I heard a couple of people compare Wiscasset, Maine to The Gilmore Girls. Never having seen the show we decided to check it out. While they got a lot right about living in a small New England town, they really missed the mark on what it’s like to run a hotel.
Here are some of the more glaring issues:
How did Lauralee get so many weekends off? It seemed like no big deal for her to have a Saturday or Sunday free. In reality, weekends are the busiest times for innkeepers.
Friday and Saturday nights are the most common nights for people checking in. Because they are the busiest check-in nights, they’re also the time when new guests discover problems. Does the air conditioner no longer work well, not enough pillows in the room? Did they assume the hotel was pet friendly and brought a dog without double checking? Did someone get caught in traffic and won’t arrive until hours after your front desk closes for the night?
Breakfast on weekends are the busiest and managers often have to pitch in to help. They might need to wipe down tables, make more coffee, clean rooms, check rooms, or be at the front desk to help guests plan their day.
As a hotel manager/inn keeper you’re more likely to have Monday/Tuesday off if you get any days off at all. We’ve owned our hotel for 5 seasons and each season we work 6 months straight without a day off. Part of this is my husband’s reluctance to give someone else the responsibility for checking the rooms the other part of this is the fact that I’m on the schedule in the kitchen every morning. Our goal this season is to get one day off a week once our staff are trained in, but it won’t be on the weekend.
The fact that Lauralee could take a weekend day off is not the reality for most innkeepers.
The Check-in book
I was just a little amazed and flabbergasted to see that the Dragonfly Inn had both a check in book and a computerized reservation system. Books are rarely used anymore and for good reasons.
Having two different ways of recording a reservation (online as well as in a book) increases the chance of double booking a room, and this is something to avoid at all costs. Large chains might be able to get away with shuffling people around or even sending them off to another hotel with a credit slip, but for small hotels double booking is a major issue.
If you accidentally book the same room for two different people what do you when the second group shows up? For us, especially on weekends in July and August all the hotels are sold out for 50 miles around. We actually keep an “emergency room” vacant and available just in case something goes wrong, and we’ve had to use it. We live in terror of accidentally double booking a room. Having two different booking systems just increases the probability of mistakes.
This issue just gets worse in B&B’s and hotels like ours. Unlike chain hotels, we have a lot of unique rooms. The size of the rooms, size and number of beds, and types of bathrooms vary greatly. Guests have chosen their rooms for specific reasons and have their favorites. Moving someone from one room to another that they didn’t choose can cause a lot of issues and unhappiness with guests.
As for the check-in book, it’s probably been a while since you actually signed a check-in book. Actual books are rarely used any more for three reasons.
First, there are state laws dictating what information we have to collect and keep about your guests. For instance, in Maine we have to record the name of every occupant in the room and their vehicle information. We are required to store this information and produce it upon request to the police. The old sign in books don’t generally capture this information well.
Second, we might have to charge a guests credit card for damages to the room, for taking items from the room, etc… The way we prove to the credit card company that the guest has been informed of what they are and are not allowed to do is by the form they sign at check-in. A simple check-in book would be inadequate for this.
Third, you have to maintain your guest’s privacy. All of us have seen movies where people discover who is in the hotel by looking through the registration book. We actually keep the registration sheets under lock and key. Imagine if you were fleeing an abusive spouse or cheating on a your wife, would you want your name and room number readily available to anyone that skims the registration book?
Their staffing is all off. They’ve got too few front desk staff and too many cooks.
With the front desk, you essentially have to have some form of coverage 24 hours a day. That’s 3 – 8 hour shifts 7 days/week. And yet for most of the show they only have one front desk person. Many B & B owners cover most these shifts themselves by living on site and working every day. We did this our first few years. I remember our first year we had just one front desk person and she only wanted to work 5 hour shifts. So we were never able to drive more than an hour away from the hotel. We’d drive an hour, spend 3 hours doing something, then drive an hour back. This is doable for a short period of time but in the long run it’s not psychologically healthy. There’s a bigger turn over of innkeepers than most people realize. So how is the Dragonfly covering 21 eight-hour shifts with just one front desk person and no one living on site?
In contrast, the kitchen is over-staffed. There were always 3 or 4 kitchen staff in a given shift. They’d better have a pretty big hotel or sell lots of lunches to cover the expense of that many cooks. For every staff member working an 8 hour shift you can assume that it’ll cost you the equivalent of one room night (the cost of one room for one night). This of course changes according to the price of the rooms and how much you pay your staff, but it’s a good rule of thumb. The average size of a hotel/B&B in Maine is 12 rooms so let’s assume the Dragonfly Inn has 12 rooms. If you have to cover the cost of 4 kitchen staff, 1 front desk person, at least one maid (which is another thing, you never see a housekeeper on the show) and Lauralee’s salary you’ve already spent half your income on staffing and that’s only if you sell out every night. You could actually lose money if it’s a slow night. Then you still have to cover mortgage, insurance, property taxes, utilities, unemployment insurance, banking fees, booking fees, IT services, property maintenance, landscaping, food costs, linens, toiletries, advertising, and the list goes on….
Staffing can be one of a hotel’s biggest expenses – after loans payments. Careful staffing is essential for financial viability.
Reality Check on Finances
While the show goes into some of the stress Lauralee faced in financing the restoration of the Dragonfly Inn, it still makes it seem like once the hotel is up and operating it’s smooth sailing after that. In reality, it can be far more touch and go than that. I remember one disgruntled B&B owner who stayed at my hotel on his way out of town after selling his property. He’d bought an old house and restored it – just as they did in the Gilmore Girls. He had stars in his eyes about being able to pay the restoration costs just through renting out rooms. Then reality set in. Many B&Bs do not make enough money to cover costs, instead they are classified as “Lifestyle Properties.” In other words, don’t expect to make a living off the property, just do it if you like the lifestyle of hosting interesting guests from around the world. You’ll need other forms of income to actually pay your bills. He was angry at his neighbors and angry at his banker for not making him aware of the financial realities. He was certain the only way to make money off a B&B was by leading workshops on why no one should ever buy a B&B.
The costs can be staggering. I remember two early experiences clearly. One was when we replaced the shower curtains. The old shower curtains needed to go along with the mismatched plastic shower curtain rings. We were frugal and bought shower curtains and rings for a mere $30/room. This doesn’t seem like much until you multiply that by 30 (the number of bathrooms we have). When you add in sales tax we were suddenly spending $1,000 just on shower curtains. Then came the pillows. The previous owners only provided 2 pillows per bed. We had numerous requests for extra pillows so people could prop themselves up in bed to watch TV. We decided it was smart to have 4 pillows/bed. Altogether we have 37 beds, so that’s 74 extra pillows, 74 pillow protectors and 148 pillowcases. I don’t even remember the final cost, but the sticker shock was real.
Moral of this Story?
As with all TV shows, the story is more about the people than the characters’ actual jobs. Don’t even get me started on White Christmas. I know these shows have had an impact on the American psyche by the number of people who ask me if owning an inn has always been my life-long dream. We rarely ask that of an accountant, store manager, or even a park ranger.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being an Innkeeper and between bouts of a very real fear of bankruptcy, we’ve been able to make a good life for ourselves. I enjoy my regular guests and look forward to their stays. But innkeeping is so much more than flitting around chatting with visitors. People will be happier and more successful if they go into innkeeping with their eyes wide open.