Trade your booking calendar, lengthy to-do list and chef’s hat for a juicy summer read, roadmap and sun hat. A vacation, although seemingly impossible with your bustling schedule, can actually be a reality.
With the help of interim innkeepers vacations for harried bed & breakfast owners and managers are possible. For the past 12 years, Jim and Susan Bickelhaupt, through their company InnAssist have served as the relief staff for 32 different inns throughout the southeastern states, allowing dozens of overworked innkeepers to escape on much-needed getaways.
“We’ve been inn-goers for years, just as guests,” said Jim in a recent phone interview while he was enjoying a break from his full schedule of innsitting assignments. But it wasn’t until a long 15-month stay at a North Carolina inn where Jim established a semi-permanent residence, that he and Susan actually stepped into the interim-innkeeper role.
While working on a consulting job in Siler City, N.C., Jim set up residence at A Bed and Breakfast at Laurel Ridge for just over a year. Naturally developing a close relationship with the innkeepers, Jim often gave the couple occasional nights off or allowed them to sleep while he took over the baking of cookies or breakfast duties.
We’ve had many innsitters say, ‘Oh we’d love to sit for your inn. It would be a great vacation for us.’ The phone has to be answered all the time. If you don’t answer the phone and it was a reservation, they’ve likely called another inn.
One weekend, when Susan was visiting Jim, the couple was enjoying dinner with the innkeepers when conversation turned to the idea of the Bickelhaupts eventually buying an inn. “No, we don’t want to take our life savings and put it into an inn,” said Jim as he recalled the evening. “They kind of laughed a little bit then said, ‘We want to go to Australia and New Zealand and we’d like you to take over the inn for three weeks.’”
Ready for the challenge, Jim took over weekday duties and Susan would visit on the weekends and take over those days’ responsibilities.
It didn’t take long for the couple to realize they were on to a great business venture. After further research, completing classes on innsitting offered through PAII and multiple certifications for ServSafe, CPR, AED and First Aid, the couple became official PAII Certified Interim Innkeepers in 2003.
Since that first innsitting experience, Jim and Susan quickly amassed more than 30 inns that became repeat clients. Throughout the past 12 years, that number has decreased to a more manageable 10 inns, keeping the Bickelhaupts busy for half the year. “We won’t do more than 180 days a year. It’s all through the year. Even in January, February and December. The bulk is in the Spring and Fall. June and July have been our slack months which is great for us since the grandkids are out of school.”
Innsitting Begins with Homework
When a potential client contacts Jim and Susan, they are quick to do their research on the inn. “As soon as the call comes in, we are on the internet learning about the inn,” Jim said. “We are pretty picky. We’ve turned down some inns that don’t match up to our specifications.”
Jim and Susan were interested in learning about the inn. They were interviewing us as much about the inn as we were interviewing them.
Those specifications include the size of the inn, the activity level involved in maintaining the inn and occupancy level. “We go for the 7- to 10-room inns. We’d rather have a full house of 7 to 10 rooms than an empty house of any size,” he said. “We look for inns that have an activity level that matches ours.” This high-energy couple jokes that they “get up in the morning and don’t sit down until we collapse in the evening.”
Part of their research often involves an on-site visit. “We try to visit the inn before we make a decision, but that has been difficult these days.” When they can’t wander the property, they are sure to read reviews on Trip Advisor, Yelp, BnBFinder and other travel sites to get a feel for what the people are saying about the property.
Innkeeping by the Book
Being particularly detail-oriented, Jim and Susan create an operations manual for every single inn they visit. That manual is either composed through multiple phone calls, or ideally through that first on-site visit.
While at the property, Jim and Susan job shadow the owners/innkeepers. “We really learn the inn,” he said. “We go in and spend between 2 to 3 hours.” The couple will split up and working off a 7-page list of questions Susan will learn about the kitchen, menu and booking system while Jim researches where the gas shut-off and electrical boxes are located among other necessities.
After their initial visit the couple returns home to create that operations manual – one individualized for every inn, outlining the morning routine, breakfast routine, what they serve, how long they hold the kitchen open, check-in and check-out details, discounts and much more. That manual is then continually updated with every return visit. “That manual gives us a real refresher course right off the bat,” he said.
David Darugh and his wife Gayle, owners of Beachwood Inn in Clayton, GA., have been clients of the Bickelhaupts for the past 10 years. Allowing these Georgia innkeepers to take a relaxing vacation has been invaluable. “It means a lot to us,” David said. “We can turn over the keys, turn over the cell phone and probably not get a call from them in two weeks.”
We go for the 7- to 10-room inns. We’d rather have a full house of 7 to 10 rooms than an empty house of any size. We look for inns that have an activity level that matches ours.
Before finding the Bickelhaupts, David said they tried several different innkeepers, from a niece to family friends. “All of those didn’t prove successful.” It wasn’t until the Beachwood Inn received an email from InnAssist, sent out to all Select Registry innkeepers, that they felt they’d found a professional, certified couple they could trust with their inn.
“Jim and Susan were interested in learning about the inn,” David said. “They were interviewing us as much about the inn as we were interviewing them.”
Interim Innkeeper Interview Process
Both Jim and David offered up several things to consider when looking to hire interim innkeepers:
- First thing to consider when planning for an interim innkeeper is the sitter’s availability. For instance, The Bickelhaupts’ calendar for 2013 is 80% booked already. “We still have to plan our vacations two years in advance,” said David. “It’s not spontaneous. And they have lots of inns that want them because they are so good.”
- Be sure and meet your innsitters face-to-face prior to hiring them. Spend time with them.
- Personality accounts for a great deal of innkeeping. Make sure the personalities of your innsitters match with the personality of your inn and that of your guests. “You need to find a good fit for the personality of your inn. Susan is a former caterer and Jim’s a great chit-chatter with people,” said David. “It’s very important so that your inn doesn’t get out of whack.”
- Energy level is a huge factor. Caring for an inn is more than a full-time job. It’s a 24/7 job and a high-energy innsitter is vital for creating a seamless transition.
- Experience. Be sure to choose innsitters who have a wide range of experience. A rookie interim innkeeper might not be able to handle a10-bedroom inn during a high-occupancy month.
- Accountability. Innsitters will ultimately be responsible for handling the day-to-day expenditures for your bed & breakfast, so there is a large amount of trust involved in hiring a temporary replacement. “We don’t let them in to our Quickbooks, but we leave them, say $800 in cash,” David said. “They report back with grocery receipts and even plumber bills. They account for all their money.”
- A solid, hard working attitude is also key to keeping your inn running smoothly while you’re vacationing. “We’ve had many innsitters say, ‘Oh we’d love to sit for your inn. It would be a great vacation for us.’” David said. That kind of attitude, however, doesn’t work. “The phone has to be answered all the time. If you don’t answer the phone and it was a reservation, they’ve likely called another inn.”
- After you return, be sure to check reviews from Trip Advisor and BnBFinder and feedback from your regulars for how the innsitters were received. “Our housekeeper is going to be here cleaning rooms for them and for us,” David said. “She is a good weather vane for how they are treating our inn … our spy.”
- How will they care for your inn’s pets? “Pets are never a charge,” Jim said. “W love cats and dogs. We even took care of a goat one time.”
- When you have found the perfect innsitters, be sure and continue building the relationship. The Darughs have been able to rely on Jim and Susan for the past 10 years and wouldn’t be innkeepers without them. “When they retire, we’re selling the inn,” David said. “When they were thinking of retiring we started interviewing, and boy, we didn’t find any that came up to the standard that Jim and Susan have set for us.”
Where to Find Interim Innkeepers
For more information on locating an innsitter in your region, the best resource is InterimInnkeepers.net. On this site you will find dozens of traveling innkeepers, links to their websites, availability calendars and client and guest reviews.
For more information on Jim and Susan Bickelhaupt, contact them through their website here.