|By Peter St. Onge, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 20, 2003 - In all the years Marg Dente dreamed about owning a bed and breakfast inn, about settling in the North Carolina mountains and living a better life, she never gave much thought to the perils of bedsheets. Take, for example, the guest/romantic at Dente's Owl's Nest Inn who plucked petals from the nightstand rose arrangement and scattered them on the nice linens -- apparently unaware that roses leave permanent stains.
Or the time an employee complained that Dente had overbleached the green sheets, leaving streaks of white. Dente discovered the streaks were the product of, um, whipped cream. Running a B&B. It's a notion some of us ponder -- fleetingly or seriously -- especially this time of year, when the mountain leaves turn golden. Imagine no bosses, no meetings. Imagine your commute to work being a walk down the stairs to the kitchen. All true, innkeepers say, but owning a B&B isn't the idyllic life many think it is.
"It's a business -- a total immersion business," says Bill Oates, an innkeeper and industry consultant based in Vermont. "You're on 24 hours a day. Even when you're sleeping, you're listening for the furnace not coming on, or the water dripping."
The investment is not cheap. The average U.S. inn costs $653,981; typically, the cost is $90,000 per room. "In Asheville, they seem to sell for much more," Oates says. "It's a very good town for business."
Add to that the difficulties of demanding guests, plus sluggish occupancy rates in a slow economy, and an endless need for new marketing, and the time spent bookkeeping and housekeeping and generally being on stage all day. And it's murder on the feet. "You're standing for 12 to 14 hours a day," says Peggy Irwin, who runs Asheville's North Lodge on Oakland with her husband, Patrick. "To be standing in a kitchen, to be greeting guests, to be giving tours, you develop foot problems early on. It's a common thing with innkeepers. Podiatrists really ought to catch onto this."
But, she says,: "We love it."
A new dream
"Welcome," says Dente, in the foyer of the Owl's Nest Inn, a five-bedroom, 118-year-old house in the mountains 15 miles west of Asheville. It's one of 651 B&Bs and country inns (which also serve dinner) in the Carolinas.Dente, 52, and longtime friend Gail Kinney, 56, bought the house in August 1998. Theirs is not an uncommon innkeeper story: 30 years each in corporate America, first at Wachovia, then Duke Power in Charlotte. Both had a love of music and wrote fund-raising songs for the United Way and Arts & Science Council. They also shared a career arc -- Kinney was a manager at Duke; Dente wanted the same.
"I clawed my way all the way to the top," says Dente, who found life there disillusioning. "When I got there, I was asked to lay two people off."
The two soon began to talk about new careers. They attended an innkeeper seminar in Charlotte, then a three-day class at Amelia Island, Fla., for serious B&B prospects. They were hooked. They opened the Owl's Nest immediately after purchasing it. Initially, their new venture struggled with low occupancy, and the house needed repairs, including new septic lines. Plus, says Kinney:
"It's just so expensive to run a house like this. The amount of money it takes on a monthly basis, with mortgage and utilities."
Still, business steadily improved as Dente and Kinney updated the inn and learned to better market it. They modernized the rooms, adding dataports for business travelers, and they made the inn their own, playing songs for guests in the evening in the dining room. "Our numbers went up, up, up," Dente says. "Then 9-11 hit, and it just went kaboom."
Occupancy rates at B&Bs nationwide are down 4 percent since 2000, and income dropped from a national average of $77,000 in 2000 to $44,509 last year, according to a survey last month by the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. Innkeepers and industry experts attribute the drop to worries about terrorism and the war on Iraq, but they note that hotels have fared worse, with an occupancy drop of 7 percent.
More recently, B&Bs have reported better sales, thanks in part to creative marketing such as offering "murder mystery" packages, in which guests solve a "crime."
Dente and Kinney, after reading that more vacationers are traveling with children, built two wooden cabins on their property for families.
The cabins, which opened this summer, have booked quickly. Dente and Kinney hope to show a profit in October. It would be the first in almost two years.
"It's been difficult," says Kinney. "Marg wanted to market, and I was saying, 'We can't afford this' and 'Where's the money going to come from?' It was a struggle."
Says Dente: "If Gail and I hadn't known each other as long as we have, we probably would have killed each other by now."
Despite struggles, 95 percent of innkeepers own their B&B for seven years or more, according to the PAII survey. Innkeepers give much of the credit to guests.
"If you do a good job, people are free with their compliments and their notes," says Peter Marsh, who runs The Colby House in Asheville with his wife, Bonnie. "There's nothing more rewarding than people telling us how great we are."
Most do so in each inn's guest book, which owners save and reread when they're looking for renewal or reassurance. Their guests have higher expectations than they do for hotels, B&B owners say, but they're also more willing to invest emotionally in their stay. "They share things with you, send Christmas cards, photos of their newborn babies," says Dente. "Some of these people become part of your family."
Every family, though, has its difficult members. Peggy and Patrick Irwin of the North Lodge on Oakland remember one woman who declined their breakfast but instead brought a large bag of soybeans for them to boil. She ate nothing else. Gene Dugger, former owner of Asheville's Chestnut Street Inn, remembers the customer who spilled red wine -- prohibited in bedrooms -- all over the bedroom furniture and rug. "You just shake your head and wonder what people are thinking," says Dente.
No matter, says The Colby House's Peter Marsh. "A lot of people come here and say, 'You must like people,' " he says. "That's not the issue. Some people we like; some people we don't like. But the pleasure comes in pleasing people. If you expect to like everybody, you'll be disappointed."
However, innkeepers say, owning a B&B is more than endless service. It's an opportunity to express yourself and your interests through your inn. It's a chance to find talents and patience you didn't know you had. More important, it's making the most difficult leap -- from dreaming to doing -- and that is success in itself. "Isn't this beautiful?" says Dente, standing outside. "This is where I always wanted to be."
Just then, guests drive up. They are friends from Charlotte, former co-workers at Duke Power. They get out of the car and look at the green spread of mountains. They look back at Marg. Smiles and hugs. "You made the right decision," one says.
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(c) 2003, The Charlotte Observer, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.