How does running a B&B work?
August 9, 2008 3:06 PM   Subscribe

So, my sweetheart and I are going to dump the city life, head down to eastern Canada, open a bed & breakfast, and live happily ever after. It's that last bit which is a little hazy. Neither of us have any experience running a B&B. This question is for MeFites who have. Is there anything you know now about running a B&B that you wish you’d known before?

We don’t what the ideal configuration is for a B&B (e.g., where should our living quarters be in relation to the guest rooms?), or if running a B&B means the total death of privacy (our own, I mean), or whether B&B operators qualify for seasonal unemployment benefits (in PEI, say)... I suspect I’m only scratching the surface of our ignorance.

We do know one thing: this is a very very good idea, and we probably can’t be talked out of it. But I’d be grateful for any advice—warnings and tips alike. Likewise, any pointers to credible websites are welcome. Thank you.
posted by YamwotIam to Work & Money (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a place selected? Living in a separate garage studio, or at least having your own private entrance, would help.

An open kitchen with a counter that transitioned into your office might be nice, you could supervise meals and still man the phones.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:21 PM on August 9, 2008

One of the best ways to get a handle on the B&B scene is to try innsitting. This previous thread has some good information.
posted by kimdog at 4:02 PM on August 9, 2008

My step-mother ran a B&B on Scotland and said it was very hard work. My fiance's parents also ran a B&B and split up afterward - hard work and little privacy. Don't want to destroy your dream - this is just what I've heard..
posted by laukf at 4:07 PM on August 9, 2008

Not trying to talk you out of it, but one thing I've heard from B&B owners is that the work never ends- no vacations or breaks even if there is no one staying with you, someone might walk in the front door any moment, and it can be quite difficult to get away from it and find a good inn-sitter.
posted by arnicae at 4:26 PM on August 9, 2008

I had dinner with a banker in Ashland Oregon once. She told me she "owned" more than half the B&Bs in town as they were all in debt, were all people's retirement or alternative fantasies which never came off. Moral is that it is very hard work and unless you find a pitch on the doorstep of an attraction where there is little competition - from cheap motels, posh hotels and other B&Bs - you are going to find it tough. Sorry, but true.

But.. someone has to succeed. No reason it should not be you.
posted by A189Nut at 5:12 PM on August 9, 2008

Response by poster: Terrific answers so far--please keep them coming! StickyCarpet's "office-in-kitchen" tip is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. Never-ending hard work is probably a pro rather than a con, so please don't hold back. Thanks again!
posted by YamwotIam at 5:14 PM on August 9, 2008

Our friends bought several acres and built a 5000 sq. ft. B & B after he took an early retirement from his factory job. Unfortunately, one person on the street had a problem with having a B & B on the street and complained to the zoning board, which had previously approved the B & B. The zoning board refused their permit and now this couple lives alone in this lovely 5000 sq. ft. home.
posted by caroljean63 at 5:42 PM on August 9, 2008

Have you got connections or personal history in eastern Canada? Do you really know the area? Because it's not just any random slab of anonymous geography. Eastern Canada's pretty tight – people who live in Maritime towns tend to have known each other for years if not generations, and you'll be the people "from away" for decades. I'm not saying they'll be hostile, but you'll need to put some serious thought into being a good neighbour and fitting into the community on their terms if you want to get any repairs done, deliveries made and so forth.
posted by zadcat at 6:01 PM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I worked in a B&B for a year, helping some friends who owned/ran it. The general observation -- and this was a big place, with eight rooms -- was that you work 14-hour days for four months of the year, 8-hour days for four, and the winter (especially in Canada; I'm in the Eastern Townships) is pretty much yours, with a bit of a bubble of business around Christmas, New Year's and Valentine's Day.

It is NOT as horrible as some people would have you believe -- a lot of hard work, yes, but as long as you know it's a lot of hard work going into it, and you're not entering a saturated market or one where you're outpriced/outclassed, it can be a fine way to make a living.

Where I worked, my friend lived with his wife in an adjoining apartment (she had her own job), and his mother, the co-owner, had a bedroom off the main kitchen and a large personal living room/dining room; privacy for them wasn't a huge problem (or didn't seem to be), but they were naturally friendly, easy-going people that liked meeting new folks, could put up with assholes. And there will be assholes.

Very true about no vacations; one of the reasons I agreed to help out for the year was because neither party there had left the place for over two years. Too much work for two people to allow one to leave, and even in the "off" season there was a lot of catch-up in terms of small repairs, paperwork, etc. There was never any mention of "seasonal unemployment" and I strongly doubt that would ever be an option, since you are self-employed. But I'm no expert.

You'll be "from away," as an above poster says, which may have an unusual impact on customers who are looking for an "authentic" experience -- one of the reasons people choose B&Bs is that they're going to be staying with "real people," not at an impersonal hotel. This may not be a stumbling block, but a good 33% of the business where I worked was repeat business -- couples who had been coming out for decades to enjoy the region, and liked the B&B -- so be aware that there's a slight marketing disadvantage for you there. Encyclopaedic knowledge of the area would definitely be an asset.

Make awesome breakfasts. Having worked at an awesome B&B, most other places seem kind of inadequate, largely because cereal and a croissant just doesn't cut it when you've been to a place that makes good omelets, dutch apple pancakes, french toast with fresh maple syrup, and so on. If the rooms are great and the breakfast is mediocre, it's not a memorable experience. If the rooms are adequate and the breakfast is exquisite, this is the B&B people will tell their friends about.

Be aware that your living expenses and your business expenses will run together, often awkwardly, and you need a good accountant or extraordinarily good financial and record-keeping discipline.

I liked the life, and was sorry when they sold it -- it was something I could have seen doing for a living. As long as you know going in that there's a lot of work, especially in busy times of the year, and that you have to have almost Ghandi-like patience with some customers and their complaints and demands, it can be a great way to make a living.
posted by Shepherd at 6:09 PM on August 9, 2008

Best answer: Make a business plan then manage your business to your plan.

Learn about local zoning and local laws and especially local tastes before you acquire a property. I had some friends who purchased a place in France, big plans, started a very aggressive, very public advertising campaign and alienate most of their target market by employing media tactics that were acceptable in London but not Auvergne. Another friend bought a very old hotel in Kent then terminated most of the long serving staff because Eastern European workers were much much cheaper. He went under about two years later, as the local community - his customer base - all knew and were loyal to the staff he'd fired and wouldn't do business with him. Local knowledge is important.

Make sure you have adequate capital - some 80% to 90% of small businesses fail during the first five years, and 90% of them fail due to lack of working capital. An unplanned slow month or sudden, uninsured damage to your facilities could drive you out of business.

Try to get a job working in a B&B for a while; learn the ropes, see what works / what doesn't work and learn from your employers. Ask lots of questions.

The ideal situation would have you working in a B&B and then purchasing the same property.

By ideal I mean lowest risk. There are other ways to achieve your goal, but why put a large sum of money at risk when you could first try out the work, see if it suits you?
posted by Mutant at 6:18 PM on August 9, 2008

Response by poster: Shepherd, Mutant, awesome answers, with the kind of details I was hoping to see.

Do you really know the area?
It's a homecoming of sorts, so not all that anonymous :)
posted by YamwotIam at 7:23 PM on August 9, 2008

I'm not a B&B operator, but it's one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend away from home... usually in the off season because I'm a cheap bastard. Being the only guest sometimes has let me learn a thing or two about the business... people are always willing to talk about themselves or their work if you give them the chance. ;)
Make sure you have adequate capital - some 80% to 90% of small businesses fail during the first five years, and 90% of them fail due to lack of working capital. An unplanned slow month or sudden, uninsured damage to your facilities could drive you out of business.
This is the #1 thing I was going to say. I was a small business owner once upon a time, and even though I had great cash flow, the problem was that I had to blow every last bit of my capital and then some to get started. It's the little things you don't think about -- for instance, you NEED a fax machine and copier. And you need a website, which you may have to pay someone to put together. And if you don't have it already, a bunch of kitchen equipment that you didn't think about before -- If you've got a five room B&B, you'll need waffle irons and mixers large enough to serve a warm breakfast for ten people.
I had dinner with a banker in Ashland Oregon once. She told me she "owned" more than half the B&Bs in town as they were all in debt, were all people's retirement or alternative fantasies which never came off. Moral is that it is very hard work and unless you find a pitch on the doorstep of an attraction where there is little competition - from cheap motels, posh hotels and other B&Bs - you are going to find it tough. Sorry, but true.
Sadly, this is true of a few other places I know. Fredericksburg TX (in Texas' little-known wine country) is another place where most of them are part owned by one person, and in exchange for bailing out those B&Bs that fail (or, if you think about it in the evil way that I might be inclined to, caused to fail) that person has centralized the bookings and reservation payments/deposits with himself. He basically controls the market, and the B&B "owner"/operators dance to his tune... which means they take all the risks, and he takes all the profits. Be aware of that kind of risk going in, and do a lot of your research online -- if you see a "unified booking system" that covers most of the B&B's in town, you might want to pick another location.

On the other hand, I also know a woman in Austin, TX who has managed to buy up an entire cul-de-sac on the edge of Lake Travis. She owns and rents out four entire homes, for a grand total of something like 18 rooms... she lives in the largest house and presides over a giant farm-style kitchen. Guests in two of the houses eat breakfast in the main house, and the three smaller houses (which are typically rented as one unit, or by floor in floorplans where it works... some of the houses were remodeled via means of a deck with an external door to allow them to be broken down into smaller units) get hot breakfast baskets delivered to the doorstep at a pre-arranged time.

If I were to set a financial yardstick, *after* your initial investment in property and equipment you need to have well over a year's living expenses (car, mortgage if any, utilities, food, health insurance, etc.) saved PLUS an emergency fund -- call it 'self-insurance' that will cover one or two major structural disasters such as the property needing a new roof or having a plumbing line freeze in the winter and burst inside a wall. Talk to local craftsmen (remember, always use locals!) to find out how much it'd cost to fix that kind of thing. This money should be placed in a high-interest online savings account and should be "borrowed from" and then is the first thing that you repay to once you're back on your feet. The interest from these accounts needs to stay in the accounts, too, to cover for inflation. Self insurance is SO much cheaper than credit cards or bank loans...

Personally, I would make plans to spend every vacation opportunity in your selected area or scouting selected areas. In case the above advice wasn't clear enough for you in this way -- this is the type of thing that you need to plan and save for for several years ... and then and only then, execute.
posted by SpecialK at 8:04 PM on August 9, 2008

Oh, the last thing is -- pet-friendly places are pretty much the places I seek out, because it means I can bring my giant evil mutt with me and don't have to coop her up in a boarding facility for a weekend. If you can offer one pet friendly room, do so ... my favorite B&B has one dedicated pet-friendly room, and converted a walk-in-closet into an oversized kennel. And be aware that on the other hand, some people either hate or are afraid of things people keep as pets (and sometimes the pets or the guests make weird/loud noises that not everyone else wants to hear), so if you can, use an outbuilding for those rooms.

In other words, make sure the "honeymoon suite" doesn't share walls with every other room in the house. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 8:09 PM on August 9, 2008

I can't tell you anything specific about running a B&B, but here in Australia I've heard plenty of news stories about how the increasing price of petrol is killing regional tourism. Basically, people who once would happily have driven for four hours to get to some remote location for a holiday are now staying closer to the cities. Since the price of petrol is hardly going to start going down, I'd say avoid setting up your B&B somewhere reliant on road-based tourism. A nice place nearish a city, or along a passenger railway, might be a better idea.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:28 PM on August 9, 2008

Damn, you people make me want to do it now!
posted by A189Nut at 2:25 AM on August 10, 2008

Response by poster: Me too :) Thanks again, everyone!
posted by YamwotIam at 8:37 AM on August 10, 2008

I don't have any advice but an idea for you or anyone else who comes across this thread. When I was looking for a B&B recently, I got pretty tired of looking at "old lady" rooms. I know that there can be a certain fussy charm to patterned floral wallpaper, overstuffed and overlaced beds and chairs and lots and lots of antiques but I'd totally jump on a B&B that looked somewhat modern, zen and calming. Maybe that's a niche you could think about.

Also, I feel like there has been a book or two written on running B&Bs. Check your local library or, hey look!
posted by amanda at 5:51 PM on August 10, 2008

I've stayed in a lot of B&Bs, from very casual guesthouses to pretty luxe, some better-run than others. A few observations:

Having both shared-bath and private bath rooms is the best of both worlds and allows you to cater to a wider variety of people and budgets.

Likewise, it's beneficial to have a range of room sizes available priced accordingly and fairly. Solo travelers in particular are screwed by double-room rates in hotels -- it's nice to be able to book the smaller room for significantly cheaper. I'm even more appreciative when they wedge a single room into some otherwise unsuitable corner -- I'll gladly take the single bed and a shower down the hall for cheap in a hotel that's otherwise a bit out of budget.

Insulate the walls. All of them. The single most annoying thing in otherwise very charming and nicely-managed B&Bs is that I can usually hear showers starting and people clomping up and down the stairs or down the hallways far too easily.

Shared kitchen facilities with basic thoughtful stuff like a fridge for leftovers, teabags, kettle, coffeemaker, mugs...this is just awesome.

Something I never get but always want: Breakfast served later. I'm not an early-riser. If any B&B owner left leftover quiche in the 'fridge for me, I'd kiss them in gratitude.
posted by desuetude at 6:41 PM on August 10, 2008

As a B&B habitué, things we like and look for (wouldn't want to generalise) is a self-contained package where we can do what we like when we like. Big breakfast is awesome, but I like it in the fridge and cupboard so I can go for it when I want. And we don't like sharing common areas too much, so separate cottages or parts of the house is good for us. Nice friendly chat on arrival, a few words and a wave when we're setting out late the next morning for sightseeing, a couple of local recommendations for dinner etc is all we want.

MUST have good coffee. or I'll never come back.

And good pictures on the website. Your own website would be better than some community shared one, as long as you get links to whatever accommodation booking site there is.
posted by wilful at 12:46 AM on August 11, 2008

I'm with desuetude on the late breakfast option. French toast, slices of quiche, fruit salad or other good foods in a fridge, w/ access to microwave, would be great.

Not being a morning person, I'd love to visit, or run, a Bed & Cocktails. Visitors get the cocktail of the day before they head out for evening plans. Likely to require tons of approvals.

Every square inch doesn't need to be cutified. In some B&Bs, you can barely move, and must be fearful of breaking all the porcelain knick-knacks.

You have to be an extrovert, and you don't get to have a cranky day. Part of the B&B experience is the charming hosts.
posted by theora55 at 8:23 AM on August 11, 2008

B&Bs have a reputation for being very hands-on and Super! Cheerful!! Organized activities and tsk tsking if you're not a joiner.

I have never stayed in a B&B like this. Then again, I have it on good authority that this is a legit stereotype. I think it's a city B&B vs country B&B thing? (The places I've stayed sometimes organized a happy hour in the living room, but it was always very optional and no-pressure.)

So here's the trick: if you're going to be expected in your location to provide organized activities, do so without alienating the people who would just like to relax.

theora55, the Royal Street Inn and R Bar in New Orleans is a "bed and beverage."
posted by desuetude at 9:35 AM on August 11, 2008

You can't get unemployment benefits if you're self-employed, which you would be if you owned a B & B. If you had employees, they'd qualify, but you wouldn't.
posted by Penelope at 9:38 AM on August 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the link (who'd have thunk it?), amanda--I'll be making a trip to the bookstore right pronto!
posted by YamwotIam at 6:51 PM on August 11, 2008

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