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Monika Sudakov

Thinking of becoming an innkeeper?

Here is some food for thought, in this case, no pun intended. First ask yourself why you want to be an innkeeper. If you think it would be fun, it is. If you think it’ll be an easy retirement job that will make some extra money? Think again.

Innkeeping is not only a full-time job but a full-time commitment. It involves working holidays, weekends and basically all those days that others generally have off. You are on call 24/7, and the physical labor is often grueling. Next, you should ask yourself if you are a people person. Do you enjoy entertaining? Are you OK with people touching and looking through your personal items? If so, innkeeping is for you.

Keep in mind that if you believe that starting up a bed and breakfast sounds like a lucrative investment, it isn’t. You will never become rich as an innkeeper. But, you will have wonderful times, be an entrepreneur and be self employed. This comes with a lot of perks and a lot of downfalls, biggest one being the lack of benefits which comes with a normal 9-to-5 job. If you are smart, you’ll diversify, as most bed and breakfasts do. Maybe you’ll serve meals; maybe you’ll do cooking classes; and you will likely want to sell some retail. All of these will contribute to your bottom line but not by much. Innkeeping is ultimately a lifestyle choice and one that can be tremendously rewarding.

Before you begin, make sure you have written yourself a very clear and detailed business plan. You should be absolutely certain of your finances. Know what you can afford before you start looking because banks don’t understand innkeeping as an industry, and getting a loan is a tremendous challenge. Then, estimate your expenses at about 20 percent more because even if you purchase an existing property, which you should, you will likely end up with hidden expenses you didn’t anticipate ranging from home improvements to marketing.

With regards to getting an existing property, there are pros and cons to that. A newly-built facility, whether from the ground up or taking an existing property and building to suit, is great because you can get exactly the amenities and floor plan you want. However, a very serious pitfall often encountered by would-be innkeepers is zoning. You cannot apply for zoning to become a bed and breakfast until you own a property, and if your request is denied, you are stuck with a property you bought with the intent of turning it into a business and cannot do anything with it. We have known several innkeeper friends who spent months fighting their county boards and thousands in legal fees trying to get their inns zoned properly.

Next thing to consider is location. Where do you want to be in terms of potential business? Keep the following factors in mind. It always helps to be near a major thoroughfare, such as a highway, so that people can reach you easily. Secondly, being near things to do is helpful, for example shopping, outdoor activities, historical sites, wineries. Your guests will want a reason to come see you. Third, having a significant population within a two- to three-hour drive is a must. If you are more remote than that you will have a tough time drawing an audience. People who frequent inns tend to keep their searches to within a two- to three-hour drive.

Finally, you should consider the amenities you want to offer. What will set you apart? What is your identity as a bed and breakfast? Are you a foodies destination? Are you going to try to capture a market focused on hunting and fishing? Do you want to have a winery attached to your property? There are an infinite number of approaches you can take, all of which will determine what kind of marketing you will undertake which is probably the single most important aspect to getting into this business. Marketing has become an almost full-time job in and of itself. Having an action plan and understanding your avenues of promoting yourself will make the difference between success and failure within the first year.

There are a number of fantastic resources available to aspiring innkeepers. Most state organizations offer training programs, and several properties do weekend seminars for would-be innkeepers. Additionally, there are many books are out there for aspiring innkeepers that offer more expanded versions of what I outlined here that are fantastic reference sources.

Above all, ask questions. Innkeepers are a friendly bunch and will gladly discuss their industry with you. Pick their brains, and you will glean great insight into the many different approaches that have worked and not worked.

Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at monikaandjeff@chestnut-inn.com.

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