Rise and Shine
Author: Bill Meagher and Peter Seidman
June, 2006 Issue
Now that tourism is on the upswing, North Bay B&Bs are filling their rooms with a charm all their own.
Celeste Carducci of the McClelland-Priest Bed and Breakfast Inn likens her marketing approach for her Napa Valley business to a radio spot by Beringer Wines. In the commercial, a tourist couple in San Francisco asks a Bay Area native for driving directions to Napa Valley. The stranger tells the couple to go down to the Ferry Building and buy some bay scallops, “Not sea scallops, those won’t even get you over the Golden Gate Bridge,” he warns the Napa-bound couple. He then tells the mystified pair to get some shallots, olive oil and a few other ingredients, along with a bottle of Chardonnay. His final instruction is to open the wine and they will be in Napa Valley.
More than anything else, the commercial describes how Napa Valley is perceived by visitors while subtly inviting listeners to use all of their senses. “I don’t want to do an ad for Beringer, but that’s what I try to do for my business,” says Carducci. “From the first moment one of our guests calls for a reservation, I want them to begin to have a Napa experience.” Carducci’s approach is just one example of how bed & breakfast (B&B) proprietors think outside the box when competing for guests against chain hotels, boutique inns, resorts and each other.
But the competition isn’t that simple. For instance, Susan Wigert of the Blackthorne Inn in West Marin says she isn’t really locked in mortal combat with hotels since the coastal hamlets of Point Reyes, Olema and Bolinas have yet to be blessed (or blighted) with a Marriott or Doubletree. And while there are plenty of B&Bs to keep the Blackthorne from feeling like the Lone Ranger, it really isn’t about topping the neighboring inns. “Our biggest competition is really Napa and Mendocino,” she reasons. “People who come to us are more likely to be drawn to an area rather than a [specific] hotel or inn.”
Talk with Gregg Percival, part of the brother-sister ownership team at the Thistle Dew Inn just off the Sonoma Plaza, and he’ll tell you,” We compete with Napa and Healdsburg as much as we do the [local] hotels.” And though his is one of a number of inns near the plaza, he says his five-room establishment is more likely to work with other B&Bs than against them. “If we can’t get someone in or it’s a bad fit, we’re happy to recommend another inn,” he says.
Jim Dowling at the Gerstle Park Inn tells a different story. “We compete with hotels all the time,” he says. “Most of the bed & breakfasts are in West Marin. Since we’re in San Rafael, it’s hotels for us. Most of the time, it’s the Embassy Suites in San Rafael, but also the local Marriott and Best Westerns.”
Hotels in the North Bay take a different approach to competing. For them, it’s hotel against hotel, price point versus location and take no prisoners. Though hotels often carry a brand name or flag such as Best Western or Holiday Inn, as often as not, the hotel is independently owned (which pays off in reservations and name recognition). Still, a 125-room property is going to have more resources than a five-room inn.
It’s the classic David and Goliath story. The large, well-financed, multinational corporations with well known brand names seek to dominate the local market via advertising, aggressive pricing and size. Meanwhile, small, undersized entrepreneurs seek to compete via savvy marketing, high technology, old-fashioned creativity and old world charm.
Coming off a wet winter that cut into occupancies, North Bay B&Bs are looking forward to a busy summer, as are their hotel brethren. As a whole, the hospitality industry is enjoying a comeback. Hotel construction is on the rise along with the sale of established hotels as equity investors recognize that hotels are filling up. But to understand why B&Bs are doing well, you first have to understand where they’ve been.
September 11, 2001 is a date that has become largely symbolic in the American collective psyche. For some of us, it was a day we lost a loved one to terrorist attacks. For others, it was the day we woke up to the reality that America is no longer off-limits to attacks from enemies we can’t name or recognize. For all of us, the world has changed in ways we never would have imagined.
For those in the hospitality industry, the crashing of planes was followed by a crashing of business. Air travel was crippled. Americans weren’t ready to travel on business or pleasure, and hotels, motels and B&Bs took a huge hit as occupancy plummeted, construction dried up and the business of putting heads in beds began a spiral which only now is returning to something that resembles pre-September 11 levels.
To begin with, B&Bs share some common traits. To be sure, inns are excellent places to bring disposable income as most are highly efficient at separating guests from their funds. Ah, but who can put a price on romance? Surveys show that the phrase, “I know a romantic little inn…” is uttered every 47.8 seconds in the United States. All right, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it is certainly heard more often than, “How about a romantic getaway to the Days Inn?”
Inevitably, B&Bs are small, though innkeepers unfailingly refer to them as “cozy.” Each has a charm derived from any number of ingredients that can include the age, history and structure of the inn, the furnishings therein, the staff, the location, the grounds or the food, which most websites or brochures call “sumptuous.” If an inn is lucky, it may have a dollop of each, making the guests’ stay delicious (as we risk stretching the food metaphor until it’s no longer appetizing).
And while all of these traits are important to a B&B, there are myriad ways inns set themselves apart in the battle for the hearts and minds and three-night stays of their guests.
The McClelland-Priest Inn, Napa Valley
At the McClelland-Priest Bed and Breakfast Inn, owner Celeste Carducci has hit on a novel concept. While her inn is handsome and located well for guests wishing to make the most of the Napa Valley, her hook is health. That is, the health of her guests. Carducci is certified by the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine, which is dedicated to the prevention and healing of sports injuries and believes (among other things) that a few push-ups wouldn’t kill you.
Carducci also teaches nutrition at Napa Valley College, so her guests not only dine on delectable morning repasts, but the meals are good for them. And her connection to physical fitness carries over to how she approaches her guests’ stays at the McClelland-Priest. “I approach it the same way a personal trainer approaches a client,” she says. “If I were training someone, I would start by screening their health, talking with them about what they’re trying to accomplish. I wouldn’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to start with a run, and then we’ll do some weights.’ It’s the same with my guests. Starting with the reservation call, I want to know as much as I can about them and how they want to spend their time here so I can personalize the experience as much as possible.”
In addition to healthy breakfasts for all, Carducci also offers a Fitness Retreat weekend, which includes a fitness screening, a discussion about integration of nutrition and exercise and a one-hour session that can include yoga, stretching, body sculpting, running, walking, spinning or core fusion (which, we trust, is different than jazz fusion or fusion cuisine).
And lest the inn be pigeonholed as a health retreat, Carducci also has packages aimed at seniors, wine and food lovers, newlyweds and folks who wish to ride in hot air balloons. The B&B has also targeted women with its “Women on Weekend” (WOW) deal, which includes an in-room massage, core fusion/pilates sessions, bubbly, four hours of limo time and a fees-waived wine tasting itinerary.
Having worked for the Marriott Corporation in Washington, D.C., Carducci was in the hospitality business before she bought the five-room inn. She also had links to the wine industry, having worked for a wine distributor in the capital courting the embassy trade. Her background in wines has served her well at her Napa inn as about one-third of her business is generated by repeat guests who’ve enjoyed her Wine Country hospitality.
“Our average stay is three days, and we have had some guests here as long as nine days,” she says. One of her key strategies for generating repeat business is not to discount stays, though it’s common for her to shave something off the third night of a guest’s stay. Rather, Carducci tries to focus her efforts on giving guests something extra or unexpected. “What makes sense for us is to make it a value-added experience, where guests feel like they’re getting something more,” Carducci says.
The Thistle Dew Inn, Sonoma
If the McClelland-Priest has a health hook and packages designed with something for everyone, the Thistle Dew Inn in Sonoma relies on old-fashioned charm and old world architecture to keep its guests coming back. The five-room inn is made up of two separate homes on one lot just around the corner from Sonoma Plaza. One home was built in 1869 while the upstart of the pair was turned out in 1910. The Thistle Dew was opened in 1981 and was the first licensed B&B in the city of Sonoma. While the inn has been operating for 26 years, brother and sister owners Gregg Percival and Jan Rafiq have only been at the helm since acquiring it in 2003. Neither had a background in hospitality, but both were looking for a career change.
Their purchase was essentially buying a successful B&B—lock, stock and pancake griddle. Besides buying the inn itself, they also bought the marketing lists and access to a successful staff. Essentially it was a turn-key sale, which isn’t to say it was easy—but the start made it easier for the pair to carry the inn’s success forward.
Part of competing successfully is knowing what doesn’t work. While inns across the country have come to rely on the Internet for everything from marketing to reservations, the Thistle Dew won’t take reservations online. “We only do reservations over the phone,” says Percival. “One of the reasons is simply that we want people to be sure we’re what they want. In some guidebooks, we’re lumped in with hotels, and we’re not a hotel. The other thing is, we only have five rooms. Unless you’re constantly checking [the website], you can end up with double booking—which, for a place like ours, would be a disaster.”
On the other hand, the Internet is the key to new customers finding the inn. The majority of new guests discover it while searching for Sonoma B&Bs, according to Percival. And while it’s common for inns in Sonoma and Napa to set up to be picked up in searches for either county, the Thistle Dew hasn’t registered for hits as a Napa inn. “We want our guests to know where we are and not mislead them,” Percival says. “Besides, our location is a huge advantage for us. We’re half a block away from the Plaza, which means we’re within walking distance of 20 restaurants and five tasting rooms. Plus Napa is just 20 minutes away.”
While the family owned inn started out with historic buildings and the panache that goes with them, some improvements have been made to make it more romantic. Fireplaces and whirlpool tubs are now found in three rooms, and decks have been added as well. The grounds are landscaped with year-round gardens, and the inn supplies its guests with bicycles free of charge. Breakfasts change daily, and Tux the cat is a fixture at the inn, greeting guests and lolling about the garden.
The Thistle Dew’s interior demonstrates the kind of attention to detail that Percival and Rafiq believe serves them well in retaining guests. The furniture, also part of the turn-key purchase, is all Arts and Crafts from designers such as Charles Limbert and Gustav Stickley.
Unlike the McClelland-Priest, Percival follows a more traditional pricing and occupancy model. Recognition of high and low seasons has always been a cornerstone of the hospitality business, with more rented rooms a higher price tag during the high season. When rooms are more plentiful, they carry a lower tariff. “April to October is our high season, and November to March is our shoulder season,” Percival says.
The Blackthorne Inn, Inverness
Another innkeeper who came from a different background is Susan Wigert of the Blackthorne Inn in Inverness. Formerly an art director at Rolling Stone magazine when the publication still called San Francisco home, Wigert and her husband Bill originally built the inn (handcrafted from Douglas fir) as a spacious home perfect for visits from friends and family. In 1982, the Blackthorne was opened as a five-room inn with rooms given such whimsical handles as Eagle’s Nest. That room, along with a narrow walkway off the room which towers over the rest of the inn and connects the room to a Jacuzzi (the “skybridge”), is one of the ways that the Blackthorne sets itself apart from the other 22 B&Bs on the coastal side of Mount Tamalpais.
Like the Thistle Dew, the Blackthorne has no TVs, instead encouraging guests to enjoy the nature that surrounds it. The Blackthorne takes it a step further, however, as there are also no in-room phones. Cell coverage is spotty at best, and the only phone in the house is an old-fashioned pay phone. Wigert believes her guests come to the inn to escape the modern world. “Out here, there are the wild turkeys, the deer,” she says. “The other day we saw the local bobcat. And it’s elephant seal season. People come out here and explore, and you can almost see them visibly unwind.”
Echoing other innkeepers, Wigert says the Internet is key to her ability to draw in new guests. “In 1995, we had our first domain name, and it’s only grown in importance for us.” However, Wigert concentrates a fair amount of effort on making sure her guests enjoy their stay so not only can they become repeat guests, but they’ll also become part of her marketing team by providing positive word of mouth.
During the slow times, Wigert will run specials, offering three nights for the price of two. And besides relying on nature to add character to the inn, Wigert believes the organic food scene of Point Reyes is a natural attraction for foodies. “We have Point Reyes Vineyards out here now, and then there’s Cowgirl Creamery and Hog Island Oysters. The reason Prince Charles came to West Marin last year was all the organic foods.”
Speaking of food, Wigert provides a full breakfast, believing the meal makes her inn more competitive than B&Bs offering a glorified continental breakfast. Frittatas with spinach and mushrooms or eggnog walnut hot cakes are the norm at the Blackthorne as Wigert hopes to send guests home with stories of wonderful food as well as spiral staircases and decks with views of white tail deer.
The Gerstle Park Inn, San Rafael
One B&B that goes head-to-head with hotels is the Gerstle Park Inn near downtown San Rafael. Owner Jim Dowling has been in business for 10 years and has a mix of guests that lets him compete with hotels to fill his 12-room inn.
Unlike other inns, where the environment is one of peace and quiet or romance, this B&B thrives on offering guests what they miss from home. Since about one-third of the guests who stay at Gerstle Park are in town on business, rooms come equipped with wireless DSL coverage, LCD TVs and DVD players. The inn also has a 400-square-foot meeting room, and it isn’t unusual to find local businesses using the facility or business guests using it for client meetings.
Business travelers are important to the inn, though Dowling doesn’t go out of his way to market the inn to that clientele. Despite his success, Dowling remains diplomatic. “Not to take anything away from the Embassy Suites—they do a good job over there. It’s just that we hear from some of our guests that they’re on the road a lot, and they just can’t stand to be in another hotel. The fact that we’re situated in a real neighborhood and are within walking distance of Fourth Street makes a big difference.”
Another way Dowling competes for business guests is by going against the grain of a B&B rule. Dowling’s kitchen is open to his guests. In fact, he encourages them to keep what they like in the refrigerator. He also stocks it with juices, snacks and wine, which are available to his guests whenever the mood strikes. In many B&Bs, stepping inside the kitchen is living life on the edge.
Dowling takes care of his guests by cooking breakfast each morning from a nine-item menu.
And lest you think the inn is simply shelter for corporate warriors, the other 66 percent of guests are pleasure travelers and friends and family visiting Marin residents. “I just want people to be comfortable here and feel at home,” says Dowling.
It must work. A few years ago, Dowling had a guest check out after a three-year stay. “He was a dot-commer who cashed out and didn’t know what he wanted to do next. So he came here to just chill out a little,” Dowling says. “The first year he stayed at $199.00 a night; the next two years at $189 a night.”
In the end, however, the stay cost Dowling. “That’s right, he ran off with my innkeeper.”
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