While independents have freedom to run the property as they please, it’s also important to keep in mind the business and territory it comes with.
What does “independence” mean to you?
To us, owning our independent inn and restaurant offered an opportunity to do everything the way we like it, without any oversight. But with that freedom comes the reality that you carry full responsibility. You own whatever decision you make.
Thus it is helpful and important to stay engaged in the hospitality community for support, new ideas and collaboration.
We have found a dynamic group of independent B&B and small inn owners recognized as the Best of Galena who come together to share valuable experience, exchange ideas freely and together benefit each other and this community. The 13 properties include owners who started their business at different stages of life and for different reasons. This month I’ve turned to them to share their personal insights to further support those considering the independent ownership route.
“The group is dedicated to helping one another to become better at what we do as innkeepers and to enhance the hospitality experience of our guests as we benefit the community through volunteer work and charitable donations,” said Kathie Farlow, president of Best of Galena.
Lorraine Svec, owner of Belle Aire Mansion Guest House, added: “The benefit (of being a member) is interacting with wonderful innkeepers who are always ready to help if there’s trouble.”
Ties that bind
Best of Galena has evolved over the years from a social group to a business advocate to a robust exchange between members who support one another and this community. Members all feature specialty properties with fewer than 20 rooms and their effort, commitment and involvement is all geared toward improving the guest experience and Galena’s tourism industry.
“We weren’t aware of this group prior to purchasing the property, however they welcomed us with a great potluck dinner within days of our purchase, and let us know they were there to assist us in transitioning to becoming innkeepers,” said Wendy Bade, who owns the Hawk Valley Retreat with her husband, Hal. “The thing that most people outside the group find surprising is the fact that we all try to help each other reach our maximum potential.”
In addition to reaching potential visitors, the nonprofit organization contributes to the Galena community through volunteering, organizing fundraisers and active participation in community events. All proceeds are donated to community based-needs and causes.
“We have a steadfast goal of serving the community which brings us together and keeps us wishing the best for one another,” said Susan Steffan, owner of Farmers Guest House with her husband, Don.
The biggest challenge of independence
What’s the biggest challenge of independent ownership?
“Running the business instead of the business running us,” Steffan said. “We continually seek ways to be ‘off duty’ and provide ourselves with a good work-life balance.”
Bade suggested it is the very nature of the business that’s challenging.
“The biggest challenge is the fact that business is always changing and you have to keep up with the times,” she said. “Making sure you are up on current law as well as certifications, keeping up with ever-changing marketing options, understanding (online travel agencies) and how best to use them to build your business” are all important.
“Our biggest challenge has always been to show our guests a wonderful time—and I think we’ve accomplished that—and pay the bills at the same time,” Svec said.
One piece of advice
What one revelation can these experienced owners offer?
“Although owning a small lodging establishment sounds rewarding and intriguing, and it is, don’t forget it’s a business and requires as much knowledge (technical and hands-on) as a larger establishment,” Bade said. “Understanding financials (even if you have an accountant), marketing (don’t underestimate its role in the success of your business), and finally, having a current list of who to call when something goes wrong,” is essential.
Robert Mahan, who runs Aldrich Guest House as innkeeper with his husband, Douglas, said budgeting must be a big priority.
“Do not just go through the motions,” he said. “Take this time to think through what your strengths will be, who your guests will be and what they are looking for that you can provide better than what is already on the market.”
He said owners “know what the challenges to your success may be (from potential competitors, legal issues, guest demographics, economy, etc.)” and how you will overcome any potential challenges. Further, independent owners should make a three-year revenue/occupancy plan in great detail from weekly breakdowns the first year, to monthly goals in year two and an annual goal for year three.
“All of this will help to keep you on track and make sure that your endeavor is financially viable and successful and not just an expensive dream,” Mahan said.
Steffan said it’s also important to remain objective.
“Don’t get emotionally involved in the decision,” she said. “It’s a business and keeping that in the forefront of your evaluative process will yield the best results.”
Learn from experience
Owners can cross hurdles more easily with the support of a community. Mahan said moving into a 172-year-old house poses repair and maintenance issues that must be handled by “responsive tradespeople who understand historic homes and building/repair techniques and also understand time-sensitive nature of the work that needs to be done.”
Bade has reached out to the group for a variety of business reasons.
“Options for third-party charges, building a new website, and choosing the right only reservation system for business requires a lot of research but through BOG, we were able to solicit the experiences of our group and make educated decisions,” she said. “Seek out local groups such as BOG and solicit their feedback prior to purchasing your business. They can provide you with valuable insight into the industry and community.”
Although Slobo and I have worked in the hospitality industry all our lives and the mechanics are second nature to us, the value we take from being a member of the BOG is the honest and sincere desire by all to support each other and be the best we can be for Galena while making money at the same time.
Foremost, this is your own business and being connected to community can help make independence a little easier.
After 25 years operating corporate hotels and food and beverage entities, Birgit Radin and her husband Slobo pursued their dream of inn ownership. Birgit earned a certified hotel business and management degree from the Hotel Business and Management School in Villingen, Germany, and has worked in key management roles on three continents, led several transition teams throughout her career, and managed hundreds of millions of dollars in renovation and repositioning projects along that path. Today, she and Slobo operate an 18-suite property which includes two log cabins and three English cottages plus indoor/outdoor event venues all situated on 21-acres overlooking the Mississippi River Valley in Galena, Illinois. Reach her at email@example.com. To learn more about the Goldmoor Inn, visit www.goldmoor.com.
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