When you hear the term “Bed & Breakfast,” what’s the first thing that pops in your mind? Eating amidst uncomfortable conversation with eight strangers? Running down a cold hallway from a shared bath, hoping your towel doesn’t fall off before you get back to your room? A creepy doll staring at you from the corner of your more-outdated-than-expected Victorian-style accommodations?
While these only-slightly exaggerated experiences are still prevalent at B&Bs across the globe, there’s a lot more diversity in this lodging market segment than most guests realize.
“We’re not about shared baths and forced socialization anymore,” says Scott Cowger, Owner-Innkeeper at the Maple Hill Farm Inn & Conference Center in Hallowell, Maine, outside of Augusta. “It’s so rare that a B&B has shared bath, but people think that’s what we’re about, some rustic accommodation that you’re forced to socialize and to walk down the hall to shower. The traveler needs to ask more questions, and it’s important for us to get that information to them.”
To Cowger’s point, in fact, according to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, more than 97 percent of B&Bs offer private baths in some, if not all rooms. For those looking to economize on rates, a shared bath option is available in approximately 12 percent of B&Bs. In other words, the perception of a completely communal living experience is misguided, to say the least.
Many B&Bs have shifted to offer a more hotel-like in-room experience and amenity package due to the fact that they’re often in direct competition with surrounding hotels. And that’s both a blessing and a curse. A curse because they’re not a hotel, and some guests are not going to stay at a B&B purely because of the stereotype. But on the other hand, modernized bricks, mortar and most importantly, service, is a blessing because B&Bs can take personalized accommodations to the next level.
“There’s the expectation that guests all have to sit together for breakfast at an appointed hour, but we offer a more hotel-like experience in that people can choose the time they want to have breakfast, any time between 7:30 and 10:30, and we even serve it earlier or later than that based on specific circumstances,” says Karen Reid, co-owner and operator of McKenzie Orchards Bed & Breakfast outside Eugene, Ore.
McKenzie Orchards has separate eating areas throughout its great room and common areas overlooking the McKenzie River, yet there is a large table where guests can sit together if they choose. The hotel-like amenities don’t stop there. Each guest room features large closets, a desk to set up a computer, free wi-fi, a comfortable lounge chair, and high-end bathrooms with heaters – something you NEVER find in a hotel.
“Since we designed the house specifically to be a B&B, we had the opportunity to do anything we wanted within the budget,” says Reid. “There’s not one single B&B niche, and the customer base is expanding, so we were able to design it to be best of all worlds both as a private home and features you expect in a high-end hotel.”
BedandBreakfast.com, a comprehensive travel site dedicated to information about more than 11,000 B&Bs worldwide, recently revamped its interface to reflect the changes in the B&B segment and to dispel some of those common myths out there.
“Our data found that travelers have misperceptions about today’s B&Bs, so we re-designed it to highlight their distinctive offerings and amenities,” says Gregory Sion, recently named general manager of BedandBreafast.com.
“Frequent B&B guests will tell you they feel more pampered and comfortable when they stay in an inn, and they appreciate the value that comes from all the extras.”
Crashing the Comp Set
From a competitive standpoint, B&Bs are challenged when they coexist in markets with other hotels – and many of them do, considering that all inns are not hidden on a remote mountaintop like some might think.
“It’s a big challenge to convince the business traveler that we have everything hotels have and more, because they’re concerned about consistency,” says Cowger. “You go to a Hilton and you know what you get.”
Luckily, the explosion of the Internet, and now particularly, location-based mobile marketing, has been a windfall to even the playing field when it comes to getting the word out.
“Ninety-five percent of our business is Internet driven, and while a lot of innkeepers don’t want to give up commissions and fees, I don’t mind because you have to do it to play with the big boys,” Cowger says.
Cowger adds an interesting point, however. Because of the inn’s location in Hallowell, outside of Augusta, he’s had some visibility challenges because OTAs will leave him off the “hotels in Augusta area” radar. But with a location-based service like Google Hotel Finder, Maple Hill Farm comes up near the top of the list, because it’s closer to state capitol building than the hotels out by the highway.
“For much of the world, it makes sense for hotels to be listed by city, but our area is different,” he says. “I deal with this with AAA every year. We just got bumped up to 3 diamond, but they won’t list us under Augusta. So even though we get a wonderful rating, unless people look through guidebook in detail, they won’t find us in the Augusta market if they’re looking for lodging there.”
Luckily, being creative is not new territory for B&Bs, as it’s in their nature to think outside the beige box of a typical hotel. So as modern marketing mechanisms have come to fruition, many innkeepers are taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies to stay a step ahead.
“We’ve discovered that the old fashioned forms of advertising, like paid ads in magazines or flyers or a newsletter type thing at the university, they don’t pencil out – it has virtually no return, and you can’t track it,” says Reid.
She reiterates that being in directories and tour books has been supplanted by Internet and mobile devices, and likewise to Maple Hill Farm, more than 90 percent of McKenzie’s guests book on the Web.
“We have a nice rack card at local wineries because the kind of people that go to wine tastings might want something more upscale,” Reid adds, “but we are NOT the kind of B&B people stereotype, so we want to differentiate ourselves from that by fighting for exposure through search engines. People will find us on the first page if they search ‘modern’ B&B, and we make a big point of that.”
[Editor’s Note: McKenzie was 9th in line on Google when I searched “modern B&B” today, with seven of those links for a property actually called “Modern B&B”]
Serving Up Exceeded Expectations
Once the word is out, it’s all about execution and living up to the service standard, which B&Bs can offer much more personally, even if the amenities are similar to local hotels.
“The amenity creep is real: no one served breakfast when we started, and it’s interesting now that a lot of them serve a whole hot breakfast,” says Cowger. “We’re not as unique in that sense anymore, but we can provide off the menu requests and a lot of variety, including a full country breakfast with eggs from the farm here.”
Another differentiation point at Maple Hill Farm is that the property has a liquor license. Again, local hotels may have a lobby bar, but the intimacy of having a drink with someone at their home, where you can have a quiet, private chat with the owner or take a seat in a comfy, quiet chair while enjoying a nightcap alone is almost unthinkable in even a 50-room boutique hotel.
“Innkeepers are as varied as the inns themselves, and we pride ourselves on being professional without overwhelming the guests,” says Cowger. “They are here to relax, and we’re here to support them. If they want to come to the bar and chat they can of course, but we let them do what they do. You look at comments about innkeepers as well as the inns, and guests can feel cornered sometimes. Every traveler needs to find a good fit.”
The other paradox about hotel properties is that the bigger the hotel, the more service you tend to get, but the less personal it then becomes. In giant resorts you’re more likely to have someone saying hello in the hallway, or there to prop your feet up in the lobby, not to mention the robust concierge services. Of course, this is a product of having the money for high staffing models and creating the perception of luxury, rather than connecting personally. A B&B can offer the best of both worlds, and arguably more, according to Reid.
“We offer peer services, which is better than a concierge service, because as hosts, we are your equal and not a subordinate,” she notes. “We’re able to give our guests all the services they’re able to get from a concierge, make appointments for people with a vet, for a massage – anything they need we can do it at no charge. The difference is here everyone is a potential friend. At a hotel, most of the staff doesn’t have a relationship with the guest – it’s more formal and you don’t interact with the people in the same way.”
Hospitality in its nature is about providing basic needs for others when they’re away from their source for food and shelter. Every lodging property has to strike that balance between providing an environment where travelers feel as comfortable as they would at home, but at the same time make guests feel like they’re someplace special. Today, more and more B&Bs are offering that happy medium for many travelers who want all the modern conveniences and amenities, but are looking for something with a more personal touch.
Appendix: B&B Traveler Trends
*October 2011 surveys of B&B travelers, via BedAndBreakfast.com
- More than 80 percent of B&B travelers are between the ages of 35-65.
- Almost a third (29%) of travelers have stayed in more B&Bs this year than last.
- Leisure travel remains strong for bed and breakfast guests with nearly 90 percent of BedandBreakfast.com™ guests traveling as much or more this winter compared to last.
- Nearly 60 percent of travelers plan to take one or more weekend trip this winter and 40 percent plan to take one or more week-long trip.
- The majority of B&B travelers drive less than 250 miles for their getaway.
- When it comes to B&B travelers, the survey found they enjoy all kinds of destinations, with beaches (62%) the most popular destination, followed by cities (60%), mountains (57%) and rural destinations (48%), and all kinds of travel experiences from quiet and relaxed (55%) to busy and active (45%).
- More than 80 percent of those surveyed travel less than 250 miles for their weekend getaways (84%) and travel with their partner/spouse when going to a B&B (82%).
- In addition to romantic locations, two of three travelers also choose B&Bs in historic areas (63%) and nature and wildlife (61%) destinations.
- When deciding where to stay on a trip, B&B travelers look for free onsite parking (73%), flexible check-in (60%) and free breakfast (57%). Other important amenities include in-room fireplace, on-premise restaurant, pool or hot tub, and private whirlpool tub.