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SMALL BUSINESS

Running an Inn: No Room to Relax

May 24, 1991|JANE APPLEGATE

After downing enough eggs, pineapple souffle, fresh fruit and coffee to fuel a day of Civil War country sightseeing, guests at Boydville slowly disperse.

Many guests imagine innkeepers Ripley Hotch and Owen Sullivan spending the rest of the day on the porch swing, sipping gin and tonics.

In truth, the minute the guests depart, the work begins. There are dishes to wash, bed linens to change, laundry to do, general tidying up and more than 10 acres of lush West Virginia grounds to tend.

"I used to work 38 hours a week and make a living," said Sullivan, who worked as an interior designer before buying the inn with Hotch in 1987. "Now I'm working 75 hours a week and not making any money."

After four years of owning Boydville, The Inn at Martinsburg, Hotch and Sullivan are just starting to break even.

Despite the challenges, owning an inn has great appeal as a small business. Industry experts believe that there are 12,000 to 15,000 inns across the United States, concentrated mainly in the West and Northeast. Travelers relying on the myriad of guidebooks can find inns in every state. While most are located in rural areas or small towns, there is one bed and breakfast located in downtown Los Angeles.

If you've thought about chucking it all for an idyllic life in the country, make sure your bank account and energy level match your dreams.

"People suffer from what I call the green velvet skirt or smoking jacket syndrome," said Pat Hardy, a veteran innkeeper and co-director of the Professional Assn. of Innkeepers International in Santa Barbara.

"They don't know that underneath that green velvet skirt are tennis shoes because you are running as fast as you can to keep the old building running and the people happy."

Hardy, who teaches seminars to aspiring innkeepers, warns people to expect a negative cash flow for the first three years. Buying an existing inn with repeat customers and a reputation is often the best way to go.

Although the soft real estate market has pushed inn prices down, expect to pay between $35,000 and $135,000 per guest room, depending on the location.

"It's a lousy time to think about starting up a new inn, but an OK time to buy one," said Sandra Soule, author of a series of guidebooks called "America's Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns," published by St. Martin's Press.

"A lot of people go into innkeeping naively and undercapitalized," she said. "The romance tends to carry them away and then the bank carries them away."

The most successful inns are found in college towns with lots of visitors or near popular tourist attractions. But you want to avoid opening an inn too close to a major tourist attraction such as Disneyland or Epcot, where visitors spend money at the attraction rather than on their accommodations.

Hotch and Sullivan believe that Boydville has flourished because Martinsburg is not only in the heart of Civil War country but home to the Blue Ridge Outlet Center, a shopping complex that attracts about a million visitors a year.

The partners still rely on Hotch's full-time editing job at Nation's Business magazine in Washington to keep financially afloat.

Although they love their guests, they still face harsh financial realities. For instance, it costs about $200 a day to run Boydville, whether or not one guest has checked into the 1812 vintage stone mansion. The inn, which can accommodate 14 guests, charges about $115 a night for a spacious room filled with antiques.

There are ways to succeed in the business if you are energetic, have a good sense of humor, love people, are skilled at fixing things and willing to work very, very hard.

For more information on becoming an innkeeper contact the Professional Assn. of Innkeepers International, Box 90710, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93190 or call (805) 965-0707.

" 'So, You Want to Be an Innkeeper,' The Complete Guide to Operating a Successful Bed and Breakfast Inn," by Davies, Hardy, Bell and Brown, is published by Chronicle Books or available by mail by writing to the association.

Boydville can be reached at (304) 263-1448.

The Bed & Breakfast Innkeepers of Southern California can be contacted by writing P.O. Box 15425, Los Angeles, Calif. 90015-0385.

For information on the industry itself and a new inn rating program under way, write to: American Bed & Breakfast Assn., 1407 Huguenot Road, Midlothian, Va. 23113.

Tip Box

Here are some tips from Hotch, Hardy and Soule:

* Stay at as many inns as possible to figure out what you like and don't like about them.

* Find a job working at a successful inn or offer to serve as an unpaid apprentice to gain experience.

* Read books and attend seminars on operating inns.

* Have enough money in the bank to make it through four lean years.

* If possible, have a good partner to share the work and rewards.

* Take a basic marketing course to learn how to attract customers. Inns can rarely afford to advertise beyond paying for a listing in some guidebooks.

* Establish a relationship with neighboring innkeepers so they will refer overflow business to you and vice versa.

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