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It's No Vacation Operating a B&B

Being an innkeeper really is a full-time job--around the clock seven days a week. And on top of the hard work and long hours is the warm-and-fuzzy factor.


It's many a stressed-out city dweller's dream. Buy a quaint Victorian in some picturesque burg, open a bed-and-breakfast and get paid to live like Martha Stewart.

But any innkeeper will tell you that the fantasy fades once you're on the serving end of those freshly baked scones. Peek behind the scenes of any tranquil B&B and you're likely to find a harried innkeeper saddled with a stack of bills, a ringing telephone, a pile of dirty sheets and distant memories of what it was like to have the weekend off.

That doesn't mean the profession can't be rewarding or provide a welcome change in lifestyle. But seasoned innkeepers say too many wannabes confuse the pleasures of lodging in a B&B with the daily grind of running one.

"It's not all baking muffins and picking flowers," said Barbara Costa, owner of the Dunbar House, 1880, a historic B&B in the California gold dountry town of Murphys. "This is a business, not a vacation."

A common misconception is that innkeeping is lucrative. Anyone who has paid top dollar for a room during high season might assume there's big money to be made in lace curtains and blueberry pancakes. Truth is, most small operators can't survive on their B&B earnings alone.

That's not an indictment of their innkeeping skills, just a function of having too few rooms, experts say. The typical bed-and-breakfast owner whose property has four rooms or fewer posted operating income of about $10,000 in 1998, according to an industry study. That was their take after expenses but before they paid the mortgage, drew a salary or paid taxes. Consequently, the vast majority of small-B&B operators rely on another source of income, such as a pension, a second job or a working spouse.

An old industry rule of thumb says a B&B needs at least six rooms to provide a living for its owners. Rick Anderson, owner of the nine-room Casa Tropicana in San Clemente, figures it takes more than that.

"You need at least eight or nine rooms to make any money," he said. "Anything less than that and you're just supplementing a house payment or a lifestyle."

Lifestyle clearly is a big draw. Former B&B owner Pat Hardy, co-author of a how-to guide to innkeeping, needed a job where she could be home for her young daughter. Santa Barbara turned out to be an ideal spot for her B&B. The city is small enough to be livable, sophisticated enough to offer cultural amenities and close enough to Los Angeles to lure a year-round flock of visitors.

Other innkeepers don't choose as wisely. Hardy says she once stayed at a rural Arkansas inn whose pastoral setting was simply eye-popping. The only trouble was that it was hours from any major tourist destination, and guests had to travel the final two miles down a gravel road.

"By the time you got there your car was beaten up," said Hardy, author of "So--You Want to Be an Innkeeper"(Chronicle Books, 1996). "The place was gorgeous, but I can't imagine anyone would go back."

Like Eva Gabor's city-slicker character of "Green Acres" television fame, some urban refugees-turned-innkeepers simply aren't cut out for the quiet life. Some chafe at being housebound all the time. Others find small-town parochialism and politics stifling in the absence of such big-city diversions as sushi bars and symphonies.

Then there is the whole myth that running a bed-and-breakfast is an escape from workplace stress. In fact, the business is filled with deadlines, from getting grub on the table in the morning to scrubbing rooms in time for new arrivals. The good news is that B&B owners don't have to punch a time clock. That's also the bad news.

"You're literally on-call 24 hours a day," said Jan Stankus, author of "How to Open and Operate a Bed & Breakfast" (Globe Pequot Press, 1997).

That could mean getting up at 2 a.m., as Anderson did recently, to replace a broken alarm clock for a guest with an early flight.

"It was either that or set my own alarm for 5 a.m. to wake him up," Anderson said with a chuckle.

Leaving the 9-to-5 world can be a big adjustment. B&B owners must adapt to working weekends, holidays, vacation season, early mornings, evenings and just about any time the majority of the populace is relaxing. And like other businesspeople whose homes double as their workplaces, many find it hard to separate the two worlds and carve out time for themselves.

Costa and her husband spent more than a decade continually upgrading the four guest rooms in their Italianate charmer before focusing on their own needs. Last year they moved out of the B&B and into their own spacious quarters next door. It's only a distance of a few feet, but miles away psychologically. The couple are now converting their old room into another guest room, and they're marveling at their renewed energy and enthusiasm.

"It amazes me that we punished ourselves for so long by living in cramped quarters," Costa said. "It was probably the dumbest thing we ever did."

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