Monday, December 28, 2009

Ten Easy Steps to Success as an Innkeeper

I’ve noticed readers frequently comment that they have always dreamt of becoming an innkeeper. For some reason, B&B ownership remains a romantic ideal, shimmering off in the distance like the Emerald City, to be visited, in the mind, at times of job trauma. Before you drop everything and leave Kansas, let me share some conclusions reached after five years in the profession.

Sven and I started receiving guests almost as a hobby. He had been a teacher for 40 years and followed me to the USA after retirement. I assumed innkeeping could be accomplished with one hand tied behind my back so to speak, since, at the time, my other hand was busy doing daily chores for my elderly bedridden mom. Beware this approach. It’s like trying to raise an Amish barn all by yourself. YOU NEED NOT ONLY TWO HANDS, BUT FOUR, SIX, OR MORE. Here are my suggestions for success as an innkeeper:

Number One: If I were young, and determined to own a B&B, I would make a habit of staying at inns to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Then, I’d zero in on the competition and make reservations. Are the beds soft? Hard? Are the pillows lumpy? What are the amenities? Is there a fridge in the room? Is there privacy? How’s breakfast? Do the hosts serve and run, or chat amicably?

Which brings me to Number Two: as with real estate, the key is location, location, location. Do serious research. Chose a place that people visit year-round, ie. not the Outer Cape! (And, don't build over the water, as did the owners of the Chequessett Inn, which was so destroyed by a 1934 ice storm that you see above all that remains.) It is possible to run a profitable business in a seasonal economy, but much harder to generate income off the beaten track. Go for a region that receives lots of tourists. Try to find a city with few established B&Bs. Choose a neighborhood with good public transportation. Use the equation tourists + accommodation = revenue and you’re golden.

Number Three: If you want to receive paying guests in a building you already own, take into consideration how much money will be required to turn it into an inn. Sven and I did not buy our inn. Instead, we started from scratch in my mom’s old Cape Codder. When we realized most guests prefer private bath, renovation work was required in order to offer the perfect third room. If you use an existing building, tally up renovation costs first, add $20,000, then check your savings account for feasibility.

Number Four: Research local rules, regulations, and permits. Different cities and towns and states do not all have the same standards. In Wellfleet, for instance, three rooms is the max unless an inn is grandfathered. In Cambridge, MA, B&B owners need to install sprinkler systems. Some places require off-street parking. You get the idea. Many innkeepers prefer to live in a separate building nearby. Find out if this would be an option.

Number Five: Consider an inn that already has established its reputation and receives return visits from clients. Such places can easily be found on B&B Association Web sites under For Sale. Start-up is much easier with an existing clientele. However, make sure you can live with the name the inn already bears.

Number Six: Ideally, one of the innkeepers should know how to fix almost everything, because you can be sure everything will break, and often over holiday weekends when a plumber’s visit costs a premium.

Number Seven: Position yourself prior to start-up with regard to marketing. Sven and I knew we wanted to adapt our green philosophy to innkeeping. It took me several years to realize our advertising needed to target green guests.

Number Eight: Stay healthy. This is no joke. The summer I caught Lyme Disease, I had no strength or stamina and had to turn guests away.

Number Nine: Guests need clean rooms. Know that innkeepers do a lot of cleaning. If you don’t like to clean, budget for hired help.

Number Ten: Remember that you can’t please everybody, which is why Trip Advisor is not my favorite. All it takes is one comment about cockroaches and instantly your bookings drop, even if the guest, who wrote the comment, mistook a wood roach that wandered inside for its more despicable cousin.

In conclusion, you have to really want to do this to succeed. Innkeepers burn out fast. Some people say seven years, which means we’ve got two left!