Running a brothel was never part of Debbie Miller's plan.
But 25 years ago, in rural Ohio, there were few people who understood the distinction between a luxury bed and breakfast and a house of prostitution.
"The local county commissioners had no idea what a bed and breakfast was," says Miller. "And because it was a rarity to have a woman business owner, and nobody had heard of a bed and breakfast, I was asked if I was opening a brothel. It was very rough."
This was the atmosphere in which Miller launched her business, HideAway Country Inn, a quarter-century ago in Bucyrus, Ohio, a farming community where popular attractions include the local jam and jelly factory, a candle-making facility, and the only hand-hammered copper kettle factory in the United States.
Many people dream of someday retiring from the daily grind of their job and running a romantic country bed and breakfast.
Miller has spent more then two decades living that dream as owner of a thriving bed and breakfast that is regularly sold out on the weekends and has been named one of the top 10 romantic inns in the country by BedandBreakfast.com.
Still, the early years were far from easy.
Enlightening the locals about the nature of a bed and breakfast business was just one of the challenges Miller faced as she sought to transition from a 9-to-5 accounting job to running a country inn.
Parents of three, Miller and her husband settled on the bed and breakfast idea because it would allow her to spend more time raising the children and provide a supplement to the family’s farming income.
"What better atmosphere to raise a family than a property with 22 acres of woods on one side, a babbling brook, and six acres of yard to play in? It was a kid’s paradise with a tree house and a dinner bell that called you in for lunch and dinner," says Miller.
The bucolic setting aside, what Miller discovered as she began her venture was that community leaders had very little knowledge about how to license a bed and breakfast or even what permits were required.
"I went and pulled all the information I could find about licensing from the library to show them how to license me," says Miller. "I looked up the laws, because they didn’t know."
Amid this lack of local knowledge, Miller found herself having to jump through numerous hoops that today might not be required. At the very least, the process today is more defined.
"We had to get a full food license, as the brothel was the big concern," Miller says.
"And also an inspection from the volunteer fire department... I think we were the only bed and breakfast in Ohio with a full hotel license and only four guest rooms,” she adds.
It wasn’t just local authorities who had not yet developed a full understanding of the emerging bed and breakfast industry. The Internal Revenue Service also had yet to fully grasp the nature of the business a quarter-century ago. This led to still more challenges for Miller as she sought to establish HideAway Country Inn.
“We were targeted for a full IRS audit because the IRS classified a bed and breakfast as a hobby business and they wanted us to pay them back for all the start-up costs of a 'real' business," Miller explains.
While someone starting a bed and breakfast today wouldn't have to face many of these challenges, there is still much to be learned from Miller’s story, particularly when it comes to the art of running a deluxe country inn and navigating red tape.
Not only has HideAway Country Inn been recognized by BedandBreakfast.com as one of the most romantic inns in the country, it is also included among the website’s Diamond Collection, an exclusive group of professionally inspected and guest reviewed luxury inns that have extensive modern amenities.
Miller’s bed and breakfast has come a long way from the four guest rooms it started with. Today it offers 12 suites, a small spa, a restaurant, and a meeting space that accommodates up to 100 people, all amid six acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and lawns and 22 acres of nature trails.
Miller and her husband purchased the historic six-bedroom manor house and adjoining carriage house in February 1990 for just $130,000 and immediately embarked on extensive modernizations to create comfortable guest accommodations.
Some of the changes and improvements Miller felt were important included making sure every room had its own bathroom and installing Jacuzzis, fireplaces, and satellite television. They also installed new carpeting throughout the home, added fresh paint, and remodeled the kitchen.
The initial round of upgrades cost about $100,000. And as the years passed, more improvements were made. Nine years into the business, the HideAway Country Inn had expanded to its current total of 12 suites, six of which are 800 square feet.
What’s more, at the height of its business, the inn regularly had a three-month waiting list for rooms on the weekends.
In order to reach such successful occupancy levels, Miller found various creative ways to introduce the new inn to the community, including delivering muffins to local businesses to announce the inn and attract corporate guests.
But Miller says the secret to her success is the unique touches the inn offers and the way guests are treated.
"I think it’s the customization and personalization of stuff," she says. "Being able to do things that surprise the guests who come and stay with us. ... The private candlelight dinner for two, five-course meals, with soft music ... or sneaking into a guestroom to fill a tub with bubbles, light candles, dim the lights, and turn on the fireplace, so that when guests walk back into the room, the mood is all set."
Those kinds of touches are also significant revenue generators in the bed and breakfast business. The HideAway Country Inn, for example, offers various custom packages on its website that all come with an extra charge. Packages are built around romantic, seasonal, and holiday themes.
Tending to the details of the many special touches offered at a bed and breakfast can be a great deal of work for an owner. As is the maintenance of a bed and breakfast, says Miller, who advises establishing a fund to cover property upkeep. The amount of money that needs to be in that fund, she says, will vary depending on the age of the property.
Maintenance, Miller says with a laugh, is easily the biggest headache of the job.
But as she reflects on her upcoming 25th anniversary, Miller says that given the opportunity, she would do it all again.
“You learn something new every day,” says Miller. “Today I worked on a new property management system, replaced a sump pump, met with a corporate business person, did a 90-day employee evaluation of a young single mom who is a recovering heroin addict, helped the cook plan his new menu, set up a date for tasting and wine pairing, and reviewed a guest survey follow-up. … You just cannot get this variety in a 9-to-5 job”
"It’s a lifestyle," Miller adds. "You won't get rich with money. You get rich with people and their stories."
And rich with memories and life experiences. A kaleidoscope of summer evenings spent watching lightning bugs with the kids and guests, she says, and exposing a New Jersey family to farm animals for the first time, or witnessing your school-age children trying to communicate with a Japanese businessman in a silk suit, amid shy laughter and shared smiles.
Tim and Angie Allen did not face the same hurdles Debbie Miller did when starting their bed and breakfast eight years ago in Duluth, Minn.
Still, as the successful owners of the A.G. Thomson House Bed and Breakfast, the couple have also learned a great deal about what it takes to succeed in the business.
Operating a bed and breakfast was the longtime dream of Angie Allen, who waited patiently to make the business a reality while her husband pursued his career in the Air Force.
When it came time for Tim to retire from his military job after 23 years, the couple shifted gears and began the process of launching their bed and breakfast.
One of their first steps was property hunting. The home they eventually settled on was in Duluth’s mansion district, an upscale location that came with a steep price tag. The property cost more than $1 million.
"Having been in the Air Force, it’s not like I had a lot of money," recalls Tim Allen. "You don’t get rich as an officer in the Air Force. So every last penny we had, we sunk into property."
The couple also borrowed money from their parents and a family friend in order to make the bed and breakfast a reality. (All of which has since been paid back by the successful business owners.)
Much like Miller and her HideAway Country Inn, the Allens spent a great deal of money renovating their new property, updating it from what Allen describes as a "stuck in the 1960s" look.
The changes they invested in included new paint, wallpaper, and installing luxury bathrooms in each guest room.
"I know there are some inns that still have guests share bathrooms, but if you want to be able to charge the increased room rate, you need nice, private bathrooms," Allen advises.
"The common areas need to look amazing as well," he says. "We tried to make it like our living room, where people want to sit and put their feet up, and read a book by the fire. It isn’t terribly formal, we wanted it to be a relaxing, comfortable place."
When all the renovations were finished, the 9,000-square-foot A.G. Thomson House Bed and Breakfast opened with seven guest rooms, all with queen- or king-size beds, spa-style bathrooms, and flat-screen televisions.
Allen estimates he spent about $15,000 per bathroom, and says it would likely cost double that if he hadn’t done much of the work himself.
Some of the other key steps to success Allen offers for prospective bed and breakfast owners include the importance of investing in professional photography and a website.
Expect to spend anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 on photography of your property, and expect it to take a couple of days to have the pictures taken.
"You have to have a professional come in and set up the shots," says Allen, noting that having such high-quality photos on your website will go a long way toward attracting guests.
Which brings him to the importance of a professionally designed website.
"We get 100% of business through our website. We do not do any advertising," he explains. "We will be full six months out of the year, all because of the website." A website will also cost at least $10,000, Allen says.
Like almost any business, says Allen, there are positives and negatives. In the bed and breakfast business, be prepared to work long hours. What’s more, much of the work is not glamorous.
"You're scrubbing toilets and doing laundry. Some people think they will hire people to do all of that sort of stuff, but that eats up the bottom line very quickly," he says.
"So many guests say their dream is to own an inn," he continues. "I always first caution them to wait until all of their children are grown and out of the house, because you are married to the house. We missed so many of our daughter’s events. Or only one of us could go."
On the plus side, however, Allen adds that the work is rewarding on many levels.
"It's fun to meet so many people and to make them happy and it allows Angie and I to live in a much bigger house than we would otherwise. Sometimes, I stand outside and look at this big, beautiful house we live in, amazed. ... It's a whole lifestyle. ... I know I won’t be doing it forever. But I always say, the day it's not fun anymore, there’s going to be a for-sale sign out front."
If running a bed and breakfast is something you've always dreamed about, here are some additional tips:
Location, Location, Location
When scouting a home or property for a bed and breakfast, there are several important considerations to keep in mind, but none is more important than location. The old real estate adage definitely holds true here: location, location, location.
When it comes to location, Miller says be aware of the noise surrounding your property – it’s important to have a peaceful, relaxing setting.
She also suggests familiarizing yourself with nearby hotels – getting to know what your competition will be like. And be aware of light levels surrounding your property. Again, because you want to offer guests as peaceful and undisturbed a visit as possible.
Allen, meanwhile, suggests making sure your bed and breakfast sits on at least a few acres and is in a destination that attracts visitors.
"It's like anything in real estate – it's all about location," he says. "There is a constant influx of people to Duluth. The most important thing is to be at a destination. ... If you’re in the middle of nowhere, what are the odds of people going there?"
Learning the Business
There are numerous ways to go about learning the bed and breakfast business and what it takes to be successful -- including reading books (there’s even a "Running a Bed & Breakfast for Dummies"), joining industry associations, and attending trade shows.
Miller and Allen each took their own unique approach involving some or all of the above options.
"I picked the brains of other hoteliers – people kind of giggled at me, but they would also help me, they would send me check lists for their housekeepers and training videos – just some little things like that," says Miller.
Importance of a Good Website
Both HideAway Country Inn and the A.G. Thomson House Bed and Breakfast have sleek, well-designed websites filled with professional photography and easily navigated pages.
"Websites have grown exponentially. It used to be a simple thing. Now there's got to be pictures, and it has to be responsive,” says Allen. “You have to make sure it looks right and shows what you want people to see. But if you have the right website in this business, you’re golden."
Allen also stresses the importance of offering a variety of custom packages on the website to help generate revenue.
"We have lots of packages," he says. "From something as simple as putting one dozen roses in a room to going in and turning down the bed and scattering rose petals while a guest is having dinner. And we charge for those sorts of things. We just double whatever it costs us. We sell a lot of packages. A lot of people in this business don’t add them because they think it’s too much work. But it’s not. And it’s so easy for guests to select the packages on our website."
Take Advantage of Travel Websites
Your own website isn't the only one that can help you in the bed and breakfast business. Allen also suggests using TripAdvisor to your advantage.
"Don’t be ashamed to use it," he says. "If someone was happy with their visit, send them nice follow-up email and ask them to write a review. So many people rely on TripAdvisor. That will generate so much business.
"Most lodging facilities hate TripAdvisor," Allen adds. "But it’s not going away, so you might as well use it to your advantage."
Allen doesn't view room-sharing site Airbnb as a direct threat -- as luxury innkeepers, he says, "We're selling an experience, not just a place to crash." But he is working with the city to make sure those properties abide local lodging laws. Still, he says it's worth it for B&B owners to list their rooms on Airbnb.
"It's a free listing, and we only pay Airbnb if a reservation is booked through their website," he says. "I would advise any traditional B&B to list their property with Airbnb since you never know how a guest will find you."
Both Miller and Allen say one organization in particular proved very valuable to their growth and education as bed and breakfast owners. That organization is the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, or PAII.
PAII and similar organizations offer trade shows, workshops, industry events, online forums, statistics, and more.
The trade shows or conferences are particularly valuable, says Allen.
"They are several days long, held in the offseason," says Allen. "And there are all kinds of vendors there ... photographers, in case you need someone who can shoot pictures of food or of your guest rooms. There are website design vendors there. Vendors for linens, towels, sheets, food vendors, robes, cleaning products, vendors for all of that. They even have inn sitters there – professionals who you can hire to come manage your inn, in case you want to get away for awhile."