Monday, June 24, 2013

The Process

If you haven’t already figured it out, most of what I do in this blog involves trying to understand what it means to be an innkeeper. You might think that it’s easy to define the metier, but after almost fourteen years on the job, I’m no closer to achieving a satisfactory explanation. And that might be because innkeeping isn’t so much a thing as it is a process. Like most things in life, it is a series of actions that, viewed from a distance, form a whole product. Think of innkeeping like a car engine. If you’re an auto mechanic, you can identify the various systems that must interact for the vehicle to operate. If you’re an innkeeper, it all comes down to coffee.
Each summer, as we approach our longest stretch of uninterrupted business, from June through October, we steel ourselves for the constant grind of daily visitors, and prepare to give our welcoming speech several times a day. Accessing the big picture for us is crucial--we have to look at this as a process, or we’ll be swept away in the labor and separated from the love. So some reflection is in order.
We came to innkeeping without the customer in mind, the antithesis of the modern, boutique-hotel approach to innkeeping that requires a vision and a plan to “create memories” for visitors, as if memories wouldn’t exist without a credit card-hungry third party to help fabricate them. We came to innkeeping after cycling around the Ring of Kerry, where we were welcomed into simple homes, families, by people who understood the adjunct nature of innkeeping, that it was part of a thing, but not the thing. We came to innkeeping and thought it could be a part of our us, a way to live, a distinct system within the complex engine of our lives.
When the travelers showed up, we didn’t know what to do except say, “Welcome.” We learned that’s really the only thing we needed to know about innkeeping: “Welcome.” Thread counts, stuffed French toast, social media--it’s all irrelevant in the shadow of the welcome. Because, we learned, people really only want you. They really only want to talk to you, to get to know you a little, to listen to your stories, to learn something--to make an honest human connection, not a transaction--and then to move on. That connection gives life value, and we need it to survive. And that’s why when the first people walked through our doors, we said, “Welcome,” and became innkeepers.
In the movie Bull Durham, the team’s manager, Skip, becomes frustrated with his players, accusing them of being “lollygaggers.” He then explains their jobs to them: “This is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” The implication is that they’re over-complicating the process, focusing on the end instead of the means, and failing to recognize and master the elemental key to baseball. The same holds true for innkeeping; it’s a simple process: you make the coffee, you pour the coffee, you drink the coffee. Just as the ball is the object around which players have a discussion about the rules of baseball, coffee is the lubricant over which the innkeeper and the guest exchange information, thus completing the purpose of innkeeping: human interaction.
Last night I was speaking with someone who had been an innkeeper for fourteen years, and recently closed her doors, moving on to the next phase of her life. Next year will be our fourteenth year in this business; our youngest son will graduate from high school, and we’ll be forced to think about our own next phase. Will that include innkeeping, the process that has defined us for so long?
But that’s really not the point, is it? Because what we do isn’t about being innkeepers. It’s about being people; it’s about making those connections with people that nurture and sustain both parties. If we can’t do it as innkeepers, we’ll find another way--another process--to do it.