Monday, July 11, 2016

Beyond the Numbers

About two years ago we listed our inn for sale. We have innkeeping for a long time (16 years), and with both of our sons in college, the time was right to look for new adventures. At first we listed with a broker; now we are selling the inn ourselves. We have shown the inn many times, received a couple of insincere offers, and had one serious offer that didn’t work out. During that process, one theme emerged over and over: the numbers.

Like disciplined business school students, potential buyers want to see the numbers—our financials, that is. Profit and loss. Income and expenses. Occupancy. The nitty gritty. And potential buyers should want to see the numbers.

Or should they?

It says a lot about potential buyers that they should want to see how we ran our business. Note verb tense choice: ran. Past tense. Also note the use of “we,” as in Shawn and Chantal. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think the last thing a potential buyer would want to see is the numbers. My numbers. I think a much better indicator of future performance would be an analysis of the market—both the larger national and economic trends, and the local market, which in this case is Stowe, Vermont.

Even though potential buyers are also buying the business, and rightly want to understand what they are getting for the money, my past numbers are not an indicator of their future numbers. After all, I could just be the crappiest innkeeper/businessman on the planet. I am a writer, after all. What good are the numbers then? The thinking here is that a poor financial showing could be used as a negotiating tool. I get that. But to think that past performance by someone whose motives and skills are unknown could scotch a deal is silly.

Of course there is the argument that an underperforming business holds potential, and the only way to evaluate that is to look at the numbers. But the price is the price, and essentially a buyer is getting the real estate, the location, and the good will—the customer list, the name, the website, and that’s about it. So underperforming or not, the numbers won’t make much difference in the price.

Probably the best indicator of being a successful innkeeper is your own past performance—at business, at relationships, at problem-solving. Have you ever run a business before? Have you ever run a service business before? Have you ever run a business where you share an identity with not only homemade jam, but plugged toilets? That will determine your BF—your burnout factor. We’ve seen people last as little as three years, while others continue to do this past the 20-year mark. The griddle arts can be taught. Demeanor? Not so much.

Another good indicator is money—namely, how much money do you bring to this game. Do you have mystery money? Are you a trustifarian? Or will your wealthy in-laws finance this for you? What about a down payment? Potential buyers don’t need to see our numbers to see how many rooms we have, what we charge, and what average occupancy rates are for the industry, or even in this area.

In many ways, buying an inn should be what the French call a coup de foudre—literally love at first sight. An emotional decision. Something in your heart that says, “Yes!” Because if your heart is in this, if you are risking emotional capital, that means you are the kind of person who will make a good innkeeper. And being a good innkeeper is the way you become a financially successful innkeeper. If your heart is in the game, people will recognize that, and they will respond with repeat visits, with word of mouth, and with positive feedback in the wonderful world of social media.

You have to love yourself, you have to love where you live, and you have to love doing what you do. I struggled with that for the first few years. Then I went to graduate school, got my MFA in Creative Writing, and became a teacher. After that, I enjoyed innkeeping a whole lot more. That’s because innkeeping is about solving problems: where to eat, where to play, what to talk about. It’s not about what the innkeeper wants; it’s about what travelers need. And what travelers need is you. They need to know how you met your spouse. They need to know about your kids. They need to know how you feel about dogs. They want to hear about how you broke your shoulder, the time you had kidney stones, and which chef at which local restaurant just got divorced.

In other words, they need stories. And innkeepers have to tell them. Stories make us human, and that is what the traveler is looking for: humanity. They are not really looking for a finely appointed room with your every need anticipated in a luxurious getaway built to suit your need to be wowed. They are looking for you, and they are looking for your stories.

So while you shouldn’t forget about the numbers, they aren’t the most important thing about the inn. They are just a little piece of the story.

Beyond the Numbers

About two years ago we listed our inn for sale. We have innkeeping for a long time (16 years), and with both of our sons in college, the time was right to look for new adventures. At first we listed with a broker; now we are selling the inn ourselves. We have shown the inn many times, received a couple of insincere offers, and had one serious offer that didn’t work out. During that process, one theme emerged over and over: the numbers.

Like disciplined business school students, potential buyers want to see the numbers—our financials, that is. Profit and loss. Income and expenses. Occupancy. The nitty gritty. And potential buyers should want to see the numbers.

Or should they?

It says a lot about potential buyers that they should want to see how we ran our business. Note verb tense choice: ran. Past tense. Also note the use of “we,” as in Shawn and Chantal. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think the last thing a potential buyer would want to see is the numbers. My numbers. I think a much better indicator of future performance would be an analysis of the market—both the larger national and economic trends, and the local market, which in this case is Stowe, Vermont.

Even though potential buyers are also buying the business, and rightly want to understand what they are getting for the money, my past numbers are not an indicator of their future numbers. After all, I could just be the crappiest innkeeper/businessman on the planet. I am a writer, after all. What good are the numbers then? The thinking here is that a poor financial showing could be used as a negotiating tool. I get that. But to think that past performance by someone whose motives and skills are unknown could scotch a deal is silly.

Of course there is the argument that an underperforming business holds potential, and the only way to evaluate that is to look at the numbers. But the price is the price, and essentially a buyer is getting the real estate, the location, and the good will—the customer list, the name, the website, and that’s about it. So underperforming or not, the numbers won’t make much difference in the price.

Probably the best indicator of being a successful innkeeper is your own past performance—at business, at relationships, at problem-solving. Have you ever run a business before? Have you ever run a service business before? Have you ever run a business where you share an identity with not only homemade jam, but plugged toilets? That will determine your BF—your burnout factor. We’ve seen people last as little as three years, while others continue to do this past the 20-year mark. The griddle arts can be taught. Demeanor? Not so much.

Another good indicator is money—namely, how much money do you bring to this game. Do you have mystery money? Are you a trustifarian? Or will your wealthy in-laws finance this for you? What about a down payment? Potential buyers don’t need to see our numbers to see how many rooms we have, what we charge, and what average occupancy rates are for the industry, or even in this area.

In many ways, buying an inn should be what the French call a coup de foudre—literally love at first sight. An emotional decision. Something in your heart that says, “Yes!” Because if your heart is in this, if you are risking emotional capital, that means you are the kind of person who will make a good innkeeper. And being a good innkeeper is the way you become a financially successful innkeeper. If your heart is in the game, people will recognize that, and they will respond with repeat visits, with word of mouth, and with positive feedback in the wonderful world of social media.

You have to love yourself, you have to love where you live, and you have to love doing what you do. I struggled with that for the first few years. Then I went to graduate school, got my MFA in Creative Writing, and became a teacher. After that, I enjoyed innkeeping a whole lot more. That’s because innkeeping is about solving problems: where to eat, where to play, what to talk about. It’s not about what the innkeeper wants; it’s about what travelers need. And what travelers need is you. They need to know how you met your spouse. They need to know about your kids. They need to know how you feel about dogs. They want to hear about how you broke your shoulder, the time you had kidney stones, and which chef at which local restaurant just got divorced.

In other words, they need stories. And innkeepers have to tell them. Stories make us human, and that is what the traveler is looking for: humanity. They are not really looking for a finely appointed room with your every need anticipated in a luxurious getaway built to suit your need to be wowed. They are looking for you, and they are looking for your stories.

So while you shouldn’t forget about the numbers, they aren’t the most important thing about the inn. They are just a little piece of the story.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Pornification Nation, Part Two

The Boston Globe today published astory on maple sugaring in Vermont. I have lived in Vermont for sixteen years and I have a keen interest in maple sugaring. To me, it’s like writing, or innkeeping, or dairy farming, or any other kind of small, crafty, individual pursuit that characterizes Vermont and Vermonters. Sugaring is an intimate activity, requiring the sugar maker to interact closely with the sugarbush, tapping trees, running tubes or hanging buckets, looking after the health of the trees…it’s the very definition of an organic, human activity. The sugar maker was typically a farmer of another kind who used the end of winter to supplement income with the harvesting of another resource.

It is now difficult to drive around the back roads of northern Vermont without seeing the woods crisscrossed with colored tubing tied to thousands of taps as sugar makers capture every sap run, whether it comes in late November or January or during the more traditional time of late winter/early spring. While nobody wants to begrudge hard working Vermonters some extra cash, as the Boston Globe article describes, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Big Business. Big Business is the harbinger of pornifcation, because Big Business is beholden to one thing only: the bottom line. When this model succeeds, the same thing that happened to Vermont’s dairy operations will happen to its sugaring. Small operators will be bought out, consolidation will occur, the environment—divorced from the intimacy of the sugar maker who was tied to the land by blood and toil—will suffer, and low-paying, futureless jobs will be all that’s left. Soon the iconic Vermonter will be nothing but a corporate symbol distantly reminiscent of a noble and relevant past: the Gorton’s fisherman, Ben & Jerry’s, Budweiser.

In my last blog post, I talked about how we can turn to baseball to satisfy some of our most basic human longings during a tumultuous election year: peace, community, and the meaning of life. I called that blog post “The Antidote to Pornification Nation,” and I only touched on the concept briefly in the text of the blog: 

        [B]aseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification           is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected         ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier           is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a                   Salvador Dali painting come to life.

The notion of pornification is an old one; the concept of porn itself has gone through its own pornification, which is where the term comes from: When we refer to activities around pornography as an “industry,” we acknowledge its commodification, its corporatization. The platform of the corporate moniker also serves as a way to legitimize its descriptor, which can be toxic to the product being commodified, taking it from a small, personal thing, to an industrial-level concept requiring marketing, lawyers, and even regulation. When that happens, humanity is lost. Even in porn.

I’ve written extensively about innkeeping in this space over the past decade. I have shared my observations in a frank and entertaining (I hope) manner. Innkeeping has gone through its own pornification, as it has moved from adjutant to senior on the scale of occupations. When I was a little boy, my father was a lobster fisherman. Years later, he would often comment on what made a lobster fisherman successful, and it wasn’t how many lobsters he caught. He said that fisherman who had a wife with a steady job always managed to do all right and grow their fishing business. That’s because with another steady income, fisherman were able to withstand the vagaries of the ocean and the environment. Of course, with the advent of factory fishing ships, that occupation has undergone its own pornification.

An innkeeping friend recently attended a big conference for innkeepers (another sign of pornification), and he returned to report that he felt out of place among many of his cohort. They were managers, he said, running their inns like portfolio business investments. That’s quite different from welcoming people into your home.

Skiing has been going through a version of this for decades. Skiing almost killed itself the first time through irrelevance. Then it transcended its own costs, pricing out middle- and lower-income American skiers. Then the environment began to change; snowmaking stabilized it then. Finally, skiing has become a real estate and destination park operation, with skiing itself only a sideline curiosity, while zip lines and water parks and mountain biking complement shopping and dining in a Vegas-style experience. While we cannot argue that these new revenue streams have helped the skiing experience, funding new infrastructure and more and better snowmaking, it has also begun the inevitable upflow of money to the top, which can only result in fewer people being able to connect with the organic experience of skiing itself, which started the whole thing.

I wrote about this in my book ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. At the end of the book, I made a prediction about the future, and so far I have not been wrong. I ended the book with a line from the Ringo Starr song “Photograph.” It’s a beautiful song written by Starr and George Harrison, whom many consider the lesser Beatles. But it’s a song that highlights the importance of not always listening to what the zeitgeist considers the biggest and the best, a song that turns the notion of lesser and greater Beatles on its head. When the biggest and the best gather too much gravity, we miss out on something human, something genuine and organic. We miss out on the drip of sap in buckets, the shuffle of cows through the grass. We miss out on Starr and Harrison.

Ringo Starr sang, “Every time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I've got is a photograph/And I realize you're not coming back anymore.” This is the crux of life. All we have is a photograph of the past, and we can’t go back to it. It’s gone. The realization Starr sings about is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful—at least he has the memory, the photograph. It is a song grounded in realism, a realism that allows us to move forward. That realism is missing from our daily approach to living well, and it has resulted in the pornification—or corporatization—of everything.

So if you like Vermont maple syrup on your pancakes—or in your seltzer water, or your vinegar, or your booze—get ready for big globs of porn on your plate. Until we decide to accept the small and simple joys of this life, unless we are willing to stop looking at everything in our environment as a means to get more stuff, we will be treated like the foie gras producing geese that we are: slaves to a system interested only in our narrow market value and our bloated livers.


Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Antidote to Pornification Nation


In his excellent TED Talk, author Michael Pollan makes a case for plants. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are not in charge of anything in this world. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are only players in a larger scheme, acting in some cases, being acted upon in others. Among his examples is corn (which, by the way, is the largest member of the grass family, the same grass that you mow and feed). I won’t go into a summary of this talk (and you can watch it below), but it got me thinking about a couple of things: baseball and the 2016 presidential election.



There is no need for me to elaborate on the 2016 presidential election. Mark Twain said that the truth was stranger than fiction because fiction is required to stick to the possibilities, and the truth isn’t. Trying to unpack that sentiment in the shadow of this year’s election cycle is like trying to convince a monkey that a black hole can fix a flat tire. Fiction writers must create believability in order to validate the suspension of disbelief, a paradox that the truth is free from. The truth simply is.

We like to think that we live in a participatory democracy, and that we can control the outcome. But are we simply dupes in the political process in the same way that Michael Pollan argues that we are dupes to the grasses? How do we know what we know? Are we doing what we have been told to do and “listening to our consciences”? If so, where does the voice of that conscience come from? Of course: it comes from us, meaning that it will tell us whatever we want to hear. Talk about an unreliable narrator.

And really, shouldn’t we be thinking about baseball now?

Baseball endures. And this year, baseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a Salvador Dali painting come to life. And having gone through its own pornification with the rise of the Steroid Era, baseball seems poised to return to its pastoral strength of character. With that in mind, here are a few ways baseball can help us bridge what is sure to be a divisive, sensational, and regrettable summer (but only if we allow it):

·      Pace. Baseball has a pace and nobody knows what it is because it can’t be measured. Despite the introduction in the last couple of years of rules designed to speed up the pace of play, baseball resists this, asserting its own notion of time. The time it takes to play a game is only known after the game is complete, which reflects life itself. Play unfolds according to a million variations on a note, the bounce of a ball one inch either way, nothing knowable. The languid spaces between plays are pregnant with potential, deserving of our attention, demanding that we unplug and allow our minds to swell with the emptiness of the world between proton and electron, between center field and left field, between generations.

·      Technology. “This is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Or so says the manager of the Durham Bulls, Joe Riggins, in Bull Durham. All the advances in baseball have come around it, not necessarily in it. The game is still played with leather and ash wood, on dirt and grass. It doesn’t need electricity, and it doesn’t need lines of code. For this reason it is accessible to little children and old folks alike. Not only does baseball not need technology, it offers a respite from it. All you have to do is watch the players throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball.

·      Individuality. The American landscape resembles a colony of seal pups in 2016, each bleating desperately to be heard: Look at me, I’m on Facebook and everything is fantabulous!; I’m right about everything, just ask me!; I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to! But baseball offers true individuality, not the contrived kind held together by electrical impulses. Each player occupies a unique position, distinct from the rest; and each player is unique inside the baseball uniform. Baseball thrives on individual personalities, and an ensemble cast that doesn’t appear to work together. Yet their actions become a concert, their effect a symphony.

·      Peace. Our world is under assault from noise. The soundbites of the election, the racket from popup ads, the cries of the anguished and the upset and the vaguely pissed off fill our ears. The cacophony is crippling. Contrast that to a baseball game. Even in a crowded stadium, the burble of the crowd is low-frequency; the crack of the bat is still audible, the thumping of feet beating down the first base line is clear, and the smack of the ball into the leather mitt snaps across the diamond.

·      Community. Baseball brings individuals together to create the most important denominator of our lives: community. The players gather as individuals, and become a team, a unit. The team draws the individuals who surround and support it, creating a community. It is a game that allows conversation, and conversation creates community. The community is a dynamic thing, swelling one day, ebbing the next. Its constant is baseball because baseball offers breath, and in breath there is life.

·      The Meaning of Life. In Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” (from the film The Meaning of Life), there’s a line that could describe our situation aptly:

     Is life just a game where we make up the rules?
     While we're searching for something to say
     Or are we just simply spiraling coils
     Of self-replicating DNA?

Baseball feels like the rules are made up as the game goes, but it’s regulated by experience and history. This year feels like there are no rules left. It’s tempting to throw in with the mayhem, to jump on the pornification bandwagon and go down swinging. Instead, go watch some baseball and rediscover another kind of swinging, the kind that floats in over the AM radio, the kind that smells like popcorn and grass, the kind the reflects who we really are, not who we think we need to be.