Monday, January 31, 2011

How Room 6 Got a Flatscreen TV

Some of our rooms have televisions in them; some of them don’t. How this happened is a long, organic tale.

In days of yore (November, 2000) when we became innkeepers, television was a topic that we didn’t want to talk about. The rooms at the Auberge came equipped with small black & white portable televisions that pulled in the analog signal beamed from the top of Mt. Mansfield. When we learned the cost of wiring the inn for cable television, we decided not to upgrade. Instead we decided position ourselves as a non-television oriented inn. Our focus would be on service, hospitality, and simplicity. Our low rates would reflect that. In a town where the race toward luxury was in full swing, we comfortably settled into the spot that would become our logline: “Stowe’s most affordable B&B.”

That didn’t mean that we would turn our backs on television; we just wouldn’t make it a cornerstone of our business model. People could watch all the television they wanted at home, we reasoned. In Stowe, the attractions were outside the door. There was a television in the common room, and when a fellow innkeeper sold some televisions to us, we added them to the downstairs rooms. These were nice color sets, but the big attraction for us was that they had built-in VHS players. Guests could borrow tapes from our modest VHS library and watch a movie if they wished.

This left the two upstairs rooms without televisions at all. Even though those rooms were more expensive than the downstairs rooms, nobody seemed to mind the lack of an idiot box. When digital television arrived, we bought some converters for the downstairs sets, but still we didn’t add television to the two upstairs rooms without them. At this point, ten years into our innkeeping lives, the decision was driven more by apathy than anything else.

This December, a couple stayed with us, and they were disappointed that there wasn’t a television in their room, one of the upstairs queen rooms. It’s happened before; usually we’re able to mollify them with a shrug and an explanation of our innkeeping philosophy. But that week the hot tub--which has been in the infirmary several times already this winter--conked out. Our guests were crushed; the outdoor hot tub was one of the reasons they stayed with us. No TV, no hot tub...what good were we?

That Saturday, after returning from shopping, Chantal plunked down a box on the dining room table. “It’s a TV,” she said. “A digital, flat-screen TV.” She’d bought it at one of the discount stores on sale. That afternoon I installed it in Room 6, in hopes that the couple staying there would at least accept the TV as a gesture on our part to make their stay a positive one. They never mentioned the television that bloomed from the wall in their bedroom that day, and we didn’t ask. And though we’re still not planning to wire the inn with satellite or cable and outfit the rooms with HD flatscreens, we’re one set closer to having every room equipped with a television.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Continuing Story of Beachcomber Bill

Avid B&B goers know the value a hot tub brings to their experience. Avid innkeepers know it, too. Over ten years ago, back at the dawn of our tenure as innkeepers, in the early, uncertain days of the Internet--when people actually used to call us and ask questions of the innkeepers before they booked a room--the number one question people used to ask us is, “Do you have a hot tub?” We did, but it was inside, in the back room, usurping valuable common space, and we knew we had to do something about its location because the next question inevitably was, “Is it outside?”

Outside we had just built a series of beautiful decks, one of them specifically reinforced to accept the weight of a hot tub fully loaded with water and happy guests. So after exhausting research we decided on a Beachcomber hot tub, because it was built in Canada and was filled with closed-cell insulation. We drove to St. Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec (the exchange rate was still favorable for us back then) and trailered back our hot tub.

For the past ten years, our Beachcomber has performed admirably. Mostly. There have been hiccups in the form of three pumps that I’ve replaced over the years, including the most recent one this summer (shaft seal leak). The first pump I had to replace (after only one year) was a learning experience. We’d shut the tub down for the summer because guests weren’t using it. That turned out to be a bad idea, because the pump seized from lack of use. Pump replaced, and the second one lasted several years.

Hot tub covers might seem innocuous to the general public, but it turns out that they require a lot of attention. They hold heat in, but they also take a beating from the elements: sun and rain and snow and sleet and falling maple leaves all conspire to degrade both the cover case, and the rigid styrofoam insulation within. There were several operations to replace the cover innards, then the cover case.

But this year we faced some more serious problems with the hot tub, who’s come to be known as Beachcomber Bill. After I replaced Bill’s pump this summer, one of his knife valves froze. There are two knife valves--guillotine shut offs that isolate the pump. That repair was beyond my skills, and we had to call in a pro, Marvin from Quality Pool and Spa. Marvin fixed Bill, but not more than a month later Bill developed a leak. There’s a little tube that runs from the main pipe exiting the pump over to a pressure switch in the heater. It uses water pressure and temperature to turn the heater on and off, and because the tube was so small, plaque built up inside and clogged it, like a artery next to a heart. Marvin was called again, and he performed a by-pass operation, running a new tube from another part of the main pipe over to the pressure switch. Beachcomber Bill was up and running again.

Then, just after New Year’s, Bill simply conked out. While doing my rounds early one morning, I discovered that Bill was silent. His pump wasn’t humming quietly, circulating 104 degree water where it needed to go. I called Marvin again, but he was out on the road, so I left a message. In the meantime, I called Beachcomber themselves, to see what replacing the heating and control unit would cost. Before we did that, the tech at Beachcomber asked me to open up the unit and do some diagnostics. So I bundled up and headed out onto the deck. Inside everything looked fine. I checked all the contacts, wiggling anything that looked loose. Then, for yucks, I flipped the switch, and Bill churned to life.

This is a good news/bad news situation. Good news because Bill’s cranking away again; bad news because I don’t really know what I did to get him back to normal, and if he conks out again I’m not sure I’ll be able to replicate my feat of repair. Essentially, though, this means that Bill’s days are numbered. Like any good asset, he’s been amortized--in Bill’s case that happened years ago. So if we can nurse him through the winter, we’ll shop for a replacement this spring. But we won’t relegate Bill to a landfill. We’ll haul him out onto the sidewalk and see if some enterprising Vermonter wants to take a chance on Bill and keep him running. Until then, Bill is accepting visitors for the rest of the winter.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Book Reports

Now that we’ve made it through Hell Week here at the Auberge--actually, it’s been more like Hell Two Weeks, and I feel kinda funny about referring to Christmas Week as Hell Week, but, you know, it’s been really, really busy--I thought I’d turn my attention to reading. Over the past couple of months I’ve ramped up my reading schedule, and I thought I’d share some of that with you now. So here are some of the books that have gotten my attention lately.

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. In a couple of weeks I’m teaching a creative writing workshop at the Stowe Free Library in Stowe, Vermont, and I thought I’d introduce screenwriting to the students. This is a little tricky for me because although I’ve written a couple of screenplays, I’ve never sold one, and I don’t consider it my strength. But my screenwriting buddy recommended this book, and it hasn’t been a disappointment. Blake Snyder walks the reader through a step-by-step process that teaches the structure of a screenplay. There is a very specific approach to screenwriting, and even if you never write a screenplay, the methods in this book are directly applicable to any kind of writing, because as I teach my students all the time, the most important thing to think of when you’re writing is structure, structure, structure.

The Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges. For almost a decade, Chris Hedges has bravely been confronting the myths and illusions that bathe America. He has correctly anticipated all the current woes our country is suffering, and his blistering indictment of corporate America’s stranglehold on our government gets a detailed treatment in this book. This is a densely written book that demands reflection and rumination. Along with Empire of Illusion and American Fascists, this book forms a trilogy that exposes the truth about what ails America.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. I finally got around to reading this book, even though it’s been around for fifteen years. This is another myth-exploding work of nonfiction, in which Diamond challenges the long-held assumption that people of European descent are somehow better than less fortunate cultures. He wants to know why some cultures have been more successful than others. What he finds is that accidents of geography behind the uneven cultural results we see today. In a long, complicated book that at times is stilted and obtuse (but nonetheless worth the effort), Diamond points to the development of technology and certain germs as results of agriculture that could only have blossomed in an east-west band of Eurasia, thus leading to the uneven world of today. Put your thinking cap on to read this one.

Happy reading. Please share your recent reads with me.