The Inns and outs of owning a B&B

Imagine the Freedom - Freedom 55 – Get away from the everyday

The idea of escape seems ingrained in the Canadian psyche. For many, this means dreaming of a weekend away at a nice bed and breakfast. But for some, it means fantasizing about a lifetime spent there – as B&B owners.

The lure of a home-based business, the chance to own a beautiful property that might otherwise be unattainable, and the excitement of an ever-changing clientele are seducing hundreds of Canadians each year into B&B ownership. From P.E.I. to the Pacific coast, B&Bs are springing up faster than they can be licensed, reviewed, approved or even officially tallied.

Janette Higgins, author of the The Best Places to Bed & Breakfast in Ontario: A Selective Guide, estimated in 1998 that more than 500 new B&Bs have sprung up in Ontario alone in the two short years since she published the last edition of her book.

“I think B&Bs are becoming ever more popular,” says Higgins. “It’s a baby boomer thing to do particularly with so many people taking early retirement. But there is a big bulge of boomers yet to come through ‘middle age,’ so there are going be a lot more people thinking about it.” As enthusiastic as Higgins is about the B&B industry, she offers a caution to potential owners. “I’m finding that in some communities, there are already a glut of B&Bs. So you have to be careful about saturating the market,” she says.

Fascinating tales – or stress?
One baby boomer who won’t be embracing the trend toward B&B ownership is writer and CBC radio host Bill Richardson. In Richardson’s novel, Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast, a quirky set of twins play host to a steady stream of book-loving guests with fascinating tales to tell.

But Richardson is well aware that reality probably wouldn’t live up to the fantasy he created for his characters. “I have some acquaintances who run a B&B here in Vancouver, and a good friend of mine helps out when the owners go away. One morning I went along, and I found it all quite stressful,” says Richardson.

“I then realized this is what B&B owners have to deal with all the time – helping to find some common ground for conversation and tossing out appetizing gambits in addition to the scrambled eggs. The social aspect of it would drive me crazy,” he says. Social graces are just one of the many aptitudes you require if you’re going to be a successful B&B owner. You also have to be prepared for the physical work – keeping rooms presentable – the culinary skills to serve appetizing meals every morning, and the management skills to keep your business running in a competitive atmosphere.

Know what the job entails
“I don’t think people have any idea what the job entails,” says Dori Wood, owner of Lion’s Park Bed & Breakfast in Calgary. “People think it’s easy, all they have to do is make a bed, serve breakfast and chit chat. But it’s a big commitment,” Wood says. “When you run a B&B, it’s like any other business – there’s a lot to learn. When I started eight years ago, there was very little information available. I flew by the seat of my pants,” she says. Today the 53 year-old Wood qualifies as a veteran of the Calgary B&B industry, and potential owners often seek her out for advice. Wood says you should consider B&B ownership as a full-time job. “I’m running all day, everyday. I can’t take days or weekends off. If I have a few hours to myself, I’ll take a drive or a walk. Some people try to work an outside job and also run the B&B, but then something has to suffer,” she says.

Wood advises B&B owners to think of themselves as business people. That means investing in advertising as well as amenities. Wood’s association with the Calgary Convention and Visitors’ Bureau has given her exposure to travellers world-wide, and offered the added benefit of linking her with other B&B owners who refer people to her home when their own are full.

Next page: Wood’s secrets

For Wood, being a business person also means staying current – whether catering to more business travellers with early morning meetings, or keeping up-to-date on local happenings. “Tourists require an awful lot of information. You have to be able to answer questions on everything from car rentals to fly fishing on the Bow River,” she says.

Wood’s technique must be good – in the past year she has only had three nights without a guest. So how does she stay sane?

“There has to be a lot of privacy. Even if you really like people, there’s a lot of work to be done, and you need the time and the space to do that. In my place there are two staircases, so the bed and breakfast area is separate from the family area,” she says. Conventional wisdom says the lifetime of a B&B is five to seven years before the owner suffers burnout. But Wood isn’t planning on bailing out anytime soon. “I almost gave up two years ago, because I thought, well now the last child has left home, I should be doing something else. But I decided I liked it too much,” she admits.

“Now I’ve picked up a piece of property on the Crow’s Nest River, so I may have a B&B for people that fly fish too – someday. Perhaps for my own retirement!” laughs Wood.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., perhaps the busiest B&B location in the country, Monica and Richard Taylor are also amused at the idea of a set B&B life-span. The Taylors, both in their sixties, have been operating a B&B, The Carnochan House, for 11 years – with no immediate plans for retirement.

Learning from mistakes
Today, the Taylors are widely recognized as excellent business people. But they didn’t start out that way. When Richard took an early retirement from his engineering job in Mississauga, they had only one thing in mind – retirement. The idea of starting a second career came from their real estate agent. “We were babes in the woods,” says Monica. “We’d never even stayed in a B&B. And at that time there were only 35 B&Bs in Niagara-on-the-Lake.” Monica estimates there are now about 170 B&Bs in this little town, renowned for its history and live theatre. But the Taylors manage to thrive in this competitive culture because they’ve learned from their mistakes.

“Our first goof was under-pricing ourselves the first year by about $15 a room. We hadn’t done our market research,” says Richard. The Taylors also learned to take deposits and to prepare extensive buffet breakfasts instead of individual orders from each guest. Despite the trial and error of the first year, the Taylors developed a loyal clientele. In fact, with 11 years of satisfied guests behind them, the Taylors no longer advertise their establishment, relying almost entirely on repeat business and referrals. The Taylors’s enthusiasm for the B&B lifestyle is so infectious, that some of their guests began asking for tips on opening places of their own. The Taylors were more than happy to oblige. But after countless notes jotted on whatever slip of paper was handy, they decided compiling their lessons in book form would be more efficient.

Start and Run a Profitable Bed & Breakfast is published by Self-Counsel Press and in its third edition. Its popularity has brought them radio interviews from Saskatchewan to San Diego, and fan letters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The book is organized in a workbook style, with questionnaires, sample budgets and recipes. And just in case you don’t find the answer you’re looking for, the Taylors invite readers to phone with questions. “A sweet lady called from Banff. She’d broken her teapot that morning, and didn’t know where to put that in her budget. Should it be under breakables?” laughs Monica. “It’s the simple things that fool people,” says Richard. Among the ideas the Taylors share with readers and callers are straightforward pieces of common sense to organize the job and keep it pleasant. “Set your house rules and make them manageable. If people don’t like that, they won’t come back. Which is fine,” says Richard. “You’ve got to keep in mind it’s your home,” Monica agrees. And always find time for yourself. “We prefer just to work busily in the summertime and take it easy in the fall, winter and spring. And we always take a day-and-a- half off a week when we try to get out of town,” says Richard.

Though the book cautions would-be B&B owners to consider the hard work, along with the obvious benefits, it’s clear that the Taylors love the new life they’ve built. With realistic goals and good organization, they think lots of other people would love it too. “You’re never going to make enough to get rich,” says Richard practically. “But it’s a wonderful way to earn a living.”