Getting inn on the action

You're yearning for a change. You enjoy staying in inns and have a knack for cooking, interior decorating, and striking up conversations with strangers. Suddenly the idea hits you: Quit your job and start up a bed-and-breakfast.

For many, opening a country inn is an exciting prospect. Some seek a focus for retirement, others are looking for an escape from the corporate world, and still others want to try their hand at a second or third career.

For those who are considering the idea but have no clue how to begin, help is at hand. Enter David Caples, a 25-year veteran of the hospitality business and itinerant innkeeper instructor.

Mr. Caples' Lodging Resources Workshop based in Amelia Island, Fla., teaches neophytes the basics of the trade. Put simply, Mr. Caples runs a school on the ABCs of B&Bs.

First off, advises Caples, be forewarned: The financial rewards of B&B ownership can be uncertain, and the hours long. "B&Bs are not normally the highest return on your investment," he says. "An inn is pretty much 50-50 an investment decision and a lifestyle decision."

Successful inns put 75 percent of their weight in staff and 25 percent in the building, says Caples. So warm hospitality and a sunny disposition figure in strongly - way ahead of the prize antiques and frilly curtains.

"You've got to ask yourself: 'Golly, is this me? Can I do this? Can I be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed every morning [for the guests]?' " says Caples, who runs his workshop with business partner Helen Cook.

Clearly, not everyone is cut out for the job. In fact, only 40 percent of those who take Caples's one-day seminar actually pursue the idea.

Joseph Fischer and his wife, Ann, of Kingston, N.Y., are in Waltham, Mass., attending a Lodging Workshops one-day seminar. They are hoping to open an inn during their retirement years.

"We've done a fair amount of research, and we're looking into a home stay - no more than three rooms - and maybe combining it with a mini-farm," says Mr. Fischer, a systems analyst at IBM.

Others are seeking an outlet for creative talents. "I like doing decoration. I like doing artwork, painting, batiking, cooking, baking - everything artsy," says Marie Crockett, a commercial artist. "I just want to get out of the commercial environment."

For Barbara Campagna, a graphic designer from Davenport, Iowa, the reason is simple: "You're going to meet a lot of people, and that's what I really enjoy most."

Whatever the reason, prospective innkeepers should do some research and careful thinking before they forge ahead, Caples says. For a quick look at the ins and outs of inns, he offers these tips:

* Have the concept in mind first. Know what type of B&B you want before finding the building. Decide on something that matches your interests and would attract the kind of guests you would like.

* Do a competitive analysis. Inventory the lodging in your area. Don't be afraid to cold-call area hoteliers and other B&B owners to get information. Research state tourism Web sites. In some states, you can use local sales-tax receipt data to calculate gross revenue of area lodging.

* Know your markets. Successful innkeepers work two to three markets at once, so don't limit yourself to just the weekend crowd. Try to accommodate corporate guests, honeymooners, and groups needing small meeting spaces. Be available and market yourself to people who will come to your inn Sunday through Thursday, including walk-ins off the street.

* Provide amenities appropriate to your target markets. If you're aiming for corporate guests, you'll want private baths, telephones, and cable TVs in every room as well as fax machines and modem access for computers.

* Consider size and site. Inns with 10 rooms or more tend to be more profitable than smaller inns. Rooms bring in the most money per guest (compared with other amenities like food service), so the more rooms you have, the more profitable your inn will be. As for site, make sure your community is pro-business.

A less stressful way to enter the innkeeping business is to buy an existing one. But if you do, make sure you look carefully at its business operating statement. New construction is also an option, but be aware that it often takes more time to build than first predicted.

* Come up with an easy-to-remember name and clear identity for your B&B. One innkeeper friend, Caples recalls, named his establishment, "The Country Hare," which doesn't immediately ring a bell with people and could be mistaken for a hair salon.

* Write a business plan. Put your description of your proposed or existing inn in writing for your banker. Consider how you will differentiate yourself from other lodging in your area. Ask yourself: Why would anyone stay with me? Why would anyone stay with me more than one night? Would I stay with myself? For a loan, find banks with small-business lending experience. You can call the Small Business Administration for a list of top lenders.

* Design a marketing strategy. The key is tenacity and frequency. Often, a good chunk of an inn's market is close by - within a radius of one to five hours of driving or 500 miles. If you're trying to attract a corporate audience, offer brochures and discount rooms to administrative assistants.

Seasoned innkeepers know the ups and downs of the hospitality business. Jack Davis, a former executive at General Motors, started a B&B with his wife in Cape May, N.J., in 1993. He finds keeping his inn looking pristine a challenge. Maintaining a quality staff is another issue.

But the rewards make it all worthwhile, especially the people he meets. When guests call, he says, there may be a question of what kind of people they'll be. "Some people are funny and turn out to be great," he says. "They're friends you just haven't met yet."

Prospective innkeepers should do some research and careful thinking before they forge ahead.

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