Saturday, October 24, 2020

Bed and breakfasts are holding fast in the age of Airbnb and Expedia

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Tami and Doug Schluter weren’t looking for a life change when they set out on a driving vacation in the summer of 2005.

Tami, whom Doug jokingly calls “unemployable because of her authority issues,” worked part-time in sales and in real estate. Doug had owned his own CPA firm since 1990 in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where the couple lived.

But with their only daughter away for the summer, the Schluters “kind of cruised around,” staying at bed and breakfasts for a few weeks. “On the way home we were in some of the southern suburbs of Minneapolis, and, there was a beautiful four-square house for sale and we both said, wouldn’t that make a cool B&B?” Tami said. “It started there and we looked at this one, and looked at another one.”

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Two years later the Schluters were the proud, if frazzled, owners of the Historic Hutchinson House, a raucously-colored Victorian bed and breakfast in Faribault, 50 miles south of Minneapolis. Business at their 5-room inn has gotten better every year they’ve been open and, as Tami puts it, “I love being at home, being my own boss. I work hard every day.”

In the age of Airbnb, traditional bed and breakfasts may seem quaint. How can a business built on Victorian furnishings and Grandma’s muffin recipe compete with the “sharing economy” and online booking systems?

Yet hundreds of people make a journey like the Schluters’ every year even as guest stays at traditional bed and breakfasts stand firm in the digital age. It seems thoughtful, educated, curious people traveling to interesting places still like staying in independently-owned lodging with hosts that are a lot like them.

It’s nearly impossible to get firm details on the big-picture business of bed and breakfasts, which by definition are independently owned and operated. Lodging establishments like the Historic Hutchinson House may be called inns, bed and breakfasts, or even boutique hotels.

This collection of small mom and pop businesses doesn’t draw much attention from the type of analysts who ordinarily track hospitality industry metrics. Robert Mandelbaum, director of research for CBRE Hotels Americas, conducted an annual survey for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International until the mid-2000s.

Because respondents “ran the gamut of people who had a fantastic biscuit recipe and thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we opened up a B&B,’ to the retired director of a Fortune 500 company who wanted to have a house in Napa Valley,” Mandelbaum said, the quality of the survey data he received varied greatly.

Rob Fulton, CEO of the Association of Independent Hospitality Professionals, another industry group, estimates there are 18,000 such establishments in the country ranging from one-two room bed and breakfasts up to small boutique hotels with 15-20 rooms. He says that figure has remained steady over the years, despite concerns about new developments like Airbnb cannibalizing incumbents.

George and Mary Anne Lewis have owned the Brass Lantern Inn in Stowe, Vermont, since 2009. George says he “was looking for something different, and Mary Anne said is this a midlife crisis? And I said of course, and she said, how about a red convertible instead?”

Like the Schluters, the Lewises had been bed and breakfast guests many times. In fact, they met on a bike tour of B&Bs. While their new business is a “pay cut,” in George’s words, from their former jobs as an architect and occupational therapist in Maryland, they think it’s worth it.




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