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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Bed-and-Breakfasting in Cyberspace

November 08, 1998|LAURA BLY

Once marketed through guidebooks and word of mouth as havens for low-tech romantics, a surging number of bed-and-breakfast inns--and their guests--are cuddling up to computers.

"It strikes me as a little odd that people are using such a high-tech method in a high-touch industry, but the Internet is making incredible inroads," says Bobbi Zane, publisher of Yellow Brick Road, a Julian, Calif.-based newsletter aimed at innkeepers.

Yahoo! publishes 99 directories of B&Bs--several of which let prospective guests search for inns using such criteria as water views, antiques or a family-friendly atmosphere (http://dir.yahoo.com). Thousands of inns tout their charms via Web sites with room-by-room photos, locator maps and sample recipes. The Professional Assn. of Innkeepers International (http://www.paii.org), meanwhile, reports that many of its 2,700 member inns credit the Internet for a third or more of their business over the past year.

But just because a growing majority of North America's 20,000-plus B&Bs have established a beachhead in cyberspace doesn't mean would-be guests are getting an objective view of the inns. With a few notable exceptions, descriptions for home pages or online guides are supplied by the B&Bs themselves, notes Missouri innkeeper Bill Wayne, creator of an online guidebook rating service called INNSTAR (http://www.innstar.com). What's more, many Web-based listings include outdated or sketchy information. The best sites, Wayne adds, provide links to statewide B&B organizations and incorporate opportunities for inn-goers to exchange experiences and tips through their own discussion forums.

While more inns are adding voicemail, computer lines and fax services, online booking remains rare. The typical inn's small size is one factor, but so is "that need for personal contact," says the Professional Assn. of Innkeepers International's Pat Hardy.

Aspiring Pennsylvania innkeepers Erik and Elizabeth Arneson offer a well-organized overview of B&Bs online at their Mining Company site, http://bandb.miningco.com/. Along with links to foreign and North American directories and B&B organizations, the Arnesons include such extras as an events calendar, bulletin board and list of inns offering murder mystery weekends.

Billed as the Internet's largest B&B site, The Bed & Breakfast Channel (http://www.bbchannel.com) lists more than 20,000 inns across North America. But two-thirds of those listings include only basic contact information; about 5,200 include photos, and 2,000 incorporate a link to the inn's own home page. One of the Bed & Breakfast Channel's biggest pluses is its emphasis on marketing. The site already alerts visitors to last-minute and seasonal specials at selected inns--a feature that will be expanded next month when a members-only "Bed and Breakfast Club" makes its debut.

With only 2,000 North American establishments in its database, Fodor's B&B Finder (http://www.fodors.com) can't claim to be comprehensive. What's more, Fodor's reviews (updated every two years) don't include any maps, photos or links to the inns' own home pages.

But the discerning critiques are supplied by Fodor's authors on the basis of personal visits, and include suggestions for nearby restaurants and points of interest.

(For other writer-supplied reviews, check out Sandra Soule's INNroads, http : //www.inns.com, and Bernice Chesler's Bed and Breakfast in the Mid-Atlantic States and New England, http://www.obs-us.com.

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Bly welcomes comments and questions: her e-mail address is laura.bly @news.latimes.com.

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