To introduce you to innkeepers across America, this recurring column reveals how ordinary people turned their dream into a reality; how the innkeepers' lifestyle compares with their fantasies; and what they do to make their inn so special. In this feature you’ll meet Frank Salvo who, with his partner Ralph Coffey, owns and operates the 1889 WhiteGate Inn & Cottage in Asheville, North Carolina.
What sparked your interest in running a bed and breakfast?
Actually what started that was in the summer of 1998. We wanted a change in careers and a change in life, so we came here on vacation and decided we liked it. Ralph and I asked ourselves, “Well, how are we going to get to Asheville and have a wonderful life doing it?”
What did you do prior to becoming an innkeeper?
We were both in the medical field. Ralph was a dentist and I was an X-ray technologist managing ambulatory radiology departments. But I think my real background for running a bed and breakfast is from coming from a big Italian family.
How did you envision life as an innkeeper?
You know, I pretty much read some books on B&Bs and I just kind of figured that I knew what I liked when I was traveling so I kind of figured it was going to be OK. I was going to be able to do this because I knew what I liked in an inn and then I read a lot about what it takes to do it.
So my preparation was reading and understanding the business and knowing what it takes to do it. I knew there was going to be a lot of work. Lots of long days and long hours so I kind of prepared myself that way. Between the time I “retired” in December 1998 and we closed on the inn in March 1999 I was creating menus and coming up with recipes and those sorts of things. There was never any internship. I just came and jumped on in while Ralph continued running his practice for the next 18 months.
How did the fantasy compare with the reality?
I didn’t really have any fantasy, that was the thing. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. I knew what I was getting into and didn’t have a romantic notion of what running a B&B was going to be.
Over the years a lot of people said “This must be so much fun” -- and it is! It’s a lot of guest interaction and a lot of socializing and we have our moments when we sit on porch and have a glass of wine. But in all reality, that is one hour of your day. One hour sitting with guests and having wine on the porch. But that doesn’t count the hours spent setting it up and the hours after cleaning it up.
Our guests enjoy an hour with a glass of wine and then they are gone – but that’s what they pay for. They don’t want to be concerned about what we do. It’s not what a B&B experience is all about. They don’t need to know what’s going on behind the scenes and this is the funny part of it is: Our guests have to believe it is a very… easy… life. It is our job to make them think that innkeeping is the easiest thing in the world.
So they’re not going to see you ironing sheets at 11 at night or cleaning toilets or standing in the kitchen and cooking while answering the phone and taking a reservation and then answering the door when the bell rings. They don’t need to see that, and they don’t want to see that.
What is the most pleasing aspect of running a bed and breakfast?
The interaction with guests is so much fun. I’m an actor and comic by trade, so for me that is so much fun. I laugh, I tease, I joke. I do a lot of things most innkeppers would say “Oh, you’re crazy!” And I am. And I am pretty lucky. I have a family I see every day. My staff is a family that we’ve created and it’s enjoyable to be with them.
I have a theory at our inn that, Number One, if you can’t enjoy yourself while you’re at work, you don’t need to be in this job. Number Two, you don’t work for me if you think it’s a job. You work for me because you are devoted to the inn.
And that’s what makes the difference.
What do you find most challenging?
Wearing all the different hats is the most challenging part of being a B&B owner. You are a bookkeeper, a reservationist, a host, and you have to know every aspect of everyone’s job because you can’t expect someone to do a job you can’t do yourself.
With all of the demands on your time, how do you find time for yourself?
When I first bought the inn, I had four rooms and I did everything myself with one part-time housekeeper. But that was 14 years ago. Now I have five buildings and 11 units, large suites and a staff of seven that pretty much runs the inn, and my housekeepers keep it clean so today my time is basically mine. Ralph and I live off-site, but I come in every single day, cook one day a week, and am the executive chef the rest of the time to oversee what goes out of my kitchen.
I serve breakfast to my guests and spend time with them then. Then I do paperwork and computer work and webwork and that is my day.
Where do you focus your attention when marketing and advertising?
Internet. Everything is Internet and SEO (search engine optimization) driven. That’s where my focus is. Brochures don’t work and the only guidebooks that work is AAA because we’re a 4-Diamond property.
And we were the first property in North Carolina to work with Living Social which is a good marketing and a cash flow system. We don’t do deals all year. We have Living Social timed so it’s optimal for our guests and for us in the slow season when we need an extra boost in cash flow. Our participation is very structured with a start date and an end date.
What do you do to make your bed and breakfast different from others?
In addition to having the most incredible gardens in the city, everything we do is service-oriented. Everything is impeccably done. All the details are there, and it can be the very small things such as greeting our guests at the door with a glass of champagne. You don’t find that kind of service just anywhere. We do things with flair.
What qualities should aspiring innkeepers have?
That person should be service oriented and they should be a forward thinker. Plus, they need to understand that education is paramount. Education from the industry. There are so many places out there that teach, that do webinars, that do seminars and conferences.. education is key to anything you do. If an innkeeper comes in with the idea that they don’t need to pursue continuing education, they are going to fail.
What advice would you offer to someone who would like to open an inn?
It depends on what you expect out of your life. I never wanted life here to be everything and all-consuming, so you have to make those decisions when you purchase an inn.
How much do you want to do? How much will you do and how much will you farm away? What will you delegate and what will you do yourself? What are you happy doing and what are you not happy doing? And then you make the business viable enough to do what you want it to do for you or you get out of the business.
The 1889 Whitegate Inn is a AAA 4-Diamond Award-Winning property in Asheville, North Carolina. Voted one of the Top Ten Romantic Inns by BedandBreakfast.com, the inn features Jacuzzi tubs, spa services, lush gardens, is within walking distance of downtown Asheville, and is conveniently close to Biltmore, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Lure, Hendersonville, and the Flat Rock Theatre.