It’s only 6 am, but Debbi Fotsch is already up and preparing the big breakfast she cooks from scratch every morning. Then there is hobnobbing with the customers during and after breakfast. After that comes dishes, laundry, cleaning, grounds maintenance, and working on one of the many endless projects around the property. Some days may not end until midnight, depending on when guests arrive. But she loves it and wouldn’t trade it for a regular job. “This is not just a business, it’s a lifestyle,” said Fotsch, owner and operator, along with her husband Tim, of Woodridge Bed & Breakfast in Slidell.
Small, locally-owned businesses are integral to the northshore economy and B&Bs are certainly part of that. But our local B&Bs do more than just contribute to the economy. They showcase our area to tourists regionally, nationally, and internationally. They help revitalize our downtown areas, and more importantly, they provide unique experiences that reflect the owner’s personality and interests. For most inn owners, it’s a way of combining their passions and hobbies with a money-making venture.
Most people go into innkeeping purposefully. But if you think it’s an easy business to get into, think again. There is a lot of work and money involved in getting this type of business off the ground. The biggest up-front cost is property acquisition, but then there’s the considerable cost of renovation and conversion, especially for the older homes most innkeepers often choose.
Ed and Kellie Greene purchased a historically significant 1890’s Eastlake-style home in Old Mandeville just after Hurricane Katrina with plans for restoration and conversion to a full-service bed and breakfast called Pontchartrain Winds. Ed was previously general manager of a hotel in Florida, loves restoration work (this is the third), and is doing all the work himself. “It has to be a love of the work,” said Greene. They just opened two cottages at the rear of the property in June, but estimate that it will take until 2013 before the main house is restored and open for business.
Tim and Debbi Fotsch, Owners of Woodridge Bed and Breakfast in Slidell, spent four years renovating what was once a private school. Looking to escape the roller coaster of the oil industry, they went looking for a renovation project and purchased the old school in 1995. They lived in a camper part of the time while doing the renovation, opened in 1999, and are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year.
Linda Chambless, owner/operator of the Camellia House in downtown Covington, always knew she wanted a career in hospitality, which she studied in college. After 20 years in the computer field, she bought a house that had served as a law firm (with no kitchen or full bath) in 1992, and set about renovating the property. She opened for business in 2001 with one suite and now has four suites, all with private entrances.
Another path to becoming an inn owner is to build exactly what you want, as did JoAnn and Dan Gray of Maison Reve Farm in Folsom. Six years ago they built a luxury French-style country inn on their 30-acre estate in Folsom, offering every possible amenity. They both combine the B&B with their love of cooking. JoAnn offers gourmet cooking classes and Dan offers barbeque classes and is author of the book “BarbequeXpress”.
Splendor Farms in Bush combines the B&B experience with Owner Kelly Denise Bensabat’s love of the outdoors, farming, and animals. Children and dogs are welcome here and the overnight rate includes a trail ride for those who love horseback riding. There are also vegetable gardens, chickens, goats, and long-haired miniature dachshunds that are bred and raised at Splendor Farm’s kennel.
Or, you might find yourself an innkeeper by accident as did Michael O’Brien, Owner of Mar Villa Guest House in Old Mandeville. He does historic renovations for a living and was restoring the property as a B&B for customers who chickened out at the last minute. He purchased the property more than 10 years ago and completed two years of renovations. He again had to renovate and raise the house after Hurricane Katrina.
You can make money as an inn owner, but probably not big money. Most local owners indicate that their properties pay for themselves and turn a modest profit, but usually at least one of the owners has another job or business. “Don’t quit your job. It’s half passion, half paying the mortgage,” said Greene.
Abita Springs Be & Be
Annadele’s Plantation Bed & Breakfast
Blue Willow Bed & Breakfast
Camellia House Bed & Breakfast
Little River Bluffs – A Nature Preserve & Retreat
Maison Reve Farm Bed & Breakfast
Mar Villa Guest House
Normandy House Bed & Breakfast
Pan de Vida Bed & Breakfast
Pollyanna Bed & Breakfast
The Rivers Retreat Center
Splendor Farms B&B
Tantela Ranch Resort
Woodridge Bed & Breakfast
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The initial investment in property and/or renovations is the largest hurdle, but there can be other barriers to success in this business. Permitting, licensing and zoning, insurance, and marketing are the obstacles most often cited by locals. “Insurance is a huge barrier for business in Old Mandeville,” said Greene.
Fotsch said the biggest hurdle they encountered 10 years ago was permitting. “The parish was still working on the definition of a B&B, it was difficult to find out all the rules, and a handful of people in the neighborhood were initially opposed to the project,” said Fotsch. Most owners now report these issues much improved in the past few years and many have said that city officials have gone out of their way to cut through red tape and ease the process.
And then there’s the marketing aspect. There is limited money for an advertising budget and usually no one with the time or expertise to properly fulfill this function. Most innkeepers rely on word-of-mouth advertising. Granted, it has gotten much easier in the past few years with the internet, which seems to work especially well for out of town tourists. “The internet has changed everything. It has put me at the world’s fingertips,” said Chambless.
On top of these issues is today’s economy. Travel in general is down and summertime is the slowest of all times for the New Orleans area. “A lot of people are not taking the big trips, they’re taking little trips, and I’m their little trip,” said Chambless. The economy’s effects vary by property, with some feeling a slow down, and some not. O’Brien said Mar Villa is having its best year ever, in spite of turning away visitors for four months in order to raise the house. “I expected to feel a crunch, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so far I haven’t,” said Chambless.
Many innkeepers have seen their clientele change dramatically over the past few years. International visitors were once plentiful, but now they are fewer and it’s back to mostly regional tourists and business travelers. “What I’m seeing is people traveling for a purpose, like a wedding or family reunion, not just pure vacationing anymore,” said Fotsch. “I have more business travelers than I used to,” said Chambless.
Hughes House Bed & Breakfast
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Some B&Bs are in direct competition with hotels, especially for the business traveler, and must keep their rates competitive, but again this varies by location and type of inn. “I don’t think we really compete with hotels. People are either B&B people or hotel people,” said Fotsch. “The type of people who come here are eclectic and looking for a quaint and interesting experience,” said Greene.
The most challenging aspect of owning a B&B is constantly being bound to your business. “We don’t ever seem to have any down time, but that’s a choice we make. It takes a level of commitment – you have to perform at your peak every day,” said Chambless. “It takes a lot of stamina to make sure every guest has a great visit,” said Fotsch.
So whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a place to recommend to family and friends, the northshore has a variety of B&Bs from which to choose. There is luxurious or rustic, town or country (and everything in between), historic or new. Or maybe, you’d like to join their ranks and open your own B&B. “If your heart’s in it, go for it,” said Greene. “The more the merrier. There should be a B&B on every corner, then the northshore would turn into a destination,” said O’Brien.
Local innkeepers were unanimous in one thing: their love for the business. “You cannot imagine the wonderful people that come through our door. They are strangers when they arrive and friends when they depart. You fall in love with this business,” said Fotsch.