The Write Stuff Essay Contest For Inn

LOVELL, Maine — Wanted: new owner for a classic Maine inn. Experience: whatever you’ve got. Requirements: 200 words of pithy persuasion.

Oh, also needed is a willingness to work 17 hours a day.

But for anyone who has day-dreamed of jumping off the 9-to-5 treadmill and running a country inn, Janice Sage is offering an essay contest to let them do just that.

Sage owns the Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant, three hours north of Boston, and is ready to retire 22 years after she acquired the place in a previous essay contest.

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“She’s a beauty,” Sage said of the rambling, 210-year-old inn, which has magnificent views of the Presidential Range. “Who doesn’t want to wake up in the morning and see these mountains?”

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Plenty of people apparently want that experience, despite ultra-long workdays that come from cooking breakfast, cleaning rooms, taking reservations, checking out guests, and serving dinner in a maintenance-greedy inn that is open year-round.

Sage expects more than 7,500 entries from around the globe. At $125 per entry, the total she rakes in could surge past the inn’s estimated value of $900,000.

Sage makes no apologies for seeking a large nest egg as she sails into the rest of her life. After 22 years at the Lovell Inn, and 16 years before that as manager of a busy Maryland restaurant, Sage said she’s earned the right to sit down more than once in a while.

“My feet have been getting bigger every year,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve always been on the go.”

Sage gave few clues to what the winning essay should look like, other than being grammatically correct and showing passion for the work. The subject, “Why I would like to own and operate a country inn,” seems simple. But stringing together the right 200 words — about one-fifth the length of this article — with the right tone, right ingredients, and right passion will be challenging.

Even the winning formula used two decades ago remains a mystery. Sage said the essay is the property of the previous owner and she is prohibited from disclosing its contents. But Sage was more than happy to describe what running the inn requires.

“Unless you raise 14 kids, you’re not going to be used to this,” Sage said, referencing the needs of seven rooms a day, seven days a week in high season. “Look, this is something you start when you’re young. It takes a lot of stamina.”

Reading 7,500 essays also will take a lot of stamina, and Sage intends to read them all by May 17. She will pass along the top 20 essays — without names or addresses — to two people from the area whose identities also will remain a mystery.

The judges are charged with choosing a winner by May 21, and the transfer is expected to occur within 30 days after that.

The deal comes with strings. The new owner must agree to maintain the property as a country inn and restaurant for at least one year after the hand-over, keep the building painted white, and maintain the roofing and shutters in forest green, hunter green, or black.

And there are sweeteners. The victor will receive $20,000 to start running the property, which includes a wraparound porch, a cavernous kitchen, and 12 acres close to Kezar Lake.

The furnishings and equipment come with the inn, but any leftover food and liquor go to Sage, a native of central New York who plans to continue to live near here.

“Why would I go anywhere else? It was too hot in Maryland,” Sage said with a laugh. “New England and upstate New York are a very comfortable place for me — somewhere north of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”

But when she wrote her essay more than two decades ago, Sage had never been to Maine. A friend heard about the contest on the Phil Donahue television show, and Sage paid the $100 entry fee after winning a small prize in the Maryland state lottery.

Three weeks later, she was on her way to Lovell, a village in southwestern Maine within sight of Mount Washington. Sage flew to Portland and hired a driver, who soon became lost while navigating the back roads to the property.

Once in Lovell, however, all was well after Sage spied the inn. “It could have been half in the ground, and I would have taken it,” she recalled. “I was thrilled.”

Not all that followed was thrilling: $500,000 in renovations, scrambling to serve up to 120 diners a night, and two guests whom she told never to return. “One was just being annoying on purpose,” she recalled with a grimace.

Still, the work and its routine have been their own rewards.

“I call her my grande-dame, my big old grande-dame,” Sage said wistfully. “I tell her when I’m painting that if she didn’t clean up so well, I wouldn’t do this.”

And then there are the guests — except the two annoying ones, of course — whom Sage said she’ll miss.

The constant shuffle of visitors meant constantly changing conversations, and close bonds formed between Sage and parents who stayed at the inn every year while delivering children to summer camps.

“I’ll miss it for all the good reasons,” Sage said. “I’ve loved it.”

For her successor, the innkeeper offered advice that should prove to be tougher in practice than concept.

“Just breeze on through and don’t let things bother you,” Sage said. “Enjoy, just enjoy.”


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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe .com.

The tale of the Center Lovell Inn in Maine and its essay have almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas.

Last winter, one of the harshest on record in New England, Janice Sage decided she no longer wanted to run the Maine inn she had owned for two decades.

The Center Lovell Inn, which borders the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was more than 200 years old when Sage acquired it in 1993. To sell it, she did not enlist a real estate agent, or place an ad in any traditional sense. Instead, she sold the inn the same way the previous owner had: by holding an essay contest.

Sage, who then went by Jan Cox, made national headlines after she and her husband at the time paid a $100 entry fee and wrote an essay that made them the proud owners of the inn.

Since then, the tale of the inn has almost become folklore, attracting dozens of property owners with similar ideas. Some want a more personal way to sell properties with sentimental value. Others want to get rid of homes quickly. Others hope a popular contest brings in more than they might make from a conventional sale.

But more often than not, the dream of running a quaint essay contest runs into reality. For starters, many contests are unsuccessful; this was Sage’s second try. An earlier essay contest went nowhere.

Still, many seem undeterred. Karim Lakhani, associate professor who studies online communities and contests at Harvard Business School, said social media and the Internet had made it easier for contests like these to reach a critical mass of people who are willing to pay a nominal fee for a chance.

“This looks like a lottery,” meaning the risk is low and the reward high, Lakhani said. “From the participation point of view, it’s ‘I can put in a few hundred bucks and get a chance to get a house.’ Who wouldn’t want to do that?”


The Maine contest was supposed to have a seamless ending for Sage and the winner, Prince Adams. Sage netted more than $906,000, and Adams, a restaurant owner from the Virgin Islands, won the inn in June after paying $125 to enter the contest.

In fewer than 200 words, Adams wrote of his experience in the hospitality industry, and compared the work to his marriage. “A successful marriage requires passion, hospitality and commitment,” he wrote. “Perhaps the same is true for this venture.”

The 1993 contest had garnered national attention through television reports and newspaper articles; the 2015 version raced across the Internet and social media and drew more than 7,000 entries, about the same number as in 1993.

But just as social media can spur interest, it can also increase criticism. The announcement of a winner drew so many accusations that the contest was rigged that a Facebook group called the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission was established.

“I believe that the essay contest was deceptively advertised, and that many hopeful and trusting people were taken advantage of,” one critic wrote on the inn’s Facebook page.

Fifteen complaints were lodged with the Maine attorney general’s office, which led to an inquiry by the State Police. The agency spent four weeks reviewing the rules, the selection process and complaints about the 1993 contest, which had prompted its own inquiry. It determined Sage had run a game of skill, which is legal in the state, and not a game of luck like a lottery, which is not.

Her troubles seem to have abated, but Adams is still dealing with his. In an interview, he said he was being harassed by people who thought that they should have won the inn or that he had broken the rules.

“We’ve had disgruntled people calling in,” Adams said. After The Boston Globe published his essay, one commenter accused him of breaking the rules by not writing a double-spaced piece. Others have complained that Sage favored entrants with innkeeping experience.

Taking over the inn, he added, was a lot of work: “There were a lot of things we didn’t know going into it,” Adams said.

In a follow-up email, he was more forthcoming about what he called “the sad part of ‘winning’ the contest.”

“They persist on making our lives difficult by giving fake one-star reviews on TripAdvisor,” he wrote of losing contestants, “paying us nasty visits and phone calls, etc. However, the majority of the essay entrants that contact us with well wishes are fantastic.”


The saga has not appeared to deter others. The owners of a goat-cheese farm in Alabama have held a contest for their farmstead, complete with sheep and goats; owners in Marlin, Texas, offered their home for a winning essay and $1; and Realtor Michael Wachs put up his house in Houston. (In a twist, a woman tried to sell her grandmother’s home in Maryland for $100 and a chocolate recipe.) But those contests were halted after failing to accumulate the thousands of entries the owners needed to cover the cost of the prizes. The long process of refunding entry fees then began.

In rural Virginia, Carolyn Berry, 62, a teacher, said she had followed the different iterations of the Maine contest before she and her husband, Randy, decided on a contest for their 35-acre horse farm. She said they initially resisted selling the farm, but eventually agreed to an essay contest for $200 an entry.

The couple has enjoyed reading essays from people who envision a different future for the hobby farm. One essay detailed a willingness to start a home for injured war veterans; another wanted to turn the farm into a quilting studio, Berry said. Reading essays and assuring interested parties about the contest’s integrity take about four hours a day.

“We’ve had to overcome the thing with the Center Lovell Inn,” she said, “the suspicion that this was rigged, so that’s been a detriment to us.”

Berry said she hired a trustee who accepts entries and removes any identifying details, making the essays anonymous before they are forwarded to the couple. A panel of anonymous judges will decide the winner from 25 finalists chosen by the couple. Berry said she and her husband would have to accept the panel’s choice; they cannot override the decision.

To prevent legal problems, Berry created a Facebook page and a Google database of information — and lengthy rules — for prospective entrants. On another Facebook page, she keeps track of similar sweepstakes around the country. There are a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, a nine-room country inn in Vermont and a brick home in Ontario. At one point, Berry said, she was following 20 contests.

She has amassed 3,000 of the 5,000 entries she said the couple needed to earn $1 million for the farm; the money would cover taxes — “35 percent right off the top goes to the federal government,” she said — and help the couple buy a small home to retire. If they do not meet their goal, they might accept fewer entries, or send out refunds, Berry said.

Wachs, the Houston Realtor, was inspired by the Center Lovell Inn, and even submitted an essay. He then held his own contest, hoping for a fast transaction and maybe some publicity on a local blog. Instead, he received so much attention that it crashed his website. But the online attention did not add up to entries: Wachs ended his contest after about a month because he did not receive enough. In the end, he refunded the entry fees and sold his house the conventional way.

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