Interview with three Innkeepers including Phoebe Pember House's Carolyn
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.
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.
Suzie, I gather that your guests are welcome to bring their horses?
SUZIE: 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.
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.
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?
VALERIE: 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.
CAROLYN: 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.
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.
There's constant redoing, redecorating, just to keep everything new
and fresh. Rugs, towels --
And bed linens! They don't last nearly as long as you'd think
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?
CAROLYN: I start my day very early because I need that quiet
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!
by Natasha Milne produced by Kim Waller