Michelle and Mark London have been working double time for the last year as newly inducted innkeepers for two Texas inns – Belle Oaks Inn and Boothe House Bed & Breakfast, both located in Gonzales, TX.
Michelle, who spent many years as a harried journalist in Chicago, realized she had a knack and desire to find a new career in the hospitality and guest services industry. Finding a job as an event planner in Chicago for two years, she was devastated when the economic crash left her without her dream job.
Not letting her layoff stop her from reaching her dreams, she decided to go back to school – culinary school where she specialized in culinary and hospitality management. After completing school, she began networking on every B&B/innkeeping forum she could find.
It was through that networking that she met Clint Hille and Richard Tiller, owners of the existing Belle Oaks Inn and the newly acquired Boothe House which opened in November 2011.
This Old House magazine names the Best Old House Neighborhoods and I nominated Gonzales in the Fall. It actually was chosen as the best old house neighborhood in Texas for this year.
“The owners wanted more flexibility, but didn’t want to give up the fun of being B&B owners,” she said. “We were very lucky in that Richard and Clint were great mentors. They saw talent and potential in us even though we didn’t have solid experience in the B&B industry. It has been incredible. Plus we are in a part of the country that we really love.”
Michelle and Mark live at Boothe House and Richard and Clint reside at Belle Oaks, she said, but Michelle and Mark manage both properties that are, luckily, only three blocks apart.
Belle Oaks is a stately 1912 Greek revival mansion set on 2 acres of lush gardens including a pool and pond with koi fish. The interior is rich with an amazing collection of furniture and collectibles. It’s elegant and is about 9,000 square feet of space. There are four rooms in the main house and a 2-bedroom Carriage House in the back. “It’s a very peaceful atmosphere. Very much like ‘Gone with the Wind,’” she said.
Boothe House is a sophisticated 1913 Colonial mansion that has an open floor plan, unusual for the homes of that ear. The home’s details include three fireplaces downstairs, an atrium on the main floor, original leaded glass, windows that are just huge. “It is very light and bright.” There is also a pool and a cottage in the back.
“We encourage guests to check out both properties,” Michelle said. “We have a lot of repeat guests at both houses how have a favorite.”
Q: How long have you been in business?
A: Almost a year as innkeepers. Belle Oaks has been in business for 10 years. Boothe House just opened in November. That was an amazing opportunity for us – helping with the restoration and help launch (Boothe House). It was beyond our wildest dreams to be able to come on board as innkeepers, but to help get one off the ground? Just amazing.
Q: What is your signature Breakfast?
A: Our signature is usually some kind of egg casserole or quiche. The Orange Pecan Bread – we make at least 4 times a week. It’s difficult to do a sit-down breakfast bouncing between two properties. Today I’m making a bacon and green onion tart. We’ll serve that with fruit and that Orange Pecan Bread. And we always offer yogurts, cereals, fruits, served buffet style. Guests just come as they like.
Q: Where are the majority of your visitors from?
A: They’re coming from Austin, San Antonio and Houston. Gonzales also has a rodeo arena so there are several times a summer when rodeo events are held here, so we have a lot of guests. For example, there is a bull-riding event and the judges will be staying with us.
We do get quite a few from surrounding states – adjoining states like Oklahoma and Louisiana and even North Carolina. As for pleasure guests, I think there has been a decrease in that.
Q: What’s the best thing you’ve done for your business?
A: One of the best things that I have done is we joined an email mailing list system where I can go online and create emails and send them out to all of our guests.
Quarterly we’ll send something out. We had a Valentine’s dinner – not something we typically do – we sold out. Email blasts are something new and it’s really paid off. We’ve seen results from it.
Q: Biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
A: Just simply taking take of 15,000 square feet of space when it’s not all in one place. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I need a golf cart. Our housekeeper is in once a week to take care of the heavy stuff – vacuuming, dusting. Otherwise it’s me flipping the rooms between guests. Sometimes I just run out of hours in a day.
Today is a good day because we’re full, but nobody is leaving. Kind of an easy day. Harder days are when everyone leaves en mass and I have rooms I need to flip and new guests arriving. I realized I’m not Superwoman and I just take it one room at a time. No two days are ever the same.
Q: Biggest lessons you’ve learned in the industry?
A: Not everybody is a good person. The guests are amazing and wonderful, but sometimes there are some people you just can’t make happy. Luckily I’ve only had one of those. She had stayed at the B&B before. Loved Richard to pieces. She came back three years later and things had changed and she didn’t like that. The innkeeper wasn’t the same. The breakfast was different. There was just no pleasing her. And it was hard. Luckily Richard and Clint were understanding that this was just someone we were just not going to please.
Another lesson has been planning ahead. But then you have to be flexible. You have to be a planner but you have to be flexible too.
Q: What motto do you live by?
A: Think positive. I think that’s probably my motto. You can make something out of even the worst situation if you just think positive.
Q: What’s unique about your inns?
I like that the pedigree of both houses is really well known. People will always ask, “Can you tell me about the history of this house?” You bet we can, back to when the house was built. I think that’s really unique. I like that the pedigree of both the houses is really well documented.
Q: What would you do all over if you had a time machine?
A: I probably would have started this process a lot sooner. We have fallen into innkeeping and I find myself in mid-life working 12-14 hour days and not even realizing it. To me, that’s a sign that you’ve truly found your passion. I had always love B&Bs and have always stayed in them, but the thought of running one had never crossed my mind.
The owners wanted more flexibility, but didn’t want to give up the fun of being B&B owners. We were very lucky in that Richard and Clint were great mentors. They saw talent and potential in us even though we didn’t have solid experience in the B&B industry. It has been incredible. Plus we are in a part of the country that we really love.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time when not at work?
A: I do gardening, which is a bit of a new thing for me, but we have some beautiful gardens. I have an herb garden that’s new and I’ve been using the herbs in our breakfast items. I just picked my first cherry tomatoes off the plants I grew from seeds.
I read a lot. And because we’re in a new state and a new town, we try and get out. See the sights and do the things available in the area. There isn’t a whole heckva lot of free time, but we do take advantage. A lot of the time, what we really like to do, is just take a nap.
Husband is the groundskeeper. Definitely a full-time job. There’s still a lot to do. Still bowls some of the regional tournaments in the area. Still nice that he’s able to do that once in a while.
Q: Any little known facts about your property or your town?
A: There is a story floating around that Belle Oaks was originally built by the Dillworth family. When stock market crashed in ’29. Mr. Dillworth and his brother, who ran the bank, closed the bank before anybody could get their money out. Story is the customers stormed the house and Mr. Dillworth was hiding up the in attic.
This Old House magazine names the Best Old House Neighborhoods and I nominated Gonzales in the Fall. It actually was chosen as the best old house neighborhood in Texas for this year. There’s like 70 restored homes that were built between 1880 and 1926 and there are many homes waiting for people to do something like that.
Did You Know?
Gonzales, Texas is known as the town where the fight for Texas liberty began. The first shot in the fight beginning in 1835 rang out through the town. Gonzales is also known for the numerous stately mansions in the area. In fact, there are walking and driving tours of the downtown historic district.
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