Wednesday, December 23, 2009

170 Breakfasts

This is what it comes down to; this is the essence of what we do. Three months before it happens, we fret about the pace of bookings. We commiserate with fellow innkeepers, lie to each other about our concerns, and wait. And when the Internet finally lights up, when the phone begins to ring, when the reservation book on the front desk is smeared with pencil scribblings, when the smells and tastes of another gut-busting Thanksgiving have receded, when the Mountain has been finally frosted with enough snow to set us all free, we realize how completely screwed we really are.

How are we going to serve all these people?

Chantal has evolved a mathematical, graphical way to solve this. It involves menu planning and strategic resupplying that make me thankful to have a wife with over 30 years of restaurant and hospitality service in her quiver.

This year, as we sat down and planned the Christmas and New Year's week menu (quick confession: I sipped wine, with a bemused look pasted to my face; Chantal simply thought out loud and worked with frightful speed and precision), it became obvious that we would be wildly busy--busy, in fact, to the tune of 170 breakfasts over ten days.

Numbers tend to pile up in any situation, and numbers can be manipulated, exaggerated, trimmed (in the sense of "trimming the Christmas tree"), and flipped in the service of the innkeeper's ego. For example, up until a few summers ago, when we placed a mandatory mid-summer break into our business plan, we could go from late June through the end of October without having a day off. That was a stretch of over 100 days of having at least one room rented out.

So while 170 breakfasts sounds like a lot, it's what we expect for this stretch. A lot of work? Yup. But we're just the innkeeper's for the job.

Now you'll have to excuse me; I've got a vat of coffee to brew.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Can You Breathe?

One of my fellow teachers at the Community College of Vermont offers a class called Introduction to Small Business. She and her husband own their own small business, and we've had many chats about the challenges and rewards of owning your own enterprise. I've often thought that I might like to go into her class and really shake the students up with the truth. But then I thought that she's competent enough to build balance into her classes; if she needs my point of view she can assign my blog as reading homework.

The subject of small business operation--especially as it relates to innkeeping--is one that I ponder often, for obvious reasons. What I try to do in this space is not just make our inn appealing to potential visitors, but to make our inn honest to potential visitors. Chantal and I feel that the desire to succeed in business, the desire to make money in order to have more things, or certain things, often leads people astray in their decision making.

In other words, my goal (our goal) is to be me. I'm trying to be me as best I can. But that's not necessarily the conventional business model, at least as I learned it growing up in the United States of America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The classic business model seemed to be, "Find something that people want, and sell it to them." People would try this, and then, around the time they turned 40 and got divorced and joined a 12-step program, that philosophy shifted to, "Find something you love to do, find out which people want that, and sell it to them."

Very few people know if they love to be innkeepers before they do it. Unless you've actually run another inn, there's no way to understand the nuance of what it takes. The rebuttal to that thought is that nobody ever knows how to do anything until they try it, and that's true. But with business failures exceeding even the divorce rate in this country, and with so much working against small business people, it's a wonder anyone tries. But try they do, and that's one of the great things about our country: we're adventurers.

But a business model that seeks to represent itself to others for the betterment of the owner somehow feels flawed. And yet, isn't that what business is? How could anything get done without that? I think there's a layer missing in the way many people approach being in business for themselves. Like the big corporations that serve themselves, many small business owners find themselves in a situation where they're serving their business, and not themselves. That is a dangerous place. Your business is you, not some tool to achieve fame and riches--especially innkeeping. If you can't serve yourself, you can't serve others.

This reminds me of the pre-flight speech flight attendants give. Passengers are shown how to use the drop down oxygen mask and told that if they're traveling with small children they should put the mask on themselves first, then put it on the child. This might seem counter-intuitive (especially in this age of helicopter parenting), but the point it this: you're no help to your child if you die because you can't breathe. And so it is with a small business: you're no good to your business or your customers if you aren't serving yourself.

I've watched over the years as innkeepers grope for the next bell or whistle that's going help them succeed. It seems like innkeepers are always looking for some new add-on to attract and keep guests: a new pool, a new guest coffee station, new televisions in the rooms, a gazebo out in the yard. To a certain extent, we innkeepers do have to update our product. But when do we reach the point of not updating with ourselves in mind? When that occurs, we've lost sight of what it means to be in business, and we've lost sight of who we are.

We've stopped breathing.