The Fun and the Fizzle
Of Owning and Running a Bed and Breakfast
By Tricia Herban
For almost seven years, my husband and I shared our home in the heart of historic Annapolis with paying guests. This was a retirement career for which we had no prior formal training except a love of cooking, a variety of travel experiences and a sense of how we thought people would like to be treated.
After we purchased our home, I took a four-day seminar on running a bed and breakfast, which was very helpful regarding the money side of the equation. But nothing beats getting your feet wet. Our first guests arrived before the builder had completely finished the renovations. We were off and running. It was a great ride.
So what was it like? And was it worth it? I’m sure most innkeepers will agree, it is a constant challenge. New people everyday, who trusted us with their appetites, their special moments, their possessions and their expectations. Some were worried about whether they would have enough privacy. Others had major dietary needs. There were special events to help with — engagement surprises, flowers, cheese trays and champagne.
There were lots of judgment calls. When guests said they’d arrive at 6 p.m. would they really come then or would your own plans be ruined because you were forced to arrive an hour late? When they didn’t arrive as planned, were they actually coming? When we left a key for them, would they be able to follow the instructions and get into the house?
The major point I hope to be making is that to run a B&B the most important personal characteristics are being very flexible and genuinely enjoying people. Not each person, but the human race in general. This is a profession that demands optimism. If you can’t trust easily, then you will never leave the house for fear that a guest might make off with an ashtray. We never had anything taken and there was very little breakage. Furthermore, one needs to be sensible. If you have something that you don’t want broken, don’t make it available to guests.
For guests experiencing their first B&B, they could be both excited and wary. Occasionally a fellow would be downright hostile. For me, that’s when a Sarah Bernhardt moment would kick in. I would smile and be oh-so-friendly as I showed them around, being sure to point out the private bathroom, keys to the room and the front door, a separate guest sitting room and the fact that they could influence when breakfast would be served. And I would offer to make dinner reservations or help with recreation suggestions. Usually the battle was won. We had a happy guest.
That guest becomes a convert to the bed and breakfast style of travel. He comes down to breakfast and compares notes on last night’s restaurant, yesterday’s activities and plans for the coming day. We’ve had breakfast last for hours when they’ve found they shared much in common with other guests. Sometimes emails and addresses even get exchanged along with an invitation to visit.
The magic of the moment is what happy bed and breakfast guests capture for themselves and others. And this is something that the host or hostess participates in. It is almost like being a party planner – you set the stage, create the mood. The guests make of it what they will.
From my perspective it was an exhilarating experience. But what about the fiscal side?
When it comes to the economics of running a B&B, it is time to take off the rose-colored glasses. This is where a sharp pencil, lined paper and the need for a good accountant kicks in. It doesn’t hurt to reserve a good bit of honesty about your own goals, expectations and aspirations. Is this occupational therapy or will you need an income?
If you are buying a property, will you have a mortgage and what percent of guest occupancy will you need to cover it? Do you know what occupancy rate is realistic for your area? If there are no other B&Bs, why do you think the community needs one and are you prepared to create a destination property to attract people? Do you know what the going room rate is and what the competition is offering? Do you know for sure that the house you are considering and the street it is located on are zoned for this type of establishment? What does the community require for you to get a license—sprinklers, a restaurant kitchen, etc.?
It is an expensive proposition. It is a lot more than just opening up your spare bedroom to someone who sees your sign on the lawn. Not only will you have a mortgage, there are property taxes, insurance, cleaning help, furnishings, linens, advertising, letterhead, custom soaps, food and so forth. The accountant who files your taxes will charge and you may need a lawyer as well to help you file papers if you decide not to be a sole proprietor but to incorporate.
Perhaps you’ve heard that there are tax breaks. Yes, there are. But the upfront costs are large and there are certain specific requirements from the IRS to take advantage of tax benefits. So talk with that accountant to see if you can afford this profession,
Do bear in mind that when you open a bed and breakfast you are providing not just an attractive and functional setting, but breakfast. Do you like to cook? Your guests will love to eat. Food is one of the reasons that people come to B&Bs. They are looking forward to a wonderful surprise, a different food treat every morning. In some communities, it is also customary to serve afternoon tea or cocktails with hors d’oeuvres. Not only is the food a special feature of the guest’s experience, so is the presentation. Cloth napkins, silver, fine china, crystal glasses, flowers and even candles create an elegant setting for your culinary masterpieces. This is the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to use and enjoy all those treasures you’ve had tucked away.
After considering the economics and the responsibilities, it will help to think about your guests themselves. Do you have a point of view about lifestyles of couples? It is too late to have a moment of truth when you open the door and they are standing there.
Yes, it is your home. But now you are a professional. You are an innkeeper. You can’t find out very much about a prospective guest on the phone or in an email. If you don’t like all kinds of people, then you will be very uncomfortable hosting them in your home. Compromising any of your principles may not be worth it to you.
Running a B&B involves long hours. From breakfast prep the night before until bedtime the next evening, there are phone calls, reservations, beds, bathrooms, laundry, conversations with guests, check-ins and check-outs, shopping and the list goes on. Who will do the maintenance, the gardening, the accounting, taxes and bills? Who will take phone calls and update the email reservation system? Who will take care of marketing? All these areas need frequent attention. If this is to be a two- person project, it is especially important that duties are divided according to each person’s strengths and abilities.
If considering innkeeping as a profession, it would be best to try it out first. There are two ways to go about this. You could be an inn sitter. That is a profession of its own and it means that you move into a B&B while the owner is away. There is even a certification program for inn sitters through the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (www.innkeeping.org).
Less rigorous would be a little “sleeping around.” It wouldn’t have to cost a lot to stay in a variety of properties and you could ask lots of questions and take lots of notes: innkeepers are a friendly bunch and love to share information.
Be aware that having a bed and breakfast will change your life. It is a major decision. As with other life changes, it can be helpful to talk with your friends and family to see if they think you would be suited to it. A little outside objectivity can be a very good thing.
If you decide to go ahead with it, you will have a new experience every day. Friends and acquaintances will envy you and say they’ve always thought they’d like to do that. The more perceptive persons may add it’s a lot of work, isn’t it. But they will know you are someone special, someone who cares about other people and wants to go the extra mile to provide a great guest experience. You may think you do it for the money, however, no amount of money would be enough for the work involved. But the satisfaction, ahhh that’s another matter. Priceless.
2 pull quotes
Interruptions and ingenuity are the name of the game.
An innkeeper’s life is not his own. It belongs to all the people he makes happy every day through hard work, thoughtfulness and the joy of giving from the heart.