Owning Your Own B&B

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

If you’ve ever been thoroughly charmed by a weekend at a B&B, you might have had a little daydream about becoming an innkeeper yourself. Imagine owning a gracious and beautifully appointed home (that qualifies for a large tax write-off) to which you welcome a parade of interesting people (who pay you to host them) while you indulge your yen to bake bread (someone else cleans the stove) and tend to your award-winning roses (never plagued by beetles).

Clearly, on the upside, running an inn offers a special opportunity to be your own boss, to meet tons of new people, to own a property that’s grander than you might otherwise be able to afford, and maybe even to enjoy your own private pool or tennis court.

But whether you’ll have time to actually indulge yourself in any of these amenities is another story. Innkeeping, like gynecology, is a 24/7 business. With both, you’re always on call.

And, its hard work. As with a top-notch ballet or orchestral performance, when the service in a B&B seems flawless, you can be absolutely sure it didn’t happen by accident. When it comes to the hospitality industry, behind-the-scenes advance planning and meticulous upkeep are keys to success.
Making the Transition

Kathleen Hurley, who came to the B&B business after three decades as an executive for companies such as Federated Department Stores, the Limited, and Montgomery Ward, says this business is not for sissies.

Ten years before I exited my industry, I got interested in B&Bs,” she recalls. “I saw it as a new lifestyle and a way to have my own business before I retired.” When she was still holding down a corporate job, Hurley, then in her 50s, took a course for aspiring innkeepers to learn about the nitty-gritty—financing, mortgages, and ownership issues. After much research she decided to look for a property in a costal location in a town that welcomed tourists. She purchased a two-story Mediterranean stucco inn in St. Augustine, Florida, with five guestrooms. The B&B is called “house of dreams” or Casa de Suenos (www.casadesuenos.com).

“It has been fabulous,” she recently reflected. She boasts many new friends, customers who return four or five times a year. But she adds a word of warning to those who hold a romantic view of the innkeeper’s life. “Private ownership of a business is a big leap. It’s been a learning experience. After 32 years of corporate life, where you rely on staff to handle day-to-day issues, you quickly discover there’s no help desk to call here; you have to become resourceful.”
Human Touch

Despite all the work, Hurley says owning a B&B is fun. “People come here because they are celebrating, maybe honeymooning, or just on a getaway. It’s not as stressful when the people around you are having a good time.”

One of the benefits of the B&B environment, she adds, is the conviviality. “The guests talk about everything–about how they met each other, about their kids and what work they do; you don’t get that opportunity in a hotel.” She says the B&B opens up communication. “A lot of people now don’t even know their neighbors at home because they are so caught up in what they have to do every day. The B&B is like a return to the past; while you are here, you talk to people and make connections. Some guests who just met even go out to dinner.”
Where the Money Is, and Goes

Year to year, B&Bs don’t make you a millionaire (although the larger the number of rooms, the better the economies of scale, and the greater the potential profit). The real profit is often realized when the business is sold as one big, attractive package: a well situated and well kept property, with a good reputation and marketing that’s been built up over time, all tied up with a nice pink ribbon of customers who return, season after season.

But a B&B can sponge up your cash, and savings, too, if you’re not careful. Even a small hotel property can be extremely costly to purchase. An innkeeper has to be concerned with meeting building codes, passing fire inspections, and dealing with zoning, licensing, and security, any one of which might entail unanticipated expenses. Regular outlays are needed to cover high utility bills, property taxes and insurance, not to mention staffing and marketing. An unusual or historic property can make for an appealing inn setting, but antique plumbing can give you both a headache and a balance sheet nightmare. Even the new appliances that customers demand in a competitive hotel market— for instance, spa-quality whirlpool tubs in every room—can be pricey to maintain.

It’s great if, as a prospective innkeeper, you are handy with a hammer and paintbrush, and come equipped with granny’s secret recipe for killer blueberry muffins. But it’s even better if you come into this business with a strong background in management, sales, marketing, and accounting. For behind the cozy rooms and genteel, personal service, a bed and breakfast is, first and foremost, a business.

So you dream of being an innkeeper? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Questions for Would Be Innkeepers to Ponder

* Are you a morning person? It seems obvious that the “second “B” in “B&B” refers to breakfast. You need to either enjoy work and company in the early morning— or delegate that part of the job.
* Do you like to be around people? Guests come to a B&B for that personal touch, after all.
* Can you afford to do this, and not sink every penny into it? You’ll need a cushion to get through bad seasons, unexpected repairs and the like.

Resources

Organizations:

If you are interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts, financial underpinnings, and tricks of the trade of Innkeeping, or looking at properties for sale, see two websites:

* The Professional Association of Innkeepers Intl.
* Bed and Breakfast

Books:

* So-You want to Be an Innkeeper by J.Bell, S. Brown, M Davies, and P Hardy (Chronicle Books 2004)
* How to Start and Manage a Bed and Breakfast Business: A practical Way to Start Your Own Business by J. G. Lewis and L Renn (Lewis & Renn Assoc. Inc, 2004)