How to Start Your Own Bed & Breakfast
NEW CAREER: Homework is essential in order to pass the innkeeping test.
Nearly everyone who visits inns has entertained notions of being an innkeeper at some time in their lives. It often happens when people first stay at a beautiful, well-run bed & breakfast. They take in the serene surroundings, meet their cordial, seemingly unruffled innkeeper, and think dreamily, “I could do this.” Well, you probably can. Innkeeping is one of the few sought-after professions that require very little formal training. Ask innkeepers what their occupations were before they started running an inn and you’ll get all kinds of answers — corporate work, software engineers, computer company owners, playwrights, bankers, nursing, teaching, sales — anything, usually, but hotel management. Most innkeepers have made their escape from a high-powered, low-control, high-stress job or a nine-to-five office and commuting grind. When your work day begins by going downstairs to the kitchen and turning on the coffee machine — well, it’s easy to understand the lure.
Yes, you can do it. And if you have a dream, it can crystallize into something that becomes, as one innkeeper says, “much more joy than we imagined...”. And she continues, “It is a rare privilege to be able to offer something that is better than people had imagined, to watch them melt on the floor with pleasure and surprise that such a thing can be...” It is also “much more work ...than we imagined” she says.
But it can be done — if you love being around people all the time, don’t mind long hours, hard physical work, very little money or time to yourself and wearing many hats at once. If you have carpentry, gardening, cooking and business-marketing skills, that’s also a good start. An innkeeper is much like the director of a film and guests are the audience — they see only the finished product, not all of the work and sweat that went into making it look that way.
Today, however, it’s not enough to reel out the same old “film.” With more than 19,000 bed & breakfasts and country inns across the nation, it will not be easy to rise above the competition. In a crowded B&B market, innkeepers who are making it financially are those who love what they are doing, offer exceptional quality and character and know how to make themselves known.
When B&Bs were first opening 15 or 20 years ago, there were hardly any learning resources for the aspiring innkeeper — you just jumped into it and learned as you went along. Now, however, innkeeping is taken much more seriously, and the only way to stay ahead of the game is to view it as a professional business. Take a look at any successful inn today and you’ll find an innkeeper who has done more than his or her share of homework.
Beginning your research
Where do you start? Begin by reading books and trade journals on the subject (see the resource list at the end of this article) to get an overview of the profession. Check out innkeeper resources on the Internet, take innkeeping classes or workshops. If you’re still not sure whether innkeeping is for you, try interning as an innkeeper at a nearby inn.
Most importantly, before, and even after, you have started your own B&B, visit as many other inns — successful inns — as you can. Traveling to a well-conceived inn is like taking a mini-course in innkeeping — it gives one a better awareness of what appeals to guests and what satisfies their needs, such as amenities, projecting a sense of hospitality, special services and the many tiny details that go into creating a great lodging experience. Not only can you pick up countless new ideas at other inns, but playing the role of the guest is something all innkeepers should practice now and then.
Types of Bed & Breakfasts
Next, you should decide what type of B&B you want — a bed & breakfast inn in a tourist area, an urban inn or country inn —and clearly define your goals.
Here are some characteristics of the different types of bed & breakfasts:
Bed & Breakfast Inn:
—May or may not have TVs, phones in the room.
—Usually has a common room.
—Continental or full breakfast is included in rates.
—A commercial business that can be sold.
—Can advertise and signage is allowed.
—Full-time occupation, not a hobby business.
—Two to 30 rooms.
—Usually collects bed tax and meets all local license requirements.
—Similar to B&B inn.
—Centrally located in a city location.
—Often offers business traveler amenities.
—Similar to B&B inn.
—Generally implies a dining room and offers both breakfast and dinner.
—Breakfasts may or may not be included in the rates.
__May or may not be “in the country”
The most important aspect of starting an inn is choosing a location. If you simply want to preserve your great-grandmother’s house no matter what it takes, then there is no decision on location. Likewise, if you’ve inherited the property, and there is no mortgage payment to meet. (However, you may be better off to sell the inherited building and buy a more appropriate property.) If you envision a hobby type business and you have another source of income, this is also the case.
However, if you plan to make a career of innkeeping, choosing a location is the most important decision you will make. In a nationwide survey of innkeepers, we asked “With the knowledge you have now, what would you do differently at your inn if you could start over?” The most frequent answers given were “picking a better location” and “having more rooms.”
But innkeepers went on to clarify what they meant by the better location. They said they needed to be closer to the theater district, within walking distance of the most popular attraction in town, lakefront instead of across the street from the water, or be on the main street in town. Some wished they would have picked an area that had more year-round traffic and less seasonal business. In retrospect, most wished they could have paid the extra price for a better location.
Consultant and innkeeper Carl Glassman in an article for the The Journal for Innkeepers, says, “Indeed, certain destinations ... are approaching saturation. However, there are many other geographic areas in the country that are ripe for inn lodgings, such as mid-size destination cities ... In addition, new inns serving distinct, well-researched market segments continue to open and thrive even in established destinations.”
In an article titled “Hottest Hotel Markets in the United States,” the top 10 hotel markets included the following:
—Most were in the largest population centers in their state.
—Each was a major commercial center.
—Some were major port cities.
—Attractions included prominent cultural and educational institutions; some had professional sports teams.
—Five were centers for high-technology and computer research.
—Each of the 10 had multiple natural, historical and recreational attractions.
We offer a location test that we developed several years ago during our years of teaching “How to Start a Bed & Breakfast” in the California University system. This is one way to begin to evaluate a location. For the most accurate results, objectivity is important.
Score points and half-points and add up your total at the end.
1. Population centers. If the inn is within a two-hour drive of a large population area, score one point per million. For population centers farther away — within a four-hour drive — score a half a point per million populations.
2. If there are other B&Bs and country inns within five miles, score a half point for each. If there are none, deduct four points.
3. If occupancy rates are 60 percent year-round in small hotels and motels in the area, add two points.
4. If the occupancy rate is more than 70 percent, add two additional points.
5. Have occupancy rates dropped in last year? Deduct two points for each percentage drop. (Information about occupancy can be derived from transient bed tax collected by local authorities.)
6. Do you have a solid source of referral business? Add four points.
7. Is there a short tourist season? If the season is less than five months subtract two points.
8. Is there a long tourist season? If more than five months add a half point per month for each month over five.
9. Is there a university or large hospital within walking distance? Add two points.
10. Is the property close to local attractions? If it’s a short walk, add five points. For a long walk add three points. If there is more than one major attraction, add one point.
11. Are you within a mile of a major interstate? Add two points.
12. Has there been a decline in traffic count or tourism? Subtract two points.
13. Are you in a town that will offer you heavy business traveler traffic? Add three points.
14. Is there a major flaw in your prospective location? Subtract 10 points (next to a gas station, difficult to reach, on the wrong part of town, etc.).
Here’s how to score the inn location:
1-5 Forget it.
6-10 Only if you have money and time to spare.
11-15 Marginal. Have another job to supplement.
16-20 Possible, but count on long build up time. Concentrate on promotion, hold back on over spending on refurbishing. Don’t quit your job.
21-25 Good location but plan on working hard on marketing.
26-35 Choice location. Plan on two to four years for high occupancy. Work on promotion and inn personality.
36+ Prime location if you can afford it. Don’t blow it. Decorate and market professionally.
When you are gathering your material to take to a bank, you will need to prepare a business plan/prospectus of the property you wish to buy, whether it is an existing inn or a property to be converted.
In it you will need sections on location, area occupancy rates, your projected occupancy, room rates of nearby lodging, floor plans, expansion plans, marketing plans, etc. If you hire an inn buying consultant, a commercial contractor or a hotel/inn appraiser, they will help you pull this piece together. A detailed projection of expected financial results and actual cash requirements for at least three years should be included. Using discounted cash flow calculations, it is possible to determine an approximate value for your inn.
Appraising a property to determine its true worth is not a job for amateurs. Your local residential Realtor will do you a disservice if he or she tries. Get the expertise of an experienced inn consultant, a hotel appraiser or other professional. In most cases, these days, you will be making very serious financial decisions and you will want the most professional help available. In our innkeeper survey mentioned previously, we asked for financing advice for perspective innkeepers when dealing with the special needs of small inns. The most frequent suggestion given was to work with your local bank. Many innkeepers had taken their prospectus around to downtown banks in larger cities near them, only to be turned down time and time again. One innkeeper had 12 interviews with loan officers at 12 different banks, only to finally find his local banker willing to finance his package. “Become friends with your local banker,” is advice that applies to owners of all types of companies. Although financing lodging properties is not a specialty of most local banks, many consider it good business to try to accommodate their local customer base and to extend this type of financing. Many inns are now finding Small Business Administration loans nationally through The Money Store. According to Nancy Davis, Vice President and Regional Sales Manager at the company’s Sacramento, Calif. headquarters, The Money Store offers an alternative that is very popular for the innkeeping community. A Small Business Administration lender since 1983, one of its specialties is in owner-occupied businesses, such as doctors’ practices and small inns. Davis states, “The popularity of the program is due to its long-term loan payback of 25 years and its low down payment. Customarily, an 80 percent loan-to-value loan is made.” A typical bed & breakfast loan for The Money Store is in the area of $300,000-$600,000, but it can go as high as $1.5 million. If you are planning on building your inn from scratch and are putting together a start-up operation, however, you will need 30 percent down figured on the entire cost of the start-up, including furniture and fixtures, etc.
Creating a unique inn
One element that has changed recently in the B&B business are the guests themselves. Travelers today are much more sophisticated and discerning than in the early B&B days. A weekend at a cute little inn doesn’t always fill their expectations. Nowadays, inngoers want a more memorable experience in exchange for their hard-earned dollar — something really exceptional and different. It’s not enough to have a run-by-the-book, generic, chain-style B&B. You will need to create ways to set yourself apart from everyone else and be noticed.
Find a certain style or theme that you feel comfortable with and play it up as much as possible. Begin by using the advantages that already exist naturally. Take the building itself, for example: Is there something unique about its history, style or architecture? Can you accentuate these features with a certain decor, menu or interesting collection? What if your inn is Victorian — the most common perception of a B&Bs around? Then do something slightly different with your interior, like branching off into an Arts and Crafts or Jacobean decor.
No matter what style you choose, you can further establish a sense of originality by adding your own whimsical decorating touches. Create a lamp out of an old-fashioned fitting form; use a fishing tackle basket to hold the tissue box; put some quirky surprise in the closet.
Perhaps you have an absolutely fabulous location, with river frontage, wildlife, scenic acreage or vineyards. But if not, what is unique about the general region you live in? If your B&B is in the Southwest, for example, you can play up the Southwestern theme with chile baskets and spicy dishes. Is there bird watching in your area? Then emphasize a bird theme at your inn with birding books, extra binoculars and bird feeders outside the windows of the breakfast room. Is the wine country nearby? Don’t just name your rooms after grapes — feature wine-tastings and special wine seminars for your guests. To further establish a unique identity, more and more inns are creating guest rooms with novel motifs, such as specific historic and nostalgic themes, international themes and storybook themes.
Incorporate your own interests, whether it’s the opera or rabbits, and make this your theme. This is a perfect opportunity to convey a sense of whimsy and humor to your guests. Take The Jabberwock, for example — a Lewis Carroll-inspired inn in Monterey. Your stay begins with a welcome note that has to be held up to a mirror to be read; some of the clocks are backwards, and guest rooms have names like Mimsey and Wabe. Breakfasts include dishes such as “snorkleberry flumptious” and “phantasmagoria.” Though a fantastic location and incredible luxury always help make an inn stand out, not every inn owner has the resources to sink into oceanfront acreage, Egyptian cotton towels or individual hot tubs. A more important factor — and one that can make your guests feel very pampered — is attention to detail. Decorate the breakfast plates with little edible flowers. Leave a handwritten welcome note for your guests. Provide lots of special little amenities: hot-out-of-the-oven cookies upon check-in; a basket of emergency goodies in the bathroom; a nice decanter of water by the bed; something more clever than the usual chocolate at turndown. (One health-oriented hotel in San Francisco places a beta-carotene tablet on the pillow with a philosophical good-night thought.) Instead of one rubber ducky by the tub, give guests a whole basket of bathtub toys. Send your guests off with a little gift when they check out. It’s these little surprises that they’re going to remember later and tell their friends about. Ripley Hotch and Carl Glassman, authors of How to Start & Run Your Own Bed & Breakfast, have summed up the key to successful innkeeping quite succinctly: “Heed this. Avoid the stereotype. In order to be a success, you have to be idiosyncratic, maybe even eccentric. You have to be, above all, more than people expect. If at least one guest a week doesn’t say that, or something like it, you’re not sufficiently different.”
Once you have created the idiosyncratic inn of your dreams — or as close to it as your budget will allow — you’ll need to find ways to make yourself known and fill those rooms. That means you must sell your unique inn concept to people just as anyone would a new product. In every marketing move you make, focus on how you can promote your inn as more than just another face in the crowd. There are a few crucial investments you’ll need to make right from the beginning: The first and most important is an attractive, professionally designed web site. Remember that this is the only visual and verbal impression of your inn that most guests will have before they arrive. Some innkeepers will hire a professional web designer to put together their web site. However, this can cost thousands of dollars. As an alternative, many innkeepers use a service such as SiteBuilder at InnTouch.com. Using SiteBuilder, innkeepers can inexpensively and easily build their own web site using professional designs and and styles. Another crucial marketing element is a well-written brochure. As you design your brochure, remember that this is the No. 1 item that media people will keep from your press kit and refer to when they write copy for their guidebooks and articles. Give them something to write about. Thousands of inn brochures have been written with the same well-worn phrases that give no idea of the inn’s unique character. If you don’t feel up to writing a creative, distinctive brochure, then hire a professional to do it. A good line drawing of your inn, plus some professional-quality color slides are also essential in your marketing strategy. These can be used for all kinds of publicity, including your own brochure. Remember — these few visual images may make or break a decision to come and stay with you, so it’s important for them to be good. Next, join whatever professional organizations would be advantageous for you on an international, state and local level. (The Professional Association of Innkeepers International has great resources for both aspiring and established innkeepers.) Invite groups like AAA, Mobil and state associations of country inns to come and rate your inn. Use these names in your publicity to give your inn more credibility. When you are ready to make your “debut,” send out press kits to the media, including guidebook authors, magazines and newspapers — your richest sources of free publicity. Go to several bookstores, see what B&B guidebooks are getting the best exposure, and find out how to get in them. Some guidebooks charge a fee ranging from about $50 to $100. If the book and publishers have a proven track record it should be worthwhile, depending on what markets you are trying to target. Search online to see what online guides are available. When researching, find out where your online listing will be displayed. Will it be at only one location on the Internet, or will potential guests be able to find you on many different Internet sites? Will you receive a listing in a guidebook with your online listing? Find out how much traffic the sites receive. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples. While one Internet site may tell you how many “hits” it receives, another may note how many “page views” or “unique visitors” it gets. These are not the same. Ask for the number of unique visitors, as this will tell you how many different people actually visit the site. Many innkeepers say that online and guidebook listings provide their largest source of referrals. Eventually, a good inn will then turn these Internet and guidebook customers into repeats who will refer additional people and your circle of fame will spread. However, keep in mind that you will always need to have new customers to make up for those who move away or no longer travel. Other creative ways to fill your rooms include special promotions (such as a frequent stayer program or the American Historic Inns Buy-One-Night-Get-One-Night-Free programs), special events (such as mystery weekends or seasonal open houses), offering a toll-free phone number, and cooperative advertising with other inns. The latter is especially beneficial if you are in an area where there is a high concentration of inns. You may find greater strength in numbers by banding together with group marketing, referrals, events and brochures. A lot of innkeepers are afraid of losing their individuality by doing this, and they prefer to remain insular, pretending that they’re the only inn around. But this kind of myopic vision usually does more harm than good. Cooperating with other inns can only give your inn an image of greater integrity. Innkeepers in some areas spend as much as 20 hours a week on marketing activities. Lynn Montgomery, former owner of Gold Mountain Manor, is an Emmy award winner and continues to write screenplays and movies. When she ran her inn in Big Bear a few years ago, she found that whenever she let up on her marketing activities she saw a decrease in occupancy within a few weeks. Being in a mountain area two hours from Los Angeles (and a saturated area for B&Bs, cabin and house rentals) presented a huge challenge. Montgomery spent hours each week on the phone trying to interest editors in stories and themes about the area mountains. Members of the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce told her that whenever they saw press on Big Bear they knew she had been the one to generate the interest. Marketing is critical for an inn’s success unless your favorite uncle owns the packed four-star historic hotel a block down the street, with 80 percent occupancy. (We recently met innkeepers benefitting from this precise situation.)One of the most efficient ways to fill your rooms is to make your guests happy — so happy that they are motivated enough to return and tell their friends about your inn. To make them happy, you will need to find out what they want and don’t want at an inn. Some “wants” are universal: Every guest wants to feel welcome and comfortable and special; to be greeted with warmth and genuine enthusiasm at the door; to be oriented to the inn personally by the innkeeper. The amount of privacy guests need varies. Most guests want some attention from the innkeepers — usually at check-in or during breakfast — but they don’t want the innkeepers hovering.What do guests want in their bedroom? Counter space — lots of it — good reading lights, a firm, comfortable bed with nice linens, some written information about the inn and its policies (because they won’t remember everything you tell them at check-in), and lots of little amenities, like flowers, snacks and refreshments. Of course, it goes without saying that everyone expects their room to be super clean and fresh.
B&Bs are tending toward more sophisticated luxuries, and private baths are a bigger priority than ever. Not just a private bathroom, but a nice, spotless bathroom with lots of fluffy towels and pampering toiletries. Jacuzzi tubs for two have also been a popular trend in recent years.
What people want from breakfast can be tricky because it depends on the layout of your inn and the types of inngoers you draw. A growing trend is to let the guests choose the time and place (in their own room or in the dining area), or to offer a serve-yourself buffet breakfast during a certain time range. Most guests look forward to an artfully presented, gourmet breakfast. What do guests not want? Most guests don’t care for too much froo froo, fuss and frills. They don’t like finding personal items in the closets, or any reminders that they are intruding in someone’s private home. Most guests feel uncomfortable with a don’t-touch environment, where everything is so formal that they feel compelled to tip-toe around and whisper. And no guest likes being given a list of too many things they can’t do. Business travelers are a market that more inns are catering to — especially single travelers who want a home-like environment while away on business — and their needs can be very different from the vacationer. They’ll probably want a phone in their room, desk space, early morning coffee and breakfast on the run.
Some inns, especially those in cities, are pulling out all the stops for business travelers, offering meeting rooms, fax machines and computers. Other niches that more innkeepers are targeting include retirees (one of the fastest growing travel groups), people with children and those who travel with their pets. Entertaining groups such as weddings, business meetings, retreats and other events can be a great source of income for your inn, but it’s a lot of work and often intrusive for your other guests. You’ll have to decide if your inn can handle the special needs of these niches. Don’t try to be all things to all people. To further understand what your guests need, spend a night in each of your guest rooms, trying them out personally. Pretend you are the guest — unpack luggage, use the shower, sleep and read in the bed. You’ll be amazed at how enlightening this can be. Hotch and Glassman write: “Taking care of people for an innkeeper means showing a kind of care that will surprise the guest. And as long as inns offer what many marketers call high touch (warmth and genuine hospitality, personal service, and attention to detail) to their guests, who live and work in an increasingly high-tech world, they will continue to grow and prosper.” Just make sure it’s your own singular style of high touch. Our favorite innkeepers are those who have something of themselves to give, some wonderful quirky interest or warm, yet eccentric part of their personality that they extend into innkeeping. Some are naturally charismatic, great storytellers or quiet, sensitive caretakers. Some philosophers say the highest art is living well. To us the best innkeepers live their own beautifully creative lives. They renew and restore themselves instead of being swallowed up by the ever-enlarging work loads that can tempt them in this career. One exceptionally creative, nationally recognized innkeeper I admire is not always available to her guests — she trades work days with her husband. Each has three or four days a week to pursue their writing and community affairs. They keep their own individual passions alive and it is this energy that makes their inn a lively, joyful, celebratory place.
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