It’s not uncommon for people who visit small inns or bed-and-breakfasts to fantasize about running the business themselves.
“From the moment you walk in, you’re made to feel comfortable,” says Kyla Jones, executive director of the Ohio Bed & Breakfast Association in Westerville. “You begin to think: ‘Oh, I want to do this.’ ”
Guests can easily picture themselves living in a fabulous home, baking muffins and entertaining overnight visitors, Jones says.
It’s a refrain Ellen Grinsfelder and Terry Lingo, owners of the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills, hear regularly. “At least once a week, somebody is sort of oohing and aahing about it,” Grinsfelder says.
But wistful guests often don’t think about scrubbing bathrooms, rising before the sun and sleeping with strangers under their roof, Jones says. Part of the allure—and the illusion—of such accommodations is the seemingly effortless charm. It is an oasis of calm. But behind that relaxed vibe are people working very hard to make it look easy. “The best innkeepers are the ones that make it look completely effortless, and it’s not,” Jones says.
It’s a lesson Grinsfelder and Lingo shared during a recent “innkeeper for a day” experience, and they invited Columbus C.E.O. along.
Behind the Scenes
Grinsfelder pauses to discreetly check her notes before entering the dining room. The staff had made mental notes during prior interactions with guests, and then wrote down tidbits about their backgrounds, their families or their reasons for visiting.
So Grinsfelder heads into the dining room, armed with a coffee pot and the knowledge that there are two couples from the Akron area—near her alma mater, Kent State University—and a mother and daughter enjoying a day of pampering. She pours them coffee and chats about their plans for the day, casually inserting into the conversation the details she’d just read.
Even though the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls employs 45 people, Grinsfelder still spends mornings pouring coffee and making small talk with guests. People want to interact with the innkeeper, she says. It’s part of the experience. It’s what they see and remember.
But what they don’t see—the demanding behind-the-scenes realities of running a hospitality business—can be just as important to an establishment’s success. Balancing the menial and the congenial is a constant struggle. After all, no amount of charm can undo a cold meal or a dirty bathroom.
For more than an hour before Grinsfelder was pouring coffee and charm, while her guests were still asleep, she answered emails, washed laundry and unloaded supplies from a recent Sam’s Club run. After her breakfast rounds in the dining room, she slips back to the kitchen to check on meals and load the dishwasher.
She also updates her notes. One couple, she learns, was thinking about retiring to the area. She adds the information to the paperwork so someone can ask about their progress during their next visit. Recording details about guests helps the inn deliver more personalized service, she explains, as we stack dirty cups and plates into the dishwasher.
Grinsfelder glides easily back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. Every time she or Lingo passes through the kitchen, they stop to load the dishwasher or put dishes away. “Anytime Ellen and I come through the kitchen and they’re backed up, we help them out,” he says.
After breakfast, Grinsfelder heads back to her office, where she checks email and prepares for a meeting with a client interested in hosting an event in the Gathering Place, a meeting and dining space the inn recently opened to attract corporate clients and bus tours. Other days, she might order supplies, place ads for open positions, confer with her marketing firm about promotions, field questions from would-be guests, or work on the inn’s monthly newsletter.
Lingo’s days are just as varied. He schedules employees for training, plans events in the Gathering Place, oversees maintenance and construction projects, and even tends bar when necessary. Most days, Lingo dines with the restaurant staff to strategize about the day’s meals and special events. On this day, they plan for a bus tour coming in for lunch. He assigns me to beverage duty.
In the lull between breakfast and lunch, Grinsfelder inspects some of the inn’s nine guest rooms, six log cabins and 12 cottages. She points out the properties that are pet-friendly—an angle she’s going to employ in her marketing efforts.
She also makes notes about a torn grill cover, removes a footstool that has begun to show wear and straightens pictures as she walks slowly through each room.
Keeping the sprawling property looking immaculate is a priority for the couple. “It’s continual upkeep,” Lingo says. “We just have to stay at the top appearance-wise. We continually put money back into the business.”
Grinsfelder often jokes that other innkeepers are jealous of her because she married her contractor. When Grinsfelder’s mother, Anne, founded the inn 25 years ago, she hired Lingo to help her build it. Lingo and Grinsfelder met during the project and ended up getting married. His background in construction has saved the inn thousands of dollars over the years. “Lots of people are envious that we have a contractor, maintenance person, builder who can also step into the kitchen as need be,” Grinsfelder says.
Back to Work
When Grinsfelder and I return to the dining room after inspecting rooms, we discover that the expected bus had arrived early. The group of sightseeing seniors had been seated and was ready to be served. I grab my ice tea pitcher and try not to spill on anyone.
While I struggle to make small talk, the unflappable Grinsfelder smiles and quickly choreographs another meal. She greets visitors. She slips away to assist staff. Then she’s back to visiting with her guests. Like an actor moving between the spotlight and backstage. Or Superman stepping in and out of a phone booth, unnoticed but transformed. One second a dishwasher, the next a composed hostess talking with strangers like an old friend.
Lunch goes smoothly, and the group heads off to enjoy the splendor of the Hocking Hills.
Afterward, Lingo, who plated food and poured drinks during lunch, takes a moment to check on the inn’s beehives, a project Grinsfelder dreamed up because she thought it would be a good marketing opportunity. An inn isn’t just about good food and comfortable beds, after all. It’s about the special touches, the clever imprints of the innkeeper’s personality—some that the guests notice, others more subtle.
In the back yard, we don protective gear. Lingo carefully pulls the lids off the bee boxes. I hand him supplies and question my decision to wear sandals. Several are overflowing with honey, while others appear to be struggling. Plans to use the honey in the kitchen and spa may have to wait another season. Lingo doesn’t fret over the setback and moves on to the next project.
That’s the joy and the surprise of the job, they say. “You think your day is set but it’s never set,” Grinsfelder says. “It’s part of the excitement.”
On a recent morning at the Welcome Home Inn in Delaware, a four-bedroom inn that Brenda and Forrest Williams built in 1997, Forrest greets guests as they come into the dining room for coffee.
When the food is ready, he invites them to the table. The semi-retired minister offers a quick prayer and asks guests to share a bit about themselves.
Since the diners are strangers sitting together at one table, Forrest likes to get the conversation rolling, Brenda explains. “He draws people together and then he leaves,” she says. “People have just sat here chatting until 10:30.”
But Forrest and Brenda don’t sit down with guests for the morning meal. There’s too much work to do.
On this day, Brenda started cooking around 7 a.m., mixing biscuit dough, snipping herbs from her garden to flavor potatoes and arranging balled melon into glass goblets. While her husband greets guests in the dining room, she deftly moves around the kitchen preparing the meal. And Forrest, in between chatting with guests, readies trays of butter and jam and unloads the dishwasher. After the meal, kitchen clean-up also is a shared duty.
The Williamses fall naturally into their roles, moving smoothly through their routines with little discussion, while avoiding stepping on each other’s toes. As innkeepers, they cook, clean and spend hours maintaining the property’s extensive gardens and keeping the house looking sharp. Most importantly, they take time to personally connect with their guests.
To pull it all off, they also recognize their limits. They leave most of the repair-type work to professionals. They tackle bigger projects such as repainting wood trim or replacing sink faucets during the offseason winter months. It’s a tempting but dangerous trap to try to do everything, all the time.
Although operating a bed-and-breakfast is a year-round, 24/7 operation, they make an effort to preserve a personal life. This is particularly difficult—and important—when you share your home with a procession of strangers, Brenda says. The couple built their home specifically as a bed-and-breakfast, so they were able to design the space to include personal quarters.
Brenda likes having the private area to retreat to and works hard to keep guests out of the space. “It’s really frustrating when people get in my private space,” she says. “I’ve got so many things to do, and they’re in my kitchen—that’s hard.”
Getting away also is a challenge, the innkeepers agree. No matter what, it’s going to cost money, Brenda says. The choice is closing the inn and losing business or paying someone to run the place. They’ve done both.
“We’re not big vacation people,” she says. “If we do take time off, we do it in the winter months when we’re not busy.”
Lynn Varney wanted to discuss her experience as owner of the Harrison House at 3 p.m. As sole proprietor of a four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast in Columbus’s Harrison West neighborhood, she doesn’t share the workload with a spouse, business partner or staff. Mid-afternoon offers a rare but brief lull between guests departing and arriving. She sometimes squeezes in a nap.
It gives her a moment to reflect. Asked about her favorite parts of the day, Varney doesn’t hesitate: visiting with guests at breakfast.
For her guests, it’s a pleasant start to the day. For Varney, who awakens at 5 a.m. to check email, work on the inn’s social media and prepare the meal, breakfast is her first opportunity to decompress and socialize after a couple hours of work. This is her reward. This is the payoff. It’s a moment that dominates the daydreams of guests who think they’d maybe like to open a bed-and-breakfast of their own someday.
The menu varies depending on the number of the guests, but a typical meal includes fresh fruit, an egg dish and bacon. Once breakfast is served, Varney cleans the kitchen and then tackles the guest rooms in the historic Victorian home.
If guests are checking out, she grabs her cleaning supplies and heads to the bathroom, where she scrubs the floors on her hands and knees. The almost daily routine of washing floors with bleach has given most of her clothing a tie-dyed look.
This is the part of the job that is not the stuff of would-be innkeepers’ dreams. If all goes well, the guests don’t even notice the sweat and hard work. To them, Harrison House is just a cozy and relaxed retreat, somehow everything always in its place.
When guests stay for consecutive nights, she tidies their room daily. “I make the bed, empty the trash, fold their jammies,” she says. “It’s like Mom’s taking care of you.”
Constantly flitting between her competing roles as poised and charming innkeeper and invisible chambermaid makes it a challenge to stay on top of maintenance issues. Varney is waiting for business to slow down a bit so she can repaint some areas of the house. She tries to do as much maintenance as she can herself. “I can repair or replace a toilet,” she says. “I can plaster a wall—not perfect—but pretty darn good.”
Although Varney spends most of her waking hours at the inn, she’s grateful that she has a small apartment behind the inn to retreat to. “I need my little hideaway,” she says.
Peter Scherman spends a fair amount of his time talking with dreamers who think owning an inn might be a fun job after the kids are grown.
As president of the B&B Team, based in Virginia, he tries to make people aware of the work that goes into running an inn. The hospitality consultant is quick to point out that success usually means guests have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes or when you’re having a bad day.
Innkeepers need to be masterful hosts as well as savvy businesspeople, says Scherman. “People do need to find out what’s really involved, because it’s so much more than making muffins,” he says.
Scherman counsels innkeepers to pay attention to creating quality experiences for guests as well as marketing. “People come into this business not because they’re a marketer. They come into it because they love people and they want to be in hospitality,” he says.
If innkeepers can’t brainstorm promotions like Grinsfelder’s honey plan and pet-friendly rooms or manage their website and social media like Varney, they need to hire someone who can, or learn how to do it.
Scherman constantly advises clients to hire people to clean and do laundry so they can focus on the face of the business. “Hire someone to do the $10 an hour jobs so you can concentrate on the $100 an hour ones,” he says.
Innkeepers also need to remember the key role they play in the inn experience, says Jones of the bed and breakfast association. “Every single inn has its own personality, and that reflects the innkeeper,” she says.
Innkeepers also must make time for themselves. “If they don’t get out and they don’t take time off on a regular basis, they will start resenting the inn,” Scherman says.
Varney, who bought Harrison House in 2006, does miss the ability to get away. She took her first vacation in six years this winter when she paid a friend to inn sit.
“I can’t go to see my kids who have moved out of town,” she says. “I would like the flexibility to go see them, and I can’t.”
Still, she wouldn’t trade the job for any other. “It’s gone beyond my expectations,” she says. “I enjoy it a whole lot more than I thought I would.”
Melissa Dutton is a freelance writer.
Reprinted from the November 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.