B&Bs: Innkeepers Go Pro


Owning a bed-and-breakfast used to be the domain of retirees looking for something to occupy them during their golden years. And for these corporate refugees in search of a slower pace in a beautiful location, innkeeping was as much a lifestyle choice as a real occupation.

Today, however, a new breed of innkeepers is surfacing. Indeed, 50% of all bed-and-breakfasts are now the primary source of income for their proprietors, according to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII) -- and that number is rising. While there are still semiretirees who own a bed-and-breakfast as a way of winding down, you're just as likely to see an ambitious young couple, often still in their 20s, greeting you at the door of their very own inn. And for this new generation, bed-and-breakfasts are serious business.

Like many before them, Rob and Leigh Blood, ages 30 and 29, respectively, were attracted to innkeeping as a lifestyle choice. But the owners of the Captain Fairfield Inn, a nine-room operation in Kennebunkport, Me., prefaced their purchase with some lengthy and comprehensive heavy research -- an increasingly common tactic by this unique set of entrepreneurs.

"MORE PROFESSIONAL." The former schoolteachers prepared for inn ownership by enlisting experienced innkeepers as mentors and working for a year at their two Nantucket inns. During their time there, the young couple got hands-on experience with a real working inn and came up with a mock business plan for their own outpost on the Massachusetts island.

With that experience under their belt, the Bloods began their search for an inn with the right location and financial viability. "We looked at the revenues and the expenses," Leigh says. "We wouldn't even let ourselves get attached to the business until we knew it would not only support itself but also support us. We're not retired with a nice nest egg, so we had to do that."

As a result, industry observers say, wunderkinds such as the Bloods are bringing the strategy and focus they might otherwise have employed in Corporate America to innkeeping. "Innkeepers are younger and much more professional," says William Oates, co-owner of Oates & Bredfeldt, an innkeeping consultancy in Brattleboro, Vt. "The lifestyle component is still there, but they're entering the industry more businesslike."

MOVING UPSCALE. After an eight-month search, the Bloods purchased their Kennebunkport inn for $1.725 million, with savings, help from their families, and loans from local banks and the Small Business Administration.

Industry experts say organized business plans and marketing strategies are becoming the norm for even the smallest of bed-and-breakfasts, as owners are faced with higher stakes -- namely, hefty mortgages in a sky-rocketing real estate market. The average sale price of a bed-and-breakfast these days hovers around $1.5 million, according to PAII.

These younger innkeepers have also helped fuel one of the industry's biggest trends -- an evolution into an upscale, amenities-laden experience. Private baths with hot tubs are becoming standard in an industry where it was once common to share a bathroom down the hall with other guests, says Sandy Soule, editor of BedandBreakfast.com, a listings database and resource center for both consumers and innkeepers.

TECH RETREAT. Since even the most prosaic motor inn now offers muffins and coffee for breakfast before checkout, bed-and-breakfasts have upped the ante to compete with larger hotel chains, says Mark Tamiso, owner of the Candlelight Inn in Napa, Calif., and the B&B Institute of Learning, which offers training courses. Bed-and-breakfasts looking to cater to the time-crunched, multitasking traveler now offer in-house spas, pet- and family-friendly rooms, and amenities for business travelers.

The Bloods, for example, have introduced modern touches to the early 19th century former sea captain's home that they've owned for more than a year. With contemporary linens, wireless Internet access, and flat-panel televisions in each of the bedrooms, the Bloods hope to attract younger visitors with high-pressure jobs from the Boston area for a quick retreat.

Francois Leclair, owner of the Casa Laguna Inn in Laguna Beach, Calif., recently converted one of his oceanside property's rooms into an in-house spa, after he noticed the demand for massages from his guests. The inn used to send them off-site but now offers aromatherapy, hot-stone massage, and "togetherness massages" for couples.

ALLURING PROPERTY BOOM. However, Leclair says between finding and compensating experienced, well-qualified therapists and the extra work behind the concierge desk, the services aren't a huge money maker. Rather, the spa has served mostly as a successful marketing tool, helping differentiate his inn from others in Laguna Beach. "We're the only small property that includes amenities," Leclair says.

And just as the Web has transformed the travel industry at large, it has also allowed smaller inns to compete with the national hotel chains. In the past, most bed-and-breakfast inns relied upon word of mouth, but the Internet has leveled the playing field for many. Innkeeper Betty Gladden, who has owned the Garratt Mansion in Alameda, Calif., for the past 23 years, has seen her Internet business rise dramatically -- 80% of all reservations now come online, up from just 10% eight years ago.

The bed-and-breakfast industry has tripled over the past 20 years -- there are nearly 20,000 licensed inns in the U.S. today, according to PAII -- but has experienced slight shrinkage during the latest real estate boom. The value of landmark real estate has proven too alluring for some owners, and the industry is seeing at least a few long-time inns return to private residences, says Casa Laguna's Leclair, who serves as treasurer of the California Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns.

GOODBYE MOM AND POP. Gladden, who had a loyal business-traveler clientele, recently decided to sell her eight-room colonial-revival-style Victorian inn after she received an offer she deemed too good to refuse. The inn she bought with her husband in 1977 for $165,000 recently sold for $1.8 million and will be converted into a single-family home.

The 61-year-old says the business that was once her family's second income became a real career. Although the business is still viable, Gladden says she slowed down a lot and is looking to do something different. "It's not a mom-and-pop business anymore," she says. "It's a lot more than just cooking breakfast now." And for a new generation of B&B owners, that spells opportunity.

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