Burnout a chronic problem among inn owners
|Tana Chung, owner of A Secret Garden, with her chef, Shellie Stevens, said business has remained strong, especially after the closure of a number of other local bed-and-breakfasts.|
Barbara Hudson cannot walk around her home in a bathrobe.
Her friends can’t drop by on a whim for pie or conversation. She must keep every inch of the house tidy at all times, and almost every morning she rises early to prepare an enticing breakfast for a table of strangers in her dining room.
She and her husband, Van, have been running the two-bedroom, turn-of-the-century DeCann House Bed & Breakfast on Eldridge Avenue for 20 years, and they seem to love their job. They especially enjoy the variety of guests who travel from all over the world to stay with them, who, during the high season — May through September — are there almost every night.
“I think a lot of people would feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t like the fact you don’t have your own space,” Barbara said. “But the people have always been the best part.”
The Hudsons bought the house in 1984 as a fixer-upper, but then decided to convert it into a bed-and-breakfast for the overflow of tourists visiting the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation in Vancouver along with about 50 other bed-and-breakfasts in Whatcom County, Barbara said. That number subsided after the Expo, although a few of the originals still remain.
Their longevity is a bit of an anomaly, however — most bed-and-breakfast owners last an average of five to seven years in the business, according to Carl Silvernail, president of the Washington Bed and Breakfast Guild.
In Whatcom County, the burnout rate usually is mitigated by more bed-and-breakfasts cropping up to take the place of those that have closed, but local industry experts have noticed this isn’t happening as much anymore because of an increase in boutique hotels and a nationwide trend toward selling bed-and-breakfasts as private residences.
And with the recent closures of the North Garden Inn and the Fairhaven Bed & Breakfast, some are wondering if the market for bed-and-breakfasts is dwindling in Bellingham.
Do you run it, or does it run you?
When Frank and Barbara DeFreytas opened the North Garden Inn in 1986, they were on call 24 hours a day.
As the inn’s owners from 1986 until they sold it in 2003, their first concern was always their guests. About 70,000 clients stayed in the inn, which was built in 1891 and is on the National Historic Register, during the 17 years it was owned by the DeFreytas family.
Their second and third priorities were the building’s cleaning and maintenance.
As for their personal lives, after a while they hired help and worked out a system.
“We would spot each other,” Frank said. “Barb would give me time off and I would give her time off.”
But eventually the couple decided it was time to retire.
“We got to a point where it was time — not that business was slowing down, it was getting better and better — but there’s a point where you have to say ‘I think we’re done now,’” he said. “The work and the energy involved (with running a bed-and-breakfast) is high, and the amount of people that want to do it has changed.”
Silvernail said the burnout rate of five to seven years is due to the fact that owning a bed-and- breakfast is very hard work and oftentimes owners need a second income to survive, especially in the case of smaller two-and three-bedroom bed-and-breakfasts like the DeCann House.
“Having a bed-and-breakfast by itself is not enough income. The level of energy and sheer work it takes is significant,” he said.
Both Barbara and Van Hudson work second jobs — Barbara as a part-time writing instructor at Whatcom Community College and Van as a property manager for the rentals the couple owns in Bellingham.
Tana Chung, who has owned A Secret Garden Bed & Breakfast for three years, works as a product distributor for a company called Synergy Worldwide, selling nutrition and beauty products. She is also starting to sell a line of packaged raw food as well as a cookbook she and her chef, Shellie Stevens, developed at the bed-and-breakfast.
Barbara and Van make breakfast, usually at around 6:30 a.m. and then serve breakfast until 10 a.m. They then spend a few hours cleaning, running errands and waiting for the next batch of guests to check in between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. After the guests arrive, Barbara and Van may or may not be tethered to the house.
“You try and read the guests. Some guests want to be left alone, some don’t,” Van said. “A couple of nights ago I spent the whole evening playing pool with a guest from Canada.”
The couple’s bedroom is on the same floor as the two guest rooms, but a few years ago they remodeled the attic into a private living area to escape from the public space.
Barbara said the important thing for bed-and-breakfast owners to remember is that they are in charge. After the first 10 years, they mastered the art of blocking out time to not accept guests.
“You’re running it, it’s not running you,” Barbara said.
But Barbara occasionally thinks it would be nice to let their cat out of the attic, or to walk downstairs in the morning without being fully dressed with her hair done.
“We’re always on the two-year plan. We sometimes think about selling it, but that would be so much work,” she said.
After the DeFreytases sold the North Garden Inn, they bought a 30-acre farm in Ferndale and have been traveling all over the world. Frank said they both appreciate their newfound independence.
“Instead of the visitors coming to us, we are the visitors,” he said. “We’ve switched parts.”
The current owner of the North Garden Inn, Mike Hays, decided to close the inn in September because it wasn’t consistently profitable, he said. He is converting the eight-room house into apartments, a move that represents a nationwide trend.
Changes in the industry
Across the United States, many bed-and-breakfasts have been selling as private residences or converted to rentals, Silvernail said.
In Washington, Silvernail estimated that half of this year’s sales of bed-and-breakfasts have been sold as private residences or rentals instead of to new innkeepers, an increase from past years.
Chung has hit on that trend and now offers extended stays at her bed-and-breakfast where guests can rent rooms by the month.
Barbara and Van, who own rental property in Bellingham, said they could see how houses might be more worthwhile as rentals than as bed-and-breakfasts.
Usually, when one closes in Whatcom County, Barbara said another takes its place.
“But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening now,” she said.
The 2000 Bellingham phone book lists 23 bed-and-breakfasts in Whatcom County, while the 2006 book lists only seven.
Compounded with the increase in sales of bed-and-breakfasts as private residences, there is a trend for tourists to stay at smaller and/or boutique hotels, such as the Chrysalis Inn and the Fairhaven Village Inn — both of which opened within the last seven years, said John Cooper, president of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.
“Though they’re not the same, they compete for the same type of visitor,” he said. “There’s still a place for bed-and-breakfasts, but it’s a challenging business.”
Despite the trend, Barbara and Van, as well as Chung, are secure that their guests will keep coming back.
“What’s interesting is that hotels and motels basically adopted some of the (bed-and-breakfast) amenities, like having a breakfast — you can get a continental breakfast at almost any hotel you stay at,” Barbara said. “But that’s not really what people want, just food. I think people also want to feel like they are staying with someone local.”
Chung said business is booming for her bed-and-breakfast, possibly because of the recent closures of others in town.
“My problem is I don’t have enough rooms,” she said. “Those who stay at bed-and-breakfasts don’t go back to hotels.”
For now, it looks like at least two Bellingham bed-and-breakfast owners won’t be giving the profession up for endless days of bathrobe lounging or the luxury of a messy living room anytime soon.