Bed and breakfasts have long been known for their homey atmosphere and personalized service, but as consumer demands have changed, Vermont’s traditional B&Bs have had to change with them.
In the ten years they’ve owned the Shoreham Inn Dominic and Molly Francis have made changes to cater to what their guests are demanding.
Dominic Francis is well aware of the stereotypes many people have of bed and breakfast establishments – after all, it’s an image cultivated to hilarious effect in many films and sitcoms.
"The crazy old lady with the doilies and too many cats. And that we’re going to be peeking around the curtains to see when you’re coming and going," Francis jokes.
When the Francis’s bought the Shoreham Inn they recognized that modern patrons want more privacy – along with the personal touch. They eliminated the inn’s shared bathrooms.
"Everybody wants an in-room bathroom," Francis says. "I want an in-room bathroom! As time has gone on that’s almost become a demanded thing, not a ‘nice-to-have.’"
In-room bathrooms, flat screen TVs, wireless Internet access, air conditioning: Megan Smith says modern conveniences are just as critical for a bed and breakfast as they are for a chain hotel.
As Vermont’s commissioner of Tourism and Marketing – and a former B&B owner – Smith is a strong believer in changing with changing times. It’s a theme she stresses in seminars and workshops with inn owners.
"Do you have enough outlets? Do you have a flat surface? Burn the doilies, get the wallpaper off the walls. You need to be what people are looking for," Smith tells them.
There actually is a Death To Doilies Campaign organized by the Professional Association Of Innkeepers
DeFreest says the changes innkeepers are making are critical to attracting a younger generation of guests, who demand different amenities than baby boomers.
Beyond wireless Internet access they want food grown locally – and they have tastes that can be challenging for a bed and breakfast in an old farmhouse.
"People want cleaner, crisper lines, but they still want a sense of place," she explains." Comforting, without feeling like you’re in your grandmother’s house."
DeFreest says many Vermont innkeepers have made those changes.
B&Bs have also had to adjust to a significant change in the way they market themselves. The Internet is now king and marketing budgets go toward Websites that allow guests to take virtual tours of an inn.
Molly Francis of the Shoreham Inn says the Web has also been a boon in terms of last minute reservations.
"Nowadays so many more people have the Web in their pocket, and they’re driving and going, ‘this is a place I could stay’ and they’re looking at a Website," she says.
Molly and Dominic Francis have owned the Shoreham Inn for nearly 10 years and last year they put it on the market. They represent the norm in the bed and breakfast business where ownership changes an average of every 7 to 10 years.
Rick Wolf is an inn consultant and broker based in Maine. He says the difficulty in getting financing has slowed inn sales in recent years, but he sees improvement.
Wolf gives seminars for prospective inn owners and often encounters unrealistic expectations of what running the business involves.
"There’s a lot of feeling of, ‘oh, I love to cook and I love to entertain and we’re going to sit around and drink tea and sherry with our guests in the afternoon’" he says.
Consultants like Wolf stress that more than other small businesses, most inn owners live where they work. There are a lot of hats to wear, including bookkeeper, cook, host, and plumber.
John Underwood and his wife Karol have owned the Inn At Montpelier for three years.
Underwood’s plan is to run the inn for 10 years and then retire. He’s hoping the financial calculations his plan is based on will work out.
As Underwood sees it, "You’ve got to say, ‘How much would I make in a different job and if I had the money that I invested in the inn, what kind of return could I get on that?’ I know I’m under that, but we’ll see what happens."
Underwood says despite the fact that a B&B stay can be an expensive option, compared to a budget hotel on a busy highway the B&B’s personal service, home cooked breakfast, one-of-a-kind atmosphere and picturesque setting continue to appeal to visitors.