By Michael Levin
You and your spouse enjoy a marvelous stay at a lovely, charming in with absolutely
perfect service. The room is delightful, the breakfast is delicious, and everything goes
right. And then the two of you have an idea.
What if we became innkeepers ourselves?
The idea comes up more often than you might think, says Jeff Bell, owner and operator
of the lovely, historic, and charming The Inn At Stockbridge, nestled in the Berkshire
hills of Western Massachusetts.
“Couples with a combination of career success and career dissatisfaction are often
subject to this urge, to start an inn of their own,” Bell says. But he advises couples to
look carefully before they leap.
“My wife and I were IT professionals for many years,” he says. “When we stayed at an
exquisitely well-managed inn in Savannah, Georgia, we came away from the experience
thinking that it might be fun for the two of us to try our hand at innkeeping.”
Bell says that rather than simply jump in, he and his wife went to see a Vermont
consultant, who not only knew inns—she was also a psychiatrist who knew couples.
“The wonderful thing about our initial conversations with her,” Bell recalls, “was that
she could easily tell whether we were the sort of couple who could ‘make it’ as
innkeepers. It’s not for everyone. Fortunately, we passed the test, and then eventually
we bought this place.”
Most couples, Bell says, who get out of their old professions and get into innkeeping
enter this new field with their eyes wide shut.
“It seems like a delightful thing to do,” Bell laughs. “Welcoming guests, being the
sociable host. But there’s so many pitfalls for the unwary that you really have to think
very carefully before you make the move. We thought about it for a full decade before
Bell offers the following tips to anyone thinking about innkeeping: first and foremost,
buy an already established inn.
Converting any sort of building into an inn is an incredibly expensive proposition, Bell
“If you buy a place,” he says, “even if it isn’t great, you have the cashflow from current
guests so that you can pay to redo the place to your liking. Otherwise, you will be going
deeply into debt in the first couple of years, and you may not reemerge from that debt.
Many innkeepers who convert buildings into inns end up having to sell, often at a huge
Two: Buy a place with a long enough season.
“In Bar Harbor, Maine,” Bell says, “There are 40 inns open during the four-month
summer season, and only four that stay open during the winter. That’s eight months a
year with no income and bad weather battling your physical plant. Go where the season
Three: Don’t buy an inn with less than eight rooms.
“Smaller places may seem easy to manage and maintain,” Bell counsels. “But unless you
have at least eight rooms, you won’t be able to cashflow, and ultimately, you won’t be
able to keep the doors open. You need the working capital from at least eight rooms to
make a go of it.”
Four: Be prepared to go without sleep.
During the six-month peak summer and fall season, Bell says, he only gets about four
hours of sleep a night.
“If you can’t handle that little sleep,” Bell says, “you will definitely not enjoy
Five: There’s clean…and then there’s clean.
“Human beings emit oil from their skin just as we walk around,” Bell says. “This oil
tends to land on lightbulbs, and when the next person turns on the light in a room, the
prior guest’s oils heat up and disperse around the room. If you aren’t prepared to clean
lightbulbs, along with everything else that you’re going to have to clean constantly, you
won’t be creating the sort of environment that your guests will expect.
“In other words, the whole thing is far much more work than you can imagine.”
If you want to see an inn done right, spend a night at The Inn At Stockbridge. The
location is less than 15 minutes from Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum,
Canyon Ranch, several theatre companies, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and the
restaurants of “downtown” Stockbridge, Lee, and Lenox.
While at the inn, Bell will be happy to answer your questions. In the end, it may simply
be a lot more pleasurable to be a guest than to become mine host.