The idea of owning a bed and breakfast in a quaint and quirky town makes for a great book or TV show: the never-ending succession of idiosyncratic guests, the locals with their quiet suspicions and the heroes of the story: the amiable, funny and quietly brilliant owners who solve mysteries while making an unbeatable spaghetti bolognese.
Of course the reality of running a B&B is often quite different.
But that doesn’t make it any less exciting or fulfilling for the right person, who can combine the people, business and practical skills needed to make it work.
Playing the host
It’s important to acknowledge that this business is quite different to any other. If, like most B&B owners, you also live in the same building, it involves inviting strangers into your home, and playing the host day in, day out.
One Tampa-Bay-based B&B owner told the Wall Street Journal that her living space had even been invaded by guests while she was out having dinner with her husband. Flania Shelley-Grielen, who fled New York for a more tranquil life, had shown the lodgers her private living room during a tour of the property.
When the couple returned that night one of the guests was "sitting there in our room, watching one of my husband's DVDs.” Obviously an unlikely event, but a reminder all the same of the importance of keeping clear dividing lines between your business and personal space.
Also speaking to the Wall Street Journal Barry Werner, a B&B owner in Baltimore, had a more positive story. He "felt good” that his guests “were so at home, like they were staying with a family member – and there can't be a better compliment for an innkeeper than that."
This business requires the right personality and an honest self-evaluation to make sure you’re prepared for the commitment required – which can take people by surprise.
“What I hadn’t fully understood was how people really made their travel plans,” wrote an Ontario-based B&B owner in MoneySense magazine. “I had expected guests to stay two nights but most stayed just one.
“That made B&B guest turnover higher – and daily cleaning more labor-intensive. Because of costs, I had to do it all myself and wasn’t prepared for the extra work.”
But the benefits of running a B&B can be wonderful:
- A large portion of the year – the ‘off season’ – with plenty of leisure time
- The fun and excitement of meeting new people every day
- The joy of sharing your home with appreciative guests
- Making a living from all this
However, for the wrong person, it can end up a costly chore.
What to look for before you buy
As is the case with any hospitality business, a B&B will live or die based on its location.
To attract a regular flow of customers it probably needs to be within a reasonable distance of tourist attractions, the city/town center and/or transport links. There are plenty of places across the country that truly have nothing close enough to sustain even a small B&B, no matter how beautiful and well-run. (Check out our top 5 destinations in Canada for help with finding the best location.)
In most cases, your best bet is to look into purchasing an existing B&B as opposed to building something new or repurposing an existing property.
Price is another important consideration, and it also hinges on location to a large degree.
A B&B needs a large house with at least four – but more often six – bedrooms and bathrooms, plus a well-appointed kitchen and comfortable living areas. This same purchase could require several million dollars in one area of the country but just a few hundred thousand elsewhere.
Building your B&B around your guests
Once you know why people are traveling to the area where your B&B will be located, you’re in a great position to determine what type of guests you need to cater for.
This will help you decide on important factors like décor and menu options. For example, if your B&B is tucked away in the mountains and is likely to attract the outdoorsy type, a rustic décor and hearty home cooking would probably fit their expectations.
On the other hand, if your B&B is in the cultural heart of a bustling urban area and your guests will spend their time perusing art museums and taking in a show, a more contemporary and cosmopolitan look and feel could be in order.
The key is to determine who will be staying with you, what their expectations and needs are, and how your little piece of the picture can satisfy them.
Generally, you’re not going to be the main event of their vacation or business trip. But every little bit you can do to make their vacation more comfortable, fun and interesting will count toward their satisfaction – and eventual referral. After all, in the era of TripAdvisor, a good B&B will really reap the rewards of good service.
Don’t forget: it’s a business
Many B&Bs have to close down because the owners become comfortable and complacent.
It’s arguably easier for this to happen when many of your daily activities – cooking, cleaning, changing bed sheets – you do in your own home too.
But the hospitality industry is highly competitive. No matter how wonderful your guests say you are this summer, there’s no guarantee they’ll be back next summer, so marketing is a constant requirement.
Remodelling and redecorating, technology (time to upgrade the Wi-Fi?) and amenity upgrades are as much driven by current trends as by disrepair. Keeping up on these things takes time and effort. It might not come naturally.
Like most ‘lifestyle businesses’, running a B&B probably won’t make you rich – so make sure it’s something you enjoy. And with B&Bs, this means enjoying interacting with people.
“These days I live a modest but comfortable life,” says the Ontario-based B&B owner quoted earlier. “And I’ve accomplished the two key goals I set out for myself: to make enough to support myself and to experience life in a small town. But I’m an entrepreneur at heart and love people.”
Barry Werner agrees that it’s satisfying others that ultimately makes running a B&B worthwhile. "One thing that makes this job perfect is you're helping people have the perfect vacation or business trip," he says. "You're the person who makes their lives everything they want them to be for a few days. The rewards of that are immeasurable."
If this sounds like something you’d find rewarding too, then running a bed and breakfast could be the best thing you’ve ever done.