An Interview with three Innkeepers including Phoebe Pember House's Carolyn Rivers

What does it take to make guests happy and help your inn -- and yourself-- thrive? Three women running distinctive inns (all in idyllic settings) share the hard-won truths and rewards of a life in hospitality.

At Manhattan's Shoreham Hotel, Editor in Chief PEGGY KENNEDY talked with the host-owners of very different inns. VALERIE MNUCHIN ROZEN works at her family 's twenty-five-room, luxury Mayflower Inn in Washington, Connecticut; CAROLYN RIVERS, started her Phoebe Pember House, a holistic bed-and-breakfast in a historic Charleston, South Carolina house; and SUZIE BLANCHARD and her husband run the eight-room Inn at Meander, a Colonial plantation in rural Locust Dale, Virginia, where Suzie also holds cooking classes.

PEGGY: Suzie, I gather that your guests are welcome to bring their horses?
And their dogs-- but they have to look after their animals themselves. Virginia is horse country, and there are wonderful trails nearby. The plantation goes back to the early 1700s and has eighty acres and all sorts of outbuildings. So even after ten years, we're still constantly renovating and landscaping.

VALERIE: For us too it never stops. It can't.

PEGGY: So many people dream of having a beautiful property and making a go of it as it as an inn. Was this a second career for you and your husband, Suzie?

SUZIE: Yes, I was a food editor for Chicago papers and I wanted to go back to my Southern roots.

PEGGY: How did you al determine what sort of inn to start -- and discover how to make it special?

CAROLYN: When I was a business traveler for a publishing company, I longed to stay at a place where I could really feel at home, relax, wear my sandals, do my tai chi. I rarely found it, so that's what I decided to start -- in this lovely, old Charleston house, which needed renovating. It went slowly because I couldn't afford to leave my regular job for years. Charleston has lots of beautiful inns, but what I wanted to create is different from the others. We offer wellness classes, retreats and workshops, which draw guests as well as local people. Or guests can just enjoy the atmosphere. We do only Continental breakfasts because Charleston has so many great restaurants, all within walking distance.

SUZIE: Out where we are, you can't even get a pizza delivered! That's why I started doing dinners just for our guests. Then some of them who'd moved into the neighborhood would beg to come back and have dinner with us. I really had no intention of running a restaurant. But now I am -- along with cooking classes. With the porches, we can seat fifty in warm weather.

VALERIE: We counted on having a topnotch public restaurant from the start. My parents modeled the Mayflower Inn on the gracious, English country-house hotel -- which you' d think would exist here but actually didn't. Recently I've been working to attract a younger crowd. I developed the fitness offerings and also created special programs, such as our "summer camp days" for adults, complete with sack races, treasure hunts and teams!

PEGGY: So none of you is relying on just filling pretty rooms, like the typical bed-and-breakfast. You all offer unique events and something to draw people from the area too.

CAROLYN: Events are important. And it's ice when the bring the guests and the community together. The novelist Joanne Trollope -- she was a Victoria Writer in Residence, wasn't she, Peggy? -- came to do research for her latest book, Girl from the South, and we held a forum with her at the inn. Or we'll sponsor an auction to benefit the Spoleto Festival or hold a book-signing party for a local author.

PEGGY: Does running an inn take a special kind of personality?

CAROLYN: You have to have a passion for it. The spirit of the inn reflects who you are.

VALERIE: I think to be successful at this business you have to be an obsessive-compulsive, detail-oriented person.

SUZIE: Who likes people.

VALERIE: That's number one, absolutely! We look for a friendly, outgoing nature in everyone we hire. But if one of my family isn't there every day, it just doesn't run as well, even with a wonderful staff. To keep things up to snuff, you have to go looking for problems. We even spend nights in our rooms, to experience them as guests do. How else do you know if a faucet drips?

SUZIE: I've been surprised by how much nurturing and hand-holding one needs to do. For example, we have a private school nearby, and parents who've stayed with us will call and say, "Oh Suzie, could you send over your chocolate-chip cookies for Tom's birthday?"

VALERIE: We have guests who are happy to read and walk, and others who say, "Well, that was a lovely breakfast; now what's there to do here in Washington, Connecticut?" And there's so much: hiking, antiquing, canoeing, yoga. They need you to get them started.

PEGGY: Do you ever have guests you just can't make happy?

SUZIE: Rarely. But I remembered one lady who complained bitterly because my dog wouldn't play with her dog. (Laughter)

PEGGY: No! What did you say?

SUZIE: All I could do was apologize. But we also have the joy of guests who keep returning, who consider us "their" inn.

CAROLYN: I remember one couple got engaged while they were staying with us -- and on their first anniversary they came back. Then they came before their baby was born. Then she came back with her mother, leaving her husband home to baby-sit!

PEGGY: Everyone loves a weekend getaway. But is it difficult filling your rooms during the week?

That's always the big challenge. Developing a business in corporate retreats has helped a lot.

SUZIE: For us too. That's why our two-day cooking classes are held during the week. And we're always thinking up new programs, such as our Meander Conservancy: We hired a naturalist and people come to study with her.

It's really a constant evaluation. I'm always seeking out good teachers, new arts events.

PEGGY: What advice would you give people who are thinking of starting an inn?

SUZIE: If you have something that's precious to you, don't put it in the inn. Our guests respect our house, but things get broken, and it never fails that it was your grandmother's whatever. That was a hard lesson for me.

CAROLYN: I must say, I underestimated the amount of maintenance required. Right now, since our painters got delayed by bad weather, we're having to fit it in around the guests' schedules.

VALERIE: There's constant redoing, redecorating, just to keep everything new and fresh. Rugs, towels --

CAROLYN: And bed linens! They don't last nearly as long as you'd think

VALERIE: And we keep wanting to do better -- more spa space, more gardens.

PEGGY: How do you keep ahead financially and still make improvements?

SUZIE: It's hard. Let's face it, you can only rent a hundred percent of your rooms a hundred percent of the time -- that's the maximum. And who does that?

PEGGY: What about your own sense of privacy? Don't you get tired of being the friendly host and smiling at people?

ALL: Yes!

CAROLYN: I start my day very early because I need that quiet time.

SUZIE: Not me! I work until midnight. I don't get up any earlier than I have to. When I'm stressed, I just walk across the fields to a private bench by the river -- the gardener built it just for me. But then, alas, the guests discovered it.

CAROLYN: Hank and I plan travel time away because we live in our inn. It gives us a chance to experience other places, which is important.

SUZIE: It really is. We visited and observed a lot of country inns before we started Meander. But anytime we told the owners we wanted to buy an inn, they'd say "Don't! This is much harder work than you think! We got tired of hearing it because, in our own minds, we knew how much work it would be. Obviously, a lot of people don't.

VALERIE: Right, that's the secret.

PEGGY: Yet it's such a creative field. Just think of all the different directions you three have taken your properties.

SUZIE: I tell people to consider innkeeping a lifestyle and not to expect to make a lot of money, I don't now many B and B owners who do, unless they have other income or endeavors, Now when people tell me they want to open an inn, I say, "It's a wonderful lifestyle. And you need to think long and hard about if it's one for you. If it is, go for it!

Photographed by Natasha Milne produced by Kim Waller

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