So You Want to Own a B&B?
You've had the dream. We all have. Abandon the grind of the rat race and city living, buy a cute Victorian in postcard-perfect Vermont, and perfect your blueberry muffin recipe so you can open your own bed-and-breakfast. What's stopping you?
The grass is always greener on the other side, especially in Vermont, where the farmland is so fecund you want to jump out of the car just to plunge your hands into the soil. At least that's what Walt Forrester thought when he left his job selling X-ray equipment in Chicago and bought an 1857 Victorian home on the shores of Vermont's Ottauquechee River. Forrester and his wife, Barbara, a pastry chef, had their sights set on a restaurant. But when they saw the former home of state Senator Joseph Parker, a national historic site, no less, overlooking Quechee's postcard-perfect covered bridge and waterfalls, the Forresters persuaded friends and family to invest in their next business venture, the seven-bedroom, full-dining Parker House Inn. Eleven years later, Walt Forrester is ready to sell.
"It's a burnout," he says. "Up and down four flights of stairs all the time. It gets hard on the knees," the 69-year-old says. Then there are the long hours, getting up to cook breakfast no later than 7:30 a.m., catering to the latest diet craze and food allergies, and often spending time with guests at his pub until 11 p.m. And there is always that one patron.
"There was this man last summer who called four times. He was a college professor who insisted I call him Doctor. 'Do you give AAA discounts or AARP?' 'What's for breakfast?' Each one of these are separate phone calls. I said to Barbara, 'This guy is going to be a pain,' " says Forrester. "He was. He came here and wanted a different room even though I had told him numerous times we were completely sold out. So then he wanted to change the light in his room, which he said wasn't good for reading. Finally I told him, 'Doctor, I don't think this is the right place for you. If you don't leave, I'm going to lose my temper.' He left."
Maybe it's the daily commute, a stop-and-go grind that's a constant every single day of your working life, or the ever-swelling humidity of summer in a fortress of concrete and brick, where the only respite is an air-conditioned restaurant or shop. Tense from fighting traffic, clothing soaked in perspiration, you imagine a better life for yourself, one where exhaust is replaced by the sweet fragrance of balsams and firs, a towering skyscraper becomes a mountain summit, and the murky water of Boston Harbor is traded for the cool runnings of a serpentine stream the color of gin. Fresh air, lazy days, and amorous nights. And then you wake up from that dream and realize it's lunacy, that you can't afford to simply eject and do nothing in this bucolic setting. So, like a sprinkling of other urbanites gone awry, you cash in your corporate chips, hit the highway north, and buy yourself a quaint country inn.
"In today's frazzled world, there are plenty of people who are saying let's get out of this rat race," says David Kaufman, president of Vermont Tourism Network, a marketing firm in South Burlington. "Real estate inquiries in Vermont and across Lake Champlain in the Adirondacks are exceptionally high," he adds. (Even a quintessential city dweller, New Yorker Ron Galotti -- former publisher of GQ magazine and the real-life role model for Sex and the City's Mr. Big -- recently traded in his deluxe Central Park West apartment for an 89-acre farm in North Pomfret, Vermont. No, he's not taking guests.)
On the surface, owning one of the approximately 800 B&Bs and larger inns in Vermont looks like a perfect antidote to a life of stress. Come to the country, talk to all those people who want to get away, make new friends, and take their money. The easy life, if ever there was one, especially for those of us who already associate inns with vacation. For years, the job of an innkeeper was popular with folks in their 50s, who viewed the profession as a retirement gig.
But the little-known secret of the trade is that innkeepers often put in longer hours than first-year lawyers at a downtown law firm.
"If you want to see the glory and ease of running a country inn in Vermont, watch reruns of Newhart," says Kaufman, a reference to Bob Newhart's second stint on episodic television. No longer a psychologist, Newhart played Dick Loudon, a happily married New Yorker who indulged his interest in American history by purchasing the Stratford Inn, originally built in 1774. Dick and his wife, Joanna, refurbish and open the inn. The show's humor stemmed from the eclectic group of small-town Vermont locals and Newhart's bewilderment at their peculiarities. Newhart was immensely popular, running from October 1982 to May 1990, and it left many city folk enamored of the occupation, creating in its wake a huge influx of new innkeepers. There's even a name in Vermont for this phenomenon: the "Newhart syndrome."
hat if a gay couple comes in? Or a mixed-race couple? Teenagers wanting a room? You have to face your prejudices and have an open heart," says Heide Bredfeldt. "Is that you?"
It's Saturday morning in late March, and Bredfeldt is speaking to a group of 14 prospective innkeepers at a seminar called "How to Purchase & Operate a Bed & Breakfast or Country Inn." While her husband, Bill Oates, discusses finding a property of a size and location that suit your needs, Bredfeldt, a former psychotherapist, gets down and dirty with the minutiae of actually owning an inn, those little nuggets that never seem to pop up when fantasizing about the profession.
"What if the toilet overflows? It's not a very pleasant problem," Bredfeldt continues in her German accent. As partners in the Brattleboro firm Oates & Bredfeldt, the couple have been conducting seminars for 24 years, in addition to selling and managing inn properties and consulting with innkeepers. When he first started these seminars, Oates had never even owned a B&B, but he learned a lot about the business from innkeepers he met doing sales. He knows his subject intimately now, having purchased the Three Mountain Inn in Jamaica, Vermont, with his wife and son in 1999. Lecturing at this circa 1790 Colonial, Oates offers such insider knowledge as utilizing the dining room as an upscale restaurant for the more affluent guests, rather than for locals who will rarely if ever come for a meal.
Together, Oates and Bredfeldt have conducted more than 200 seminars over the years to some 3,500 potential buyers. After participants spend a weekend with the couple delving into some of the less than enviable aspects of the job, it's no wonder that only 20 percent of the clientele go on to open inns. Lack of finances is rarely an issue for the people who sign up for their weekend course. Many are lawyers, doctors, or corporate salespersons who yearn for something different, grander. Others are entering second marriages and want to clean the slate by opening a business together. The decision not to proceed and buy an inn often stems from something far more personal than money.
Unlike a typical couple, separated during the course of their workday, only to come together to talk about daily highs and lows at dinnertime, innkeepers are usually married couples who own their business together. There is little escape, especially on weekends, when inns are at full capacity and in need of every working hand.
"The business is hard on relationships," says Tony Clark, owner of the Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen, Vermont. It is nestled deep within the Green Mountain National Forest, 4 miles on dirt roads from the nearest thoroughfare. Clark purchased his property in 1968 for $40,000; he has since created one of the most beloved inns in New England, known for its acres of cross-country skiing and hiking trails, dinners around long tables, and an always ample supply of sublime chocolate-chip cookies. Yet his success has come with a price. In the early '80s, Clark's first wife left him for one of their guests.
"You spend so much time pampering people," Clark says, "putting the bonbon on the pillow, turning down the bed, cooking and cleaning, that a year goes by, and you realize you haven't paid any attention to your spouse."
Clark knew that his wife hated the long hours of innkeeping but was still startled to see her leave for Indiana. It's painfully ironic that the hard work of the profession that crushed the marriage is exactly what Clark needed to take his mind off his marital woes. He expanded the lodge and added rooms.
Walt Forrester and his wife also had their problems and sought the help of a couples counselor. "You have different duties, but often one oversteps their bounds, usually me," Forrester says with a chuckle. "I'd go into the kitchen when Barbara's at work at dinner and make menu suggestions. She'd scream back, 'Why don't you cook it then?'"
"It's a struggle," Bredfeldt says, "but if you can confront behaviors and learn to work through it, then I believe innkeeping strengthens the relationship." The fact is that countless couples never even make it out of the seminar with their innkeeping aspirations intact. Bredfeldt remembers the time when one husband and wife kept arguing over the roles each would perform. "On Sunday, she came up to me and said: 'I can't work with him. Thank you for the course.'"
When the owners of the Three Mountain Inn contacted Bill Oates about the possible sale of their property, Oates thought it was the perfect opportunity to put all his expertise to use. He liked the location, 7 miles down the road from the Stratton Mountain Resort in one of those blink-and-you-miss-it Vermont villages with requisite church, coffee shop, restaurant, and fine arts gallery. He also thought it was the right size, at 15 rooms with a full-service restaurant. So he bought it and then did what any sensible parent would do: He handed it over to his son to run.
The day after the closing, son David Hiler and his wife, Stacy, became the proud parents of their firstborn child. That didn't stop David Hiler from overhauling the property, renovating all 15 rooms, redoing the floors, building an upscale cottage, putting in a new septic tank, and enhancing the landscape. His wife wanted no part of running the inn, so she mostly stuck to caring for their son. "At the end of six months, we were so stressed that I told her this is going to be the hardest part of our lives," says Hiler. "Then we got in a huge fight and decided to add another six months to that equation."
Hiler has valued the time with his two children, watching them grow up less than 15 feet from where he works. But he says that they are now old enough to deserve their own space, one thing an inn can't provide. A lack of privacy comes with the territory for an innkeeper, and it can hinder both guest and owner.
"When you're out in the backyard with your girlfriend on bended knee, a glass of chardonnay in hand, ready to pop the question, the last thing you want to see is a half-naked 4-year-old careening across the lawn with a construction hat on," Hiler says. "It sort of ruins the ambience."
Although they share a common yard with the inn, David and Stacy Hiler have the good fortune of living in separate quarters. Jim O'Reilly at the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, Vermont, didn't have that luxury when he started out. Guests and family lived in the same building. "The kids would be running back and forth in a hallway above a guest room, and I'd be whispering, 'No, no, no, don't do that.' My number-one recommendation for parents getting into this business is to protect the privacy of their family," he says.
TEARS WELL UP in Heide Bredfeldt's eyes as she stokes the flames in the large fireplace early Saturday morning. After the weekend seminar is over, Heide, Bill, and David are transferring ownership of the inn to a young couple from Annapolis, Maryland. Bredfeldt's input has been the decor of the inn, the touches like the local artwork on the walls or the comfy quilts on each bed that lend the inn that personal touch visitors so adore.
"The pleasure of innkeeping is that you create a design that people respond to," she says. "They tell you, validating it, and that's a real high.... It's very hard this weekend, selling this. I'm losing part of me."
The new owners of the Three Mountain Inn, Ed and Jennifer Dorta-Duque, already have the experience of working together at a software firm outside of Baltimore. They had been searching for an inn for half a year, looking at more than 50 properties in Annapolis, Pennsylvania, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and New York's Finger Lakes region. This was the first inn they visited in Vermont and knew instantly it was the one. "I liked the size," says Jennifer, "and I felt a deep sense of comfort in the rooms with the rainfall showers and [whirlpool] tubs."
All of the 14 potential innkeepers taking Oates and Bredfeldt's course insist they like being around people, but only Jennifer Dorta-Duque seems to feel comfortable in that role. (She and her husband took the seminar as a primer on innkeeping before taking over the Three Mountain.) Even she, however, doesn't have the polished charm that a consummate host like Hiler delivers. He has a genuine ease about being the center of attention, always quick with a quip, and his self-deprecating humor is a comfort to strangers. It's a confidence that comes only with time.
"You want to be attentive to people's needs, listen to their stories like a good therapist, but not be in their face the whole time. You also can't disappear over the weekend," says Tony Clark. He has no qualms about dealing with a tough guest, the one who just drove five hours from New York and spent the last 45 minutes lost on backcountry roads. "It's our job to destress him as soon as he walks in," says Clark, noting that "we're here to serve him, yet not be his servants. We control the house."
Busy with his firm, Bill Oates never really had the chance to test his mettle at the Three Mountain Inn. He has sold more than 250 country inns, and only two of those does he consider utter failures. One owner was an alcoholic who spent most of the day drinking with the guests, the other a married couple who simply stopped communicating with each other. The wife had a wish list of things to do around the inn, but her husband ignored her and kept silent. Oates calls a few of his sales "non-successes, owners who realize they really don't give a damn whether people are happy or not," and, if the market is right, they sell in a year or two and get their money out. Oates feels that his son and his wife have been successful, fulfilling their goals and getting their vision across at the Three Mountain Inn. He thinks that five years is a good amount of time to operate an inn.
"There's a life cycle," Oates says. "You get in, do your thing, and about five to seven years later, you painted the building, and it needs to be painted again. You replaced all the double beds with queen beds, and now everybody wants king beds. You put private baths in, and they want whirlpools. You're behind the curve, and that might be the right time to get out."
But there are the occasional exceptions to the droves of innkeepers who have since high-tailed it back to the city after being beaten down by the business. In 1984, Jim O'Reilly was working as a civil engineer in Alberta, Canada, far from his family and friends in Massachusetts, when he and his wife, Mary, caught a glimpse of Newhart. "It kind of glamorized the whole thought of getting involved in innkeeping," he says now. Jim and Mary decided to give it a shot, purchasing a farm close to an area they knew from their years of skiing Burke Mountain.
The O'Reillys' Wildflower Inn in the rolling hills and farmland of the state's Northeast Kingdom has been transformed over the past 19 years from a four-bedroom, shared-bath B&B into a 24-room multi-structure country inn where the couple have raised eight children. During the summer months, when the statewide occupancy rate is in the 45 percent range, the Wildflower Inn has a whopping 98 percent occupancy. Many of these guests are families, coming from Boston and New York to frolic for a week in the countryside. Children can go to the petting barn at the inn and get friendly with a sheep, a calf, a pony, and a shaggy donkey named Scooter, while their parents check out more than 10 miles of mountain-biking and hiking routes on the grounds. Jim's affable manner is inviting to guests who enjoy talking about their lives with him over a cup of coffee at breakfast. Says O'Reilly: "My favorite part of the job is finding some sort of connection between us."
NORTH OF KILLINGTON, VERMONT, Route 100 is one of the finest stretches of country road in America, a mix of rolling farmland, covered bridges, and white steeples, all nestled in a valley crowned by small peaks. Veer left at the sign for Liberty Hill Farm, and you'll spot the large red barn, the tire swing dangling from a maple, hear the cows mooing, and smell the manure wafting in the crisp air. This farm of 75 milking cows that help supply the Cabot and Grafton cheesemaking companies is the last dairy farm still in operation in the Rochester area; when owners Beth and Bob Kennett arrived, there were 11. For 25 years now, the Kennetts and their two sons have been waking up with the roosters and milking the cows here. In 1984, when milk prices plummeted, Beth got the crazy notion of opening up her farmhouse to guests.
Sit with her for a few minutes at the big block table in her kitchen, drinking coffee from a mug that reads "Got Milk?," and you'll find her rosy demeanor to be contagious. She's the hospitable link to yesteryear in a place many consider foreign in the 21st century. Having lived through three or four of the innkeeper's life cycles described by Bill Oates, she's also adept at leaving a guest with the best souvenir Vermont offers: a fond memory.
"Folks call up all the time and ask, 'What can we do here?' " Beth Kennett says. "Lots, I say. Milk the cows, nurse the calves, play in the hayloft, swim in the river, roast marshmallows, catch fireflies, and just look at the stars."
In her first year of operation, Kennett learned quickly that her house was more than merely a bed and a meal. The working farm was a major attraction. She had taken a course led by Tony Clark at the Blueberry Hill, who emphasized that you need some sort of carrot to entice guests. Pointing to Kennett, Clark said that she already had one -- the farm. Kathleen Sweeten, president of the Vermont Lodging & Restaurant Association, says that while a farm or a cross-country ski center on the grounds might be an added bonus, it's not necessary to be successful. "It's equally important for an inn to hook up with local attractions, like the Three Mountain Inn managed to do with Stratton to become a skiing destination."
No longer relying on travel writers to get the word out, most inns these days get 50 percent or more of their business from the Internet. Yet, even when all rooms are filled, don't expect an inn to be a cash cow. For the first 20 years of business, Clark says he didn't take a salary, putting all his income back into the inn. Having just turned 60, Clark says he could sell the property and make a small fortune. His desire, however, is that this thicket be forever a wilderness preserve, and he is exploring turning over the inn to a nonprofit venture similar to Vermont's Green Mountain Club. He has overcome his share of adversity yet remains devoted to the hospitality business. "One certainly doesn't become rich in this profession, but I love the lifestyle," he says. "I'd do it over again in a second."
"The beauty of this business is that it's not terribly profitable, but it pays for all your living expenses," says Walt Forrester of the Parker House Inn. "Your car, insurance, food, alcohol, heat, electricity, everything is paid for." He says he often barters for other wares and services, like massages, jewelry, and golf shoes, in exchange for dinners at his inn.
But now Forrester has just about had his fill of Vermont's local customs. "We've decided that we're not rural people," he says, "and we plan to move to Philadelphia."
Asking price for the Parker House Inn: $915,000.
Tips on Buying a B&B
1. Let a professional try to talk you out of it. Being an innkeeper is a serious emotional and physical endeavor. Attend a seminar for aspiring innkeepers and become informed about the hardships and toil of the lifestyle. An estimated 80 percent of those who attend an innkeeping course abandon the dream after seeing the full picture.
2. Jump in with both feet. If you're serious about buying an inn, the first step is being unemployed and homeless. Those who attempt a slow transition to the innkeeper's life aren't as successful as those who quit their jobs, sell their home, and devote themselves full time to finding and opening a property.
3. When looking to buy a property, don't visit inns that are for sale -- visit inns that fit your business profile, and make an offer. You first have to know what you want. Urban or rural? Rustic or polished? Will there be a full-service restaurant? Do you want 16 rooms with a full staff or a five-room inn run by you and your spouse alone?
4. Don't expect to fall in love with an inn. If you look for the perfect place, you'll be searching forever. Every property has drawbacks: Too remote or too close to the road or too far from the mountains. Find something doable and then work to make it perfect.
5. Reach beyond your means. Resist the temptation to buy a cheap fixer-upper within your price range. Banks are more likely to lend you funds for a property with an established business value. Here's the cycle that real estate agents often see: The first buyer spends his life savings renovating a property and opens the doors to resounding silence. He runs out of money and sells out after a few years. The second buyer of the property spends his capital marketing the business and building a clientele but runs out of gas after a few years. It's the third buyer who inherits a beautifully appointed, fully functional, viable business and lives happily ever after.
Stephen Jermanok has visited more than 200 inns reporting for numerous publications, including the Globe. His latest book is New England Seacoast Adventures (Countryman Press).