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An inn-side look at the bed and breakfast business

On a day last spring that was bright with sunshine, Luba and Bill Robinson finally realized that running a bed and breakfast was going to require more than just sipping port and trading witticisms with guests.

It was the afternoon they discovered water slowly sheeting down the parlor wall at the Whistling Swan Inn, a Queen Anne mansion in Stanhope, N.J., that had been lovingly restored. The owners were on vacation, and the Robinsons were inn-sitting, so to speak. So far that week, melting snow had already seeped into the basement, winding a course toward the washers and dryers.

On another day, one of the housekeepers hadn't shown up, leaving Mrs. Robinson to wash the linen for the 10-bedroom inn by herself while her husband juggled reservations and dining-room duty.

On this warm afternoon, ice on the porch roof had begun to melt, seeping behind the roof flashing that had separated from the house. "So there we were," Mrs. Robinson recalled. "Bill was on the porch roof and I was handing him an ice chipper when guests drove by looking for the driveway."

She improvised her inn etiquette. "I simply shouted out the directions," she said. "I mean, at that point, what else could I do?"

What the Robinsons, who work full-time for the AT&T Corp., and other couples are doing is pulling aside the lace curtains on the romance of bed and breakfast inns. Many of them are assessing the merits of running their own establishments before taking the plunge.

This is a new approach taken by "refugees from corporate America," as Pat Hardy calls them. Hardy is a founder and co-executive director of the 1,800-member Professional Association of Innkeepers International, which has trained about 1,500 wannabe innkeepers since 1980.

"They come with buy-out money in hand and are looking for a major lifestyle change," she said. After taking the association's course, 90 percent change their minds.

These aspiring hosts are signing up for workshops or apprenticing as innkeepers. They are also attending seminars that cover everything from advertising to creative menu planning using grocery store coupons.

All of this knowledge may help set the sun on what Hardy calls "the green velvet skirt syndrome."

"That's what guests think it's all about: donning a smoking jacket or velvet finery, sipping sherry and talking about foreign affairs," said Hardy, who ran a bed and breakfast in Santa Barbara, Calif., for nine years and also helped write So You Want to Be an Innkeeper (Chronicle Books, 1990).

After a seminar and a weekend trial run, she recalled, "one couple, husband and wife dentists from the Midwest, decided their own lives didn't look so bad."

Others quickly learn they don't have the capital required to own an inn _ "a minimum of $200,000 and a lot of credit cards," Ms. Hardy said.

Some people, influenced no doubt by the sitcom adventures of Bob Newhart playing a befuddled Vermont innkeeper, decide to buy an existing inn where costly renovations already have been done and there is an established clientele. Others choose to manage an inn but not own one.

"You really learn the meaning of cash flow," said Paula Williams, who left AT&T and, with help from her husband Joe Mulay, renovated the Whistling Swan Inn nine years ago from a multiple dwelling.

The couple was so besieged by questions from guests that they began conducting weekend workshops at the inn, which is 25 miles east of the Delaware Water Gap. (The $300 fee is refunded if a participating couple volunteers to fill in at the Whistling Swan for a week.) Eventually, Mulay followed his wife's footsteps with a buyout from AT&T and went to work with her full-time.

Their workshops begin and end at the oak dining-room table that used to grace the Oklahoma farmhouse of Williams' grandmother.

A seminar last March drew seven participants, including one of the inn's three housekeepers, Barbara Depew. The couples were Margaret and Ronald Lunzman of Stockholm, N.J., who are looking for a bed and breakfast in the Poconos; Robert and Amy Geller of Monsey, N.Y., who spent their honeymoon at the Whistling Swan and hope to buy an inn in the future, and Ron and Jeanne Aquino Salvo of Mountainside, N.J., who want to go into the innkeeping business despite a few reservations.

"I'm the doubting Thomas," admitted Mr. Salvo, who works as a software consultant for Dun & Bradstreet. "This weekend is a big feasibility study."

About 3 percent of all inns fail each year, Hardy said. Some innkeepers choose a location too far off the beaten path, while others move to areas they are not familiar with. Still others decide to cut down on the number of rooms, making it difficult to pay for their investment. A few return the property to residential use after suffering from either financial or emotional burnout, or, as Hardy put it, "the disillusionment factor."

She estimates that the number of bed and breakfasts and country inns _ where dinner is served in addition to breakfast _ has stabilized between 12,000 and 15,000. In 1980, the number was a mere 1,000.

Hardy says she has seen the bed-and-breakfast industry crest in regional waves. From 1980 to 1985, there was growth on the East and West Coasts, while in 1985, the Midwest and South surged ahead. Since 1990, there has been a swell of new inns in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

According to research compiled by the innkeepers' association, operating expenses can run between $8,000 and $15,000 a room. Hardy said a 1- to 4-bedroom inn would probably not break even; a 5- to 8-bedroom inn running at full occupancy year-round may earn $34,628 _ not including mortgage payments (and in 1992 the average occupancy rate was only 50 percent). A 9- to 12-room inn may earn $79,000, again, minus mortgage payments.

Additional research shows that it takes about three years before innkeepers "start to see a light," Hardy continued. "In four years, they can put some money in their pocket and in five years they can buy a new car and go on a vacation."

Most entry-level innkeepers divide the responsibility of running an inn; one partner does most of the daily work, from making breakfasts to fixing toilets, while the other continues with his or her day job. "That way there's a second income to supplement operating expenses," Hardy explained.

After eight years of conducting workshops, Mulay and Williams have distilled their knowledge into a few key points.

"Figure out who you are so you can run an inn that works for you," Williams said. "Are you bidets and heated towel racks? Candles and jacuzzis? Feather beds and remotes for the gas fireplace? Do you like to serve buffet style?"

Both suggest putting money back into the bathrooms, the most frequently used rooms in an inn. "More businessmen are asking for tubs to soak in after a long day," Mulay added.

Have a private apartment, Williams advised, and take time out for a nap each day.

"Never buy a house without a clause that says the sale is contingent on receiving zoning approval," said Mulay, referring to property that will be converted from private to public use.

Inn advice

Paula Williams and Joe Mulay are planning a weekend workshop Nov. 12-13 at the Whistling Swan Inn in Stanhope, N.J. The cost is $300 a couple. For information: (201) 347-6369.

Other seminars held this fall by innkeepers in New Jersey, Vermont and Pennsylvania can be found through the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, PO Box 90710, Santa Barbara, CA 93190; (805) 569-1853. The Professional Inn Guide is available for $12.95, plus $2 for shipping and handling, from Colburn Press, Box 356, Montvale, NJ 07645.