confessions of a B&B Owner: innkeeper secrets revealed

We've all had the dream: Quit your job and buy a historical home or maybe even a fixer-upper in some tropical locale or urban hub far away from life as you know it. It sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Imagine polishing your entertaining skills while meeting people from all walks of life.

There are obvious perks to such a gig, but what is it really like to be a full-time B&B owner and innkeeper, with all the responsibility and the financial obligations, not to mention—literally—working from home? We talked to a handful of experienced innkeepers to get the scoop on what life is like behind the check-in desk.

Owning a B&B requires a certain skill set, but grants you access to a supportive community. “My husband had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it with me,” says innkeeper Jane Lowe. “He now agrees it is the best move we ever made.”

For Lowe, who owns Tropical Inn in Key West with her husband Allen Lewis, becoming an innkeeper “was just a remote musing,” and not something she necessarily felt called to do. The opportunity presented itself in 1999 when the couple took their new boat out to explore the Keys and came across a property for sale. They had long been drawn to small, family-owned inns—but had never thought of owning one until they saw the home and its potential.

Owning and operating a B&B takes a lot of hard work

After the economic downturn of 2008, Nancy Bagwill and her husband Bill decided it was time for a new adventure—and purchasing a B&B met the criteria. They bought the Cliffside Inn in Newport, Rhode Island, at the tail end of 2010 and spent the better part of the following year renovating the 16 rooms and common areas. Since then, there’s rarely been a day the two weren’t both on site tending to guests’ needs.

“[It’s surprising] the number of hours you have to put in,” Nancy Bagwell says. “We knew we would be working long hours, but never expected four years later to still be here every day.”

Bagwill embraces the arrangement, though, and loves that she’s able to spend her days working alongside her husband and dog rather than chained to a cubicle in a corporate park.

Innkeeping is a great option for parents

When Carolyn Lee moved to Santa Fe from Paris in 1987, she was a single mom with a one-year-old in tow. Her mother suggested she buy a property on the market and open an inn; eventually, Lee gave in. She read the book "So - You Want to be an Innkeeper" and began laying the groundwork to open the four-room Alexander's Inn, named after her son. (She’s since acquired two additional properties in the area, Hacienda Nicholas and The Madeleine, named for her other two children.) As an innkeeper for a small inn, Lee was able to spend much of her time with her son.

“The biggest perk is being able to set my own schedule—for the most part—so I have been able to be there for my children as they grew up,” she explains. “Sometimes things come up … and I would have to interrupt my schedule to handle them, but by and large I can manage to be away from the inn to pick children up from school, attend their performances and leave work early when they are sick.”

Finding the right employees can be challenging

While husband-and-wife teams often run B&Bs, they sometimes require the help of additional employees.

“We are a family operation. It's mainly just my husband and myself, along with our daughter, Brandi [Gabay]. She is the welcoming face of the Tropical Inn and a real people person, and guests just love her,” Lowe says. “My husband and I are more behind the scenes, fulfilling management roles, except on the weekends, when we run the inn. Finding competent, reliable staff to mesh and thrive within such a close-knit environment has been our greatest challenge. We have a saying: ‘We don't hire; we adopt!’”

You may field some strange requests

Bagwill says a guest once asked if he could bring his own big-screen TV and microwave for the room, while Lee had another rather interesting encounter. “After only we had been in the business for about a year, a young man checked in to Alexander’s Inn. He inquired about a health club, and I told him he could join me, as I was about to head out for a workout,” Lee recalls. “After the gym he suggested we grab a bite to eat, which we did, along with my young son. We parted ways once we got back to the inn and I thought nothing more about the time together. Later that night, he comes down to my room, clad only in his underwear, suggesting that he would sleep better if he could please just sleep with me. I declined, saying that was just not part of the rate.”

Ultimately, though, you’re sure to find fulfillment—both emotionally and, oftentimes, financially. Lee says her favorite part of the day is breakfast, when she not only helps serve food and coffee, but is able to have meaningful conversations with her guests.

“By and large, they are all very interesting people, with great life stories,” she says.

Adds Lowe, “[Owning an inn] has proven to be financially rewarding. Plus, I love sharing notes with fellow world travelers.”

By Kristin Luna