Sunlight through casement windows casts faint, rectangular patterns on a linen tablecloth.
The coffee is fresh-ground, the scones baked from scratch this morning. Lingering over breakfast, innkeepers and their guests chat about the weather, local history and the day’s activities.
Good company. Interesting conversation. And only part of the reality in running a bed and breakfast operation from your home.
“You can’t imagine how much work it is,” said Bob Hall, who closed Hall’s Mt. Laurel Bed & Breakfast two years ago following a liver transplant. “You have guests coming in while others are going out. There’s barely time to change the sheets and run out for groceries.”
Hall is one of four innkeepers who dropped out of the bed and breakfast circuit in Coeur d’Alene since 1996.
Another five local proprietors have put their businesses up for sale in the past year.
Kathy Sims listed her eight-room Blackwell House last summer. As with Hall, health concerns pushed her out of the trade. Sims, who also owns Coeur d’Alene Honda, had open-heart surgery last April. Her doctor told her one job is enough.
An innkeeper since 1986, Sims said she’ll miss welcoming guests into the historic downtown home when it sells.
Joyce and Lee Knowles also have put their Katie’s Wild Rose Inn on Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive on the market.
They opened their first bed and breakfast in 1988, running the business in a Front Avenue home that belonged to Joyce’s mother.
“I had five children and I decided, ‘I know how to make beds and I know how to make breakfast - so there you go,”’ Joyce said. “We love the people, but I keep having birthdays, and it’s a lot of work.”
If the Knowleses are ready to turn their four-room inn over to new owners, John Marias is commensurately more eager to find a buyer for his 20-room establishment, A Roosevelt Inn Bed & Breakfast.
He first converted the classic brick schoolhouse into law offices before opening it as an inn in 1994. The Roosevelt is now on the market.
“I would like to retire,” said Marias, adding that he’s prepared to wait for the right person to come along and realize the value in his multistory building.
Dan and Kathryn Allen, owners of the Sixth Street Inn, spent several years combing California and the East Coast for a bed and breakfast they could acquire as a working retirement property. They finally settled on a Coeur d’Alene home built in 1910 and renovated to be used as an inn a few years ago.
“The people who owned it before us opened it for about three months as a bed and breakfast and then decided they didn’t like having strangers in the house,” Dan said.
Now that the Allens have purchased Wilson’s Variety in downtown Coeur d’Alene, they’ve opted to sell the inn and concentrate on the store.
Dan said the Sixth Street Inn was well-booked last summer with guests from as far as Hawaii, France and Norway.
“The reward is the people who stay with you,” he said. “That’s the part we’ll miss most. You actually hate to see them leave after they’ve been with you a couple of days.”
According to Winifred Gregory, who runs Gregory’s McFarland House Bed & Breakfast with her husband, Stephen, that kind of attitude is critical to bed and breakfast success.
“If you’re going to be an innkeeper, you have to love people,” said Gregory, who calls herself one of the old-timers in the local industry, having spent 12 years at the McFarland House. “You open your home and invite people into it.”
In doing so, innkeepers become virtual captives in their own domain.
Those who run noncommercial inns, which represent all but two of the roughly 20 bed and breakfasts around Coeur d’Alene, operate under a “home occupancy permit.”
“The regulations say you will not have any employees, you will not have a manager and you will not live off the premises,” Gregory said. “Those are pretty strict rules.”
It was partly the element of life in captivity that prompted Kris McIlvenna to close her Greenbriar Inn about two years ago and shift her attention to Greenbriar Catering.
“With a bed and breakfast, you have to have your doors open all the time,” she said.
Further, traditional vacation seasons are peak times for innkeepers.
“When everyone else is out playing, you’re working,” McIlvenna said.
At 11 years in business, the Greenbriar outlasted the average tenure for a small inn by about four years.
“It’s the seven-year itch,” said Bob Feuhr, broker for Michigan-based Innkeeping Consultants, which matches buyers and sellers in the bed and breakfast market. “Every seven years or so, you see a lump of inns on the market.
“What has happened is that, unlike gas stations or pharmacies, which open at different times, most of the inns for sale right now started up on the same cycle,” he added. “That’s why there’s an oversupply on the market.”
Out of approximately 20,000 inns in the United States, more than 10 percent are for sale, according to Feuhr.
McIlvenna said the “itch” sets in when the novelty wears off.
“After five years or so, most innkeepers go through a change in perspective on why they got into the business,” she said. “By that point, they’ve heard all the questions a hundred times, served breakfast a thousand times and changed a zillion beds.”
The new owners of Wolf Lodge Creek Bed & Breakfast are still on their innkeeping honeymoon.
Terry Cavanaugh bought the inn with her daughter and son-in-law one year ago. The business recently was recommended to readers of Northwest Travel Magazine as one of “10 Romantic Hideaways” in the region.
“I’m having wonderful times meeting great people and getting free rein to play in the kitchen,” Cavanaugh said. “But it’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. And if you don’t like people, don’t do it.”
Tom and Julie Nash have found their theatrical background helpful in their role as owners of Cricket on the Hearth Bed & Breakfast, a business they opened in 1995.
“Because of our actor training, we’re able to stifle the bad days and greet the guests with a bubbly personality,” Tom said.
Veteran innkeepers say it’s crucial to get away from home on occasion, because, in this trade, that means getting away from work. It’s easier said than done, according to Nash.
“In some ways, you’re on call 365 days a year,” he said.
“We always have couples who say, ‘You know, we want to open a bed and breakfast of our own,”’ Nash continued. “I don’t say anything to discourage them.
“But privately I’m thinking, ‘Good luck - there’s a lot more to it than you realize.”’
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