Monday, February 22, 2010

Innkeeping and Advice

In the Winter 2010 issue of Innkeeping Quarterly, Professional Association of Innkeepers International President and CEO Jay Karen, in his Key Notes column titled “Your Customer Base is Changing—Are You?”, implores innkeepers to target the Generation X demographic and forget about all the other groups out there. Mr. Karen writes, “I contend that innkeepers need to pay attention to the feedback of your Gen X customers more than all others.” He also states that innkeepers should “alter [their] business to accommodate the needs, wants and tastes of the rising customer base.” Mr. Karen begins the column with broad assumptions about innkeepers that aren’t necessarily false, but don’t reflect the myriad reasons or purposes people choose to become innkeepers: “Most innkeepers like to craft their B&Bs in their own image.” Mr. Karen also believes that the majority of innkeepers he meets are Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964.

Aside from the broad and sweeping language that Mr. Karen founds his arguments on, a closer look reveals the fault in his reasoning. The first is that innkeepers “craft” their inns in their own image. Anyone who has been around the business of innkeeping can honestly say that the opposite is true: innkeepers probably craft their inns in an image they dream for themselves more than anything else. Innkeepers are nothing if not pretentious. Modern innkeeping has become a vain contest to see who can spend the most money on affectation and costly minutia. Add-ons and accoutrements weigh down innkeeping, obscuring the true nature of the innkeepers from the traveling public. If lodgers really knew who their innkeepers were, it’s unlikely they’d stay with them.

Further, there’s no empirical evidence showing that innkeepers either “craft their B&Bs in their own image,” or that they’re mostly Baby Boomers who market to mostly Baby Boomers—if there are such data, Mr. Karen doesn’t mention them.

The column leaves the reader with an unpleasant truth: If innkeepers are contriving to create inns that don’t necessarily represent who they are as business people, then travelers are buying a contrived image created to separate them from their money. And who wants to do business with someone who is selling a contrived image? Perhaps someone who has a contrived image of themselves.

Neither is there any evidence offered to support the column’s thesis, namely that you need to change your business in order to succeed. All businesses change to meet the demands of the marketplace, but not all businesses are B&Bs. Small mom & pop operations need to beware of corporate groupthink. The small innkeeper has only him or herself to offer, not shelves full of antiques, or iPod docking stations. One innkeeper expressed this neatly when he said, “People don’t come here for the stuffed French toast, they come here for me! They like the service I offer, the personality I give them—I’m the show!”

Innkeepers should pay attention to the feedback of all their guests, and they should closely examine the feedback for objectivity. If a guest says the toilet didn’t work, that’s important. If someone says their experience could have been enhanced by an Internet-ready flat screen television in the room, it might be wise to pause and do a quick cost-benefit analysis before charging out and hemorrhaging money.

Advice of the kind found in Mr. Karen’s column suffers from a twofold problem. First, it’s reactive, not proactive. Trying to identify trends means always being behind the trends. What’s hip today is outdated or even impractical tomorrow. The only way out of the trap is to spend more money, until finally there’s no more money to spend. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been a good idea, and as we’ve all seen recently, the Joneses were overspending.

Second, by urging innkeepers to identify themselves as hungry businesses subservient to market interests, Mr. Karen leads innkeepers into folly. That’s because innkeeping, like the rest of the travel industry, isn’t real. It’s ephemeral, existing only in the electric synapses of the minds of unseen and unknown human beings. As soon as people stop thinking about travel, it goes away. And when the notion of traveling goes away, what are we left with? The building. In other words, the real estate, which is the heart of any inn. More than anything else, innkeeping is a real estate game. The business can be inflated and embellished, then sold to the next aspiring innkeeper, but the building holds the real value.

If innkeepers are seeking success, they’d do well to remember that people identify and appreciate honesty, and they’ll reward that in the long run. If innkeepers chase money through fads, it won’t matter how well they market to whatever demographic they’re told holds the key to their success, because they’ll end up looking like people who are trying to be something they’re not. Be yourself; you’re the show.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mid-Winter Blues & Reds

Whatever you call it--Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Imbolc, St. Brigid's Day--we find ourselves roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. From a glass-is-half-full perspective, that means that the days are getting longer, and, as my father was fond of saying on the rare sunny day in Boston during the month of February, winter's back is broken. That means that no matter how bad the weather gets over the next three months (calendar, schmalendar, winter ain't over around here until the middle of May), it won't seem as bad as it was back in the dark days of December, or the lonely, endlessly frigid nights of January.

Fortunately, the owners and guests of the Auberge have evolved a truly civilized way of dealing with the dark winter blues: reds. That is to say reds in the guise of Zinfandels, Cabernets, Beaujolais, and Bordeaux. Huddling around the woodstove on Friday nights, welcoming check-ins, has become de rigeur, drawing huge crowds of locals hell bent on laughing the winter away. There are other techniques.

I've taken to telemark skiing, a subject I've discussed in this space earlier. A few weeks ago I upgraded some of my gear to a set of lovingly broken in K2 World Piste boards mounted with Rottefella R8 Cobra bindings. So far, so good, but I'm seriously in the market for a pair of slightly used boots, say, some Garmont Syner-Gs? Mondo size 28.5? Will trade one room night for said boots.

Finding decent telemark gear around here is tough, and that should tell you a couple of things. First, the sport is wildly popular and growing more so each year. Second, people tend to hold on to their gear. And third, the stuff is expensive, so anything that pops up on the Craigslist market is snatched up quickly.

From the glass-is-half-empty point of view, winter will soon be on the wane, so I've got to get my days in on the mountain whenever I can. This morning I was up there at 0815, working my new tele gear. After the groomers had laid down a patch of corduroy last night, an inch of snow covered the trails with angelic baby powder. The result was sexy-smooth trails that were uber-stable, while giving you the feeling you were ripping up some deep freshies. It was like getting away with __________ (fill in your favorite naughty thing here).

President's Day Weekend is full, but come up and join us for the aforementioned fireside chats the following weekend. And if you're a loyal Auberge follower, you're already on our dump list, which is better than it sounds: whenever we get a fresh dump of powder, we'll email you a dump alert. Cheers.