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B&B Innkeeping is Easy

April 13, 2004

by Kit Cassingham

Being a bed and breakfast innkeeper isn't a "get rich at home quick scheme". There are other real ways to get rich quick, but innkeeping isn't one of them. If you do your market research, develop your market niche, advertise and market daily, and offer great customer service you will succeed and lead the lifestyle you want.


Dispelling Myths: B&B Innkeeping is Easy


Not!


An interesting aspect of being a B&B Consultant is hearing first-hand about aspiring innkeepers' perceptions of what it's like to be a B&B innkeeper. I hear things about the beauty of raising your family in a B&B, and how wonderful it is to buy an inn with no money down. I also hear about the ease of innkeeping, the quick-wealth of innkeeping, and what a great way it is to live in a fantastic house; these are the myths I want to address now because I think they are the most dangerous myths to fall prey to in the B&B industry.

"Innkeeping is easy." If that were true there would be many fewer B&Bs that fail or don't do well. Why is it that innkeeping is harder than it looks? It's the diversity of activities a person (or couple) has to be capable of doing and the constancy of those activities that make B&B innkeeping difficult. Once an inn is established (i.e. has a stable occupancy rate and strong income) it's easier to hire out many of the tasks, but until you have the cash flow to hire others you have to handle the seemingly never-ending variety of tasks yourself.

At the very least you have to greet guests, serve breakfast, and make beds -- daily. But to have guests to greet you have to take reservations; that implies you both have the time to answer the phone and have a marketing plan in place that you are working daily to make the phone ring in the first place. To serve breakfast you have to buy and prepare the food and clean those serving dishes. Making beds of course is not all there is to cleaning a room for a guest or in preparation for a new guest; you have to clean the bathrooms, dust and vacuum the guest rooms, and dust and vacuum the common areas. And to tend to guestrooms you have to have clean laundry -- will you do that or send it out? What about guest supplies like soap, toilet paper, and other amenities -- you must make time to buy those items and stock them frequently.

While you are cleaning guestrooms and the inn, who is answering the phone taking reservations and giving directions to your guests? If it's you, how are you going to manage that? And when will the bookkeeping get done, and by whom? Who is managing the marketing plan, something that has to be tended to daily? Can you interact with your guests while you are running the inn, doing all the "back stage" activities that keep the B&B going? Do you have time to interact with vendors, other lodging properties, and contract labor? Running an inn requires lots of energy, yours or others. Part of that energy is learning how to be effective in the task too -- cleaning, reservations, cooking, maintenance, bookkeeping, marketing, website development and maintenance, as well as the yard work. Yes, much of that can and should be delegated, but if you and your partner aren't doing it you have to have the money (another manifestation of energy!) to hire the people who can do the task well.

Innkeeping isn't as easy as it appears. I always say the easier a B&B operation looks and the smoother it runs, the harder the innkeeper is working. My analogy is that of a duck; ducks look like they are just floating along but they are paddling like mad below the water's surface.


"I'll make a quick fortune by owning and operating a B&B." Wouldn't it be lovely if that were true. In an ideal world you'd get paid for all the time you put into the creation and operation of your B&B. But the world isn't ideal or fair. Most innkeepers work for almost free, only getting their room and some board for their efforts. Innkeepers often are doing nothing more than building equity as they grow their business, which of course doesn't pay on a daily basis. A B&B requires a lot of money to operate, money that doesn't go into your pocket.

I know of inns that took the approach of putting money into the owners' pockets before maintenance was tended to, and when the inn sold they made much less money than they would have if their annual return was invested into the inn's maintenance. In running the numbers of what they were paid annually versus what they lost in the sale because of a low sale price, they lost about double what they collected through the years. Ouch!

One innkeeper was shut down by the city they were in because of lack of proper zoning; that innkeeper sued for lost income. The city's stance in court was that they had actually saved the innkeeper money by closing them down -- not costing them money. The B&B was in a small, rural community, running with three guestrooms sharing one bath. The manager would give up his room and sleep in the kitchen if he had the chance to rent his room with private bath [and relate this story to the myth of the joy of living in a grand house]. The occupancy rate was low, the room rates were low, and the manager's fee was higher than the income they earned. How the owner expected to pay taxes, utilities, and marketing costs was a mystery to me. I agree with the city's stance, and so did the court: the innkeeper lost his lawsuit.

To balance those two negative stories I will acknowledge there are innkeepers who have treated their B&B like a business, not just a lifestyle, and have made a very good income. They were able to expand from one house with several rooms into several houses with many rooms over the course of their ownership. After many years in business they owned fancy cars and took luxurious trips. During those many years of business they worked long, hard hours and made sacrifices. That's a great success in anyone's book, but I don't call that making a quick or easy fortune.


"B&B ownership will allow me to live in a house I couldn't otherwise afford or justify." Perhaps. And is living in the basement, attic, kitchen, or in a tent in the backyard an acceptable way of living in a wonderful house? The number of innkeepers I know who have done that is astounding.

The reason innkeepers end up doing that is because they spent so much on buying, renovating, decorating, and marketing their B&B there was no money left for their quarters. And if there had been space they "put dibs on" for their quarters, that space often became guestrooms so that the debt service could be paid. Would you be willing to live in substandard quarters for a few years until you could create your own wonderful space? Would you be able to survive living in substandard quarters for any amount of time -- survive emotionally, spiritually, or physically?

Having just spent the past eight months living in a 300 square foot yurt, complete with propane heater, bathroom, kitchen, and office, I can tell you that the situation gets trying -- but I wasn't attempting to offer hospitality to guests at the same time. When situations are trying, your hospitality can suffer and in this business especially, you can't afford that. Granted, innkeepers don't spend much time in their quarters, but you have to enjoy going to your space or it will drag you down.

B&B innkeeping is a most gratifying business and lifestyle to be in, if it suits your personality and goals. It's imperative you evaluate your needs and style with your financial ability to make sure you are looking at the situation realistically. Work hard to remove those rose-colored glasses and see the world as it is. To help in the removal of those glasses attend conferences, read books, take classes and talk to innkeepers. Innkeeping is not easy, it's not a "get rich quick" scheme, and it's not always luxurious, but it is a wonderful lifestyle and career.




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