CapeMay.com Blog

To Keep an Inn

About 1980, I discovered an excellent exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was about the early years of automobile travel and the resulting development of the tourist home industry in America. It was especially interesting to me because I was part of the rapidly developing Bed & Breakfast industry, which was having a rather positive impact on the revitalization of Cape May’s economy. It also helped me realize the close relationship between travelers’ needs and interest and the tyinn-stagecoach2pes of overnight accommodations that became available for them during the course of America’s history.

For those of you who have visited Williamsburg taverns, the guides’ description of colonial tavern accommodations would make you want to stay home. Besides sharing the outhouse, one also shared the beds with bundling boards used to separate the sleepers. Only men “enjoyed” the taverns and plentiful food and liquor probably helped them collectively snore off the experience. Women travelers needed to make arrangements with friends or relatives along their travel route to insure they remained in a more protective environment. As railroad travel developed through the 19th century, hotels were built in close proximity to railroad stations and offered a wide variety of accommodations from basic to very luxurious. Old movies would give one the impression they were all luxurious, and most of them that have survived today represent the finest of their time.

The automobile changed travel completely, but not immediately. Cars were becoming commonplace before good road systems connected destinations, but by the 1930s, automobile road trips were giving the railroads and their hotels serious competition. Cars allowed travelers to explore places and communities relatively unavailable by trains and the railroad hotels. With typical Yankee ingenuity, homeowners started displaying signs offering “Rooms” or “Tourism Accommodations” and probably offered a wide variety of good and mediocre travel experiences. A whole new industry in America was born, thrived and slowly gave way to the roadside motel industry of the 1950s. Early motels offered “cabins” and worked hard to create a residential appearance. But as time moved on, motel chains found that uniform appearance of their buildings and guest units and proximity from door to car were very important to the traveler. The term “branding” might not have been in use but it was sure in practice.

My brother and I grew up with motel travel and, as long as there was a swimming pool, all was great! But by the time I married Sue in 1968, we agreed that this type of travel was becoming boring at best.

In our early travels together to then undiscovered places such as Charleston and Savannah, we found and enjoyed some of the remaining rooming houses, but recognized they were rapidly disappearing from America’s landscape. We didn’t realize at the time, but we were not the only travelers finding motels tiresome. Americans were weary of the sterile motel experience and were developing a growing interest in history travel; the birth of the American B&B experience was just around the corner.

Cape May also did not realize it would soon enjoy national recognition not only for its B&B’s but also for the development of the B&B industry. How did this come to pass? While Wildwood was booming and building in the 1950s and 60s, Cape May remained quiet and relatively undiscovered. Several new motels had appeared but historic hotels and numerous rooming houses dominated the town’s accommodations and their business season was as short as the summer. As we approached America’s bicentennial in 1976, a very strong interest developing in using vacations to discovery our country’s history. Historic communities from Bar Harbor to Key West enjoyed an influx of travelers. Victorian Cape May fell right in the mix and understood early on that these travelers did not just want to see history, museum style, but they wanted to stay, dine and shop in historic places. Our large, rambling Victorian houses were made for B&B conversion with sufficient space for 5-10 guest rooms, public rooms and verandas and at least one small back room for the owners.

In 1971 when Sue and I opened the Mainstay, we were sure there was less than a dozen B&B’s in America – we only knew of 4 others but did not have the luxury of an Internet search. Within 20 years, there were approximately 80 in Cape May alone and a report by PAII, the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, indicated that the number of B&B inns in the USA exceeded 30,000. Recognizing the value of our collective experience, Cape May Innkeepers offered to create a school for perspective innkeepers as a fund-raiser for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Our tongue and cheek name of INN DEEP added to the appeal and we attracted up to 100 students each year in what use to be called, the “off season.” Many of our students shared our love for Cape May and decided to end their search for a great B&B location right here.

Today if you enjoyed a horse and carriage tour of Cape May during the summer or the Holly Trolley Tour of our town all decorated for the Christmas season, it would be hard to imagine this community in a state of disrepair. The B&B industry has been given ample credit for helping establish a sound economy for Cape May, but it has never received proper credit for its role in historic preservation in Cape May or in much of America. By the late 1960’s, Cape May’s Historic District was in sad shape. The Physick Estate was abandoned and over grown, empty storefronts were plentiful on Washington Street before the Mall, and several of our famous old hotels and homes were preparing for the wrecking ball. But by 1976, Cape May was awarded National Historic Landmark status and B&B owners were involved in all aspects of the community rebirth. One by one, residences that had escaped attention for many years found dedicated new owners for B&B conversion. Inappropriate white paint gave way to Victorian colors, remodeled exteriors were restored with the help of old photographs, antiques returned to Cape May rather than departed, and front porches enjoyed the social life they had missed for many years. Rocking on a veranda, enjoying breakfast or afternoon tea and watching people watching you became headlines in travel literature as it sang the praises of B&B’s in Victorian Cape May. It was a historic preservation dream come true.

I am often asked if I miss innkeeping. While retirement has provided time for other interests and travel, the time spent helping visitors enjoy our history and our wonderful community were truly some of my favorite moments in life so far. The interaction of innkeepers and guests is as old as recorded history and still as valuable to both. Would I do it all over? You bet!

Ten most important considerations for new innkeepers

So you think you might want to buy a B&B and become an innkeeper? We polled a few of Cape May’s finest innkeepers and here’s some “considerations” they come up with:

Location, location, location, just as they teach at Cornell. Does the considered location attract the B&B crowd? This cliental is usually educated, middle to upper income, sophisticated, interested in cultural and environment activities, and enjoy good food and very attractive accommodations. Are you in or near major tourist attractions, colleges, corporate business offices, hospitals, courthouses, etc. – Tom Carroll, former innkeeper of the Mainstay

Inns in Cape May are fortunate that Cape May and the Jersey shore in general are within driving distance of millions of people from so many major metropolitan areas. Being in an area that is a destination itself, makes marketing much easier than having to make your inn the reason for travel to a more remote location.

Is your business plan realistic? You should take your estimated start-up cost and see if you could afford to add 25 to 40 percent to it if you had too.

Do you or your partners have the right personality to be “on stage” much of the day? Would you find all this social time enjoyable or would it and the long hours grow old very fast?

Truly being a “people person” is an important consideration for a potential innkeeper. You will get asked the same questions many times and have your personal time and space invaded. Being able to remain friendly and helpful at these times is so important. If you read comments guests make about their visits, you will notice that there are more comments about how guests felt they were treated than the facility itself.

Do you and your partners have a plan for a fair division of responsibilities that match your talents and interest? This should be a long, sober, serious discussion before any decision is concluded. It should become part of a business contract, not unlike a marriage contract. Running an inn together and being married to a partner have very close parallels.

Be able to perform all tasks associated with innkeeping. As with any small business, finding and keeping good help can be hard. Even if cooking is your responsibility, you will probably need to clean and make beds when the help doesn’t show up.

Don’t think occupancy rate – think bottom line. If you are renting a room for $50 a night and are at full occupancy, that does not mean you are making money, as you will find out come December 31.

Work toward developing repeat customers. Guests who become part of your “family” will return many times and spread the word to their friends and family. I have one couple who have stayed with me 30 times in the 7 years that I have been here. I love it when the phone rings and the caller says they were referred to me by a regular customer. – Alison Bjork, White Dove Cottage.

Remember the days when you worked for someone, like IBM for example, and payday was a happy and regular happening? That’s not necessarily how it works when you are an innkeeper and you are self-employed. Part of your paycheck is the lifestyle you traded for getting out of the “rat race.” So, don’t worry. Be happy.

Tom Carroll and his wife Sue retired from 34 years on innkeeping in 2004. They remain busy with Restoration & Innovation Consulting helping others with projects large and small. They still enjoy being involved in projects without physically doing all the work.