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So You'd Like To Own A B&B?

Straighten Out Your Learning Curve With These Practical Tips

By Gary McKechnie

So You'd Like To Own A B&B?

Home Sweet Home. The Coconut Cottage Inn in Mount Dora, Florida

Image © Gary McKechnie

The vision is simple and seductive. As a bed and breakfast owner all you have to do is awaken each day to a morning filled with witty repartee and spend every afternoon lazing on a wide verandah, mingling with thankful guests pleased to be in the presence of an actual innkeeper…

Actually, your new lifestyle will involve unusual hours and unusual guests. It will expect that you be skilled in a variety of areas you previously knew nothing about. From guests to inspectors, you’ll be thrown curves that no book or training class could prepare you for. But if you’re determined to own an inn, chances are you’ll love it just the same.

As aspiring innkeepers, my wife Nancy and I followed in the footsteps of nearly every other prospective innkeeper and learned some valuable lessons along the way. Since this may be the most costly financial and emotional investment you’ll ever make, these basic tips we learned through ‘trial and terror’ may save you hundreds of thousands of dollars – and your sanity.

1. Patience

I often tell aspiring innkeepers about the couple so anxious to enjoy the innkeepers’ lifestyle they paid twice as much as their favorite inn was actually worth. Within months, though, they found the tea and scones they had enjoyed as guests had been replaced by the less glamorous tasks of cleaning toilets, making beds, and staying up to accommodate late arrivals. Within a year they sold the inn at a $400,000 loss. Few couples can turn the desire to run a B&B into the instant reality of owning a B&B - and that can be a good thing. Be prepared for your fair share of false starts, frustration, and reality checks. And when that dream comes true, it may not resemble anything you ever imagined (but it will still be amazing).

2. Inn-tern

Before you buy, inn-tern.

To learn the realities of running an inn we struck a deal with the owners of a 16-room North Carolina inn who, in exchange for our help preparing and serving breakfast, washing dishes, making beds, doing laundry, carrying bags and other tasks real innkeepers do, provided us with practical lessons in marketing, advertising, accounting, cooking, customer service, scheduling, maintenance and the dozens of other skills every innkeeper needs to know. Even though we worked from daybreak to nearly midnight, we were encouraged to follow up with a two-month inn-ternship in Lenox, Massachusetts that confirmed we truly had a passion for the business.

So before gambling on your fantasy:

    • If a taste is all you need, more cost-effective is conducting a web search for innkeepers needing assistance and/or contact the PAII, the Professional Association of Innkeepers International and asking for referrals to anyone needing help. Even if you’re only paid a stipend – or nothing at all – the practical experience you’ll gain and real-life lessons you’ll receive from experienced innkeepers will be invaluable.

3. Get Real

There are numerous former executives and CEOs who plunge into innkeeping only to find their new world doesn’t encourage delegation. Whether you’re arriving from the white collar world or have worked your way up as an hourly employee, get real. Cooking, cleaning, custodial, maintenance, payroll, promotion, design, bell services, purchasing and repairs rest upon the shoulders of the innkeeper. And if you’re half of a couple, there are other home truths. If you and your spouse have never worked together, are you honestly ready to spend 24 hours a day side by side? Who has the last word on the logo? The final say on French toast? Design and décor? Special offers and extras? From breakfast to bookkeeping, there are dozens of ways to bruise egos and spark friction.

A few things to consider:
    • Define responsibilities
    • Treat each other as equals
    • Take separate days off

4. Research (And Repeat)

So will you search among established inns or convert a home outside the B&B district? There’s good and bad in each option.
    • Existing Inn

    Good: Turnkey operation, instant cashflow. Get a mortgage and walk right in. Usually the owners will train you how to run the place.

    Bad: You’ll likely pay a premium for the business and the goodwill developed by the current owners (who naturally think it’s worth far more than you’d expect).

    • Home Conversion

    Good: Usually costs much less than an existing B&B. Offers nearly total creative control in its eventual look, style, and atmosphere.

    Bad: Be prepared to battle neighbors who will assume you’re opening a combination brothel/gambling den. You’ll have to adhere to a litany of city, state, and federal regulations. Expect to pay more than anticipated for quality appliances, furniture, life safety systems, landscaping, and renovations -- and wait several months for guests to know you’re there.

    • Location – In Town

    Good: Usually good walk-by traffic. Make a good impression on the established network of innkeepers and they’ll likely direct business your way when they’re full.

    Bad: A good location costs and there’s a chance business among existing inns is so scarce that you may get few, if any, referrals.

    • Location - Out Of Town

    Good: Offering a lifestyle that combines peace and quiet with the occasional company of guests, creating a ‘destination location’ inn can satisfy both needs.

    Bad: Owners of ‘destination locations’ have to work much harder to attract travelers.

A final word of encouragement: If you’re patient, learn your lessons, understand what you’re getting into, have completed your homework and you still think you’re going to be an innkeeper…

You’re going to be an innkeeper.

Related Features

    To see how two innkeepers have built a B&B business that’s enjoyed more than twenty years of success, visit The 1898 Waverly Inn.

    Meet Lynnette Scofield, a woman who turned her dream into a profitable reality Meet the Innkeepers.

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