Aspiring innkeepers learn realities of B&B life

The next time you head to South Carolina, consider bringing your horse.

The ink just recently dried on Jerry and Linda Gray’s purchase of the Schell Haus, a six-room bed-and-breakfast on 25 acres in Pickens, across from Table Rock State Park, in the northwest part of the state.

What does that have to do with Wisconsin? The Grays live in Darien (Walworth County), and they’re about to make a major lifestyle change. She is an attorney, he is an engineer and by January they will have retired from those professions.

“We will be looking in particular for guests who travel with their horses,” says Linda. “There is an interest in this. The park is full of trails for riding, and we can provide a place for the horse to stay, as well as the rider.”

The property also contains a conference room that can seat 50 people, opening the possibility for corporate customers. It all is a way for the Grays to get away from Wisconsin winters while making an investment.

The couple had been looking five years for a bed-and-breakfast to buy, and they were in good company at a recent seminar for aspiring innkeepers, put on in Lake Mills (Jefferson County) by the Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association.

Another student was Vicki Klein of nearby Jefferson, a registered nurse who with her husband is looking to buy a B&B in a different part of Wisconsin. She considers it a way to lessen stress.

The seminar was an opportune way to learn more about what consumers expect from a B&B, and what innkeepers likely experience.

What do B&B guests want the most? A private bath is their top concern, then privacy, quality linens, a full breakfast and room door locks.

Guests most often choose a B&B, instead of other lodging, to rest and relax. They also choose B&B lodging to celebrate a special occasion, to be in a place that seems more like a home than a hotel, or to experience something new.

About 71 percent of state association members say they do not “make a living” from their B&B. Most have some kind of post-secondary education, and they often become innkeepers because a lifestyle change is desired.

An average annual occupancy rate of 35-50 percent is considered good for a B&B in Wisconsin. “A four-room property (for rentals) is probably about the smallest you can have and still break even,” says seminar coordinator Shelley Hansen of the Otter Creek Inn, Eau Claire

Fewer B&Bs are including bike or boat rentals in their rates, because of liability and insurance concerns, contends Mike Hohner, who with wife Gayle operate the Hillcrest Inn and Carriage House, Burlington (Racine County).

“A great view, an extraordinarily comfortable bed and an elegant breakfast” are Gayle’s priorities for customers. How elegant should the meal be? Worth $5 to $7 per plate, she says.

But there is room to disagree.

“It’s a myth that you have to be able to cook breakfast to run a B&B,” says Tom Boycks, co-owner of the elegant Fargo Mansion Inn, Lake Mills. “At the beginning, we’d cut up a kringle and pour juice.” But his cooking aptitude improved with time.

The 8,000-square-foot Fargo Mansion, now a National Registry property, had warped floors, was without electricity and had been boarded up for five years when he and Barry Luce bought it in the 1980s.

“My bathroom is filled with rolls of toilet paper that are one-third full,” Tom contends. It is his staff’s habit to replace rolls in guest rooms when they reach this level of use.

In Eau Claire, Shelley says she’s typically without guests 24 days a year, but rarely are any of those days consecutive. That makes for never-ending work, unless a B&B operator hires a house sitter or deliberately decides to not be open every day of the year.

“You cannot be all things to all people,” she warned her students. “Customer service is a successful rendering of the services that you offer.”

So just as you wouldn’t expect McDonald’s to prepare a T-bone medium rare, neither should innkeepers assume they must meet every customer’s demand.

But neither does that make for an easy street of living.

“Your guests will be able to tell if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing,” Shelley says. “And a full-time income won’t come from a part-time contribution on your part.”

There are about 470 licensed B&Bs in Wisconsin. To be licensed this way, there must be eight or less rooms for rent, in the owner’s personal residence, and only breakfast can be served to guests.

There is nothing to prevent an inn operator from calling a place a B&B, even if it is licensed as a motel, says Kris Ullmer, administrator for the state B&B association, which has about 250 members. To be considered for association membership, a property must have less than 24 rooms for rent.

Ullmer says 14 inns that are association members changed ownership this year. The association maintains a list of B&Bs for sale in Wisconsin.

The Hohners conduct hands-on workshops for aspiring owners, so they can better understand the pacing, routine and complications of running a B&B. The two-day sessions are in April and November, or by private arrangement; call (800) 313-9030 or go to www.thehillcrestinn.com.

The next Aspiring Innkeepers Seminar will be March 28 at the Westby House Victorian Inn (Vernon County). For details, or information about the B&Bs in the state association, go to www.wbba.org or call (715) 539-9222.

Students often “go ahead and open a B&B because of our advice, or in spite of it,” Ullmer observes. “We try to be honest about what to expect.”