new to this.”
Actually, Loken is probably best known in the area for his many years selling used cars at Clements Chevrolet in Rochester. After he left the car business, he and his wife moved to John’s hometown of Houston. There they bought the land where his grandfather’s sawmill had once stood along Highway 16, on the east side of the town.
At the time, a car wash was on the site and they ran that business for a while.
Then in 2005, the Lokens noticed that Houston was attracting many hunters, autumn leaf spotters, snowmobilers and others to the head of the Root River Trail.
“We saw a need for some lodging and we just took a chance,” says Loken.
So they tore down the car wash and built their small inn.
Now five years after opening, he says the homey hotel is really coming into its own.
Staffed by six plus the Lokens, it has been running at about 45 percent occupancy this year logging about 2,300 room nights in 2010.
“It has had an impact on the Houston economy,” he says, noting people spend more time and money in the town now that visitors have a place to stay,
When asked what made the Sawmill Inn stand out from the six other nominated hotels, Denny Breamer of the Minnesota Lodging Association said the drive they had to build this hotel themselves and work to make the business grow.
Positive customer reviews plus attractive and clean rooms helped the Sawmill cut through the competition.
So the “country cousins” ended up with a night in the spotlight and their urban peers learned a little about the geography of southeast Minnesota.