Making the leap from electrical engineer to innkeeper might seem like a stretch to some people, but not to Shelley Nobile, 34, proprietor of the Deacon Timothy Pratt Bed & Breakfast in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. For her, it made perfect sense. While working on submarine and surface ships for the Navy, Nobile fell in love with the Colonial architecture that punctuates the towns along the Long Island Sound.

"My work as an engineer was challenging, but I wanted to do something I was really passionate about," she says. The B&B she started in 1995 proved to be just the thing. Combining her interests in antiquing, decorating and entertaining, Nobile now makes a living doing what she loves best.

She's hardly alone. The inn industry has never been stronger. There are about 25,000 B&Bs operating in the United States today, compared with 1,000 in 1980, according to Pat Hardy, co-executive director of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII).

No Lace, Please

If you think of doilies and homemade bran muffins when you think of B&Bs, think again. You haven't been to a B&B in a while. No doubt the old stereotype is out there somewhere, but the current trend is decidedly modern and upscale.

"Don't even think about opening a place without private baths," warns Bobbi Zane, founder of Yellow Brick Road, a newsletter for prospective innkeepers, that she publishes in Julian, California. That's a bare minimum. In fact, rated among the top amenities by guests are hot tubs, fireplaces, quiet ambience and privacy. Things formerly unheard of in B&Bs, like private telephones and fax machines, are becoming available to business travelers as well.

Sound a lot like a hotel? Well, not quite. "Travelers want a place where they aren't just a room number," says Hardy.

Providing conveniences while keeping your inn charming isn't easy. Just ask Ted Kidwell, 39, and his wife, Eva, 31, who together opened an eight-room B&B, The Weller House Inn, in 1998. He logs 90-hour workweeks--"and that's during the weeks I actually sleep," laughs the Ft. Bragg, California, entrepreneur.

He's not exaggerating. According to PAII, innkeepers spend an average of 42 hours a week on innkeeping tasks, even when they have hired help. Those who go it alone are kept busy well over 100 hours each week.

"It's a lot of hard work," agrees Bruce Libowitz, 33, who with his wife, Anne, 35, launched The Inn On Crescent Lake in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, in 1996. "You're always `on.'"

"Usually when people first open, they do all the work themselves, except during the busiest season, when it's impossible," says Hardy. "Then, as the years go on and they become more successful, they begin hiring staff to help out year-round."

To get an idea of the time involved, consider just one aspect of innkeeping--the housekeeping. "It takes about 45 minutes to clean a room properly," says Zane. "Now multiply that by six or eight rooms."

The Good Life

While innkeeping is hard work, it does provide a lifestyle that might otherwise be impossible. Take the Libowitzes, who have an infant son. "There aren't many fathers who spend the whole day with their kids. I get to do that," says Bruce.

Spending time with their baby daughter also attracted Andrew and Liz Evans, 34 and 25, respectively, to innkeeping. The couple own The Inn at Easton, located on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "We got the idea to open an inn after the birth of our daughter," explains Andrew. "We both wanted to be home to raise her."

Increasingly, quality-of-life issues are attracting a new generation of innkeeper as more people step off the conveyor belt of conventional jobs at a younger age. "Family time in a family business is what makes [innkeeping] so appealing to younger people," Zane explains.

Even without children, owning a B&B enables you to meet new people and live in a beautiful home you might not otherwise be able to afford. "I love the lifestyle. You have to be an odd combination of homebody and people person, and that describes me," says Nobile.

But be prepared to sacrifice some privacy, adds Eva Kidwell. "If you're alone in the house, you can't even take a shower in case potential guests come by, or worse, an inspector."

Most innkeepers say lack of privacy and zero downtime are the biggest drawbacks. The solution? "You have to take time off," Nobile says. "Also be sure your living quarters are very separate from the guest quarters."

For Love And Money

Few innkeepers go into the business for the big bucks. Inns with fewer than six rooms find it hard to turn a profit, find some experts. The typical B&B grosses about $153,000 a year, while an inn (more rooms, dinner option) has revenues of about $343,000. But don't expect that immediately, Hardy cautions. For the first three years, the average innkeeper grosses just over $70,000 and nets less than $19,000, and even that number is calculated before paying the mortgage, the owner's draw, depreciation and income tax. Experts figure it this way: 73 percent of income usually goes to expenses, while the remaining 27 percent fills everything else.

That's one reason Nobile kept her day job for three years before going full time as an innkeeper in 1997. For most entrepreneurs, B&Bs are a part-time sideline. But that doesn't mean a full-time operation can't work. In fact, aside from Nobile, all the entrepreneurs we interviewed went directly into full-time ownership. "We turned a profit in one year," says Bruce Libowitz, "and we've been pleasantly surprised the second year: Business is up 60 percent over last year."

However, the rewards of innkeeping are more than financial. "We earn in the mid-five-figures, which is what we made before opening the inn," says Ted Kidwell, "but we are incalculably richer in our lifestyle."

Nobile agrees: "I'm doing something I really enjoy, so it doesn't seem like work--yet my income is now twice what it was as an electrical engineer."

The cost to enjoy this lifestyle? Start-up investments vary widely, depending on real estate values in your region. Suitable houses can be bought for as little as $40,000 or as much as a few million.

Buying a place that's already up and running gives you immediate cash flow. Existing businesses also have track records that help sell your plan to the bank. The downside: Initial expenses can be costly, with the average existing inn being more than $559,000.

That's why many first-time innkeepers buy houses that need rehabbing. Some B&B properties, if also used as primary residences, qualify for conventional mortgages.

"Banks know innkeepers tend to be responsible debtors," says Zane. "Lenders are very receptive to B&B loans these days."

While the norm is still 20 to 30 percent down, it's not a hard-and-fast rule. "All we could afford was 5 percent down [on a $500,000 property]," Liz Evans says. Though the couple did have to put up some stock as collateral for the first 12 months, the bank accepted the small down payment.

If the cost is still too high, consider getting a silent partner to help. Says Kidwell, "We couldn't have done it without our partner."

Fixing It Up

Once you've got your mortgage in place, there's still another hurdle to clear: renovation. While the Evanses, who bought their property in 1999, financed it through a local bank, a gap financing program run by the state provided the loan for rehab. "Without it, the bank probably wouldn't have given us the [mortgage], and we couldn't have opened the business," says Andrew.

Even with financing in place, renovation can hit your pocketbook hard. "It always costs more than you expect," Andrew adds. The Evanses hired experts for some of the work, like plaster and plumbing, but they stripped wallpaper, ran phone wire and did what Andrew calls "the nitpicky nitty-gritty" themselves to keep within budget.

The Kidwells also did most of the work on their property themselves. Ted, a former contractor, knew his way around a rehab, but he still had to hire a crew to assist with some of the renovations.

Likewise, the Libowitzes acted as their own general contractor. "I know more about septic systems than any sane person should," says Bruce. And because they were strapped for cash, the couple lived in the inn during renovations. "You have to have a very strong marriage," he jokes.

Because rehab always costs more and takes longer than expected, many innkeepers open only a few rooms at a time as the project moves along. To offset the costs of renovations and pay the mortgage, Nobile booked one bedroom at a time and kept her job as an electrical engineer. "I couldn't have afforded to pay for [the inn] if I hadn't," she says.

The Kidwells opened with four rooms initially. "We just kept the doors shut on the rooms that weren't done yet," Eva says.

Furnishing can also take a bite out of your budget. While decorating might seem like the fun part, if you haven't budgeted for it, it's no fun at all. The Evanses estimate they spent about $10,000 per room. To keep within budget, they often bought wholesale. Nobile couldn't afford high-end antiques, so she bought pieces that needed refurbishing, which she did herself.

Innkeeping is not for everyone. "We see people who aren't prepared to fail all the time," says Zane. "That's just the reality."

But there are also a lot of success stories. The proof is in the numbers: The industry is growing by 5 to 10 percent every year. What's the key to success? Hardy sums it up: "Provide what people want, and you'll have them coming back again and again."

Brain Food

Thinking about opening an inn? These resources can help:

Organizations/Courses:

Professional Association of Innkeepers International, http://www.paii.org

Bed & Breakfast Inns Online/INNkeeper INNformation, http://www.bbonline.com

The Innkeeping Internet Course, http://www.bbonline.com/innkeeper/consult.html

Consultants:

Oates & Bredfeldt; Brattleboro, Vermont; http://www.oatesbredfeldt.com

Publications:

Innkeeping newsletter ($85/year for non-PAII members; free for members), http://www.paii.org

Yellow Brick Road newsletter ($45/year), (800) 792-2632, http://www.yellowbrickroadnl.com

Books:

How to Start a Bed & Breakfast, Entrepreneur business start-up guide #1278, (Entrepreneur Media, $59, http://www.smallbizbooks.com)

Open Your Own Bed and Breakfast, by Barbara Notarius, Fredrick G. Harmon & Gail Sforza Brewer (John Wiley & Sons, $17.95)

So--You Want To Be An Innkeeper, by Mary E. Davies, Pat Hardy, Jo Ann M. Bell, & Susan Brown (Chronicle Books, $14.95)

The Upstart Guide to Owning and Managing a Bed & Breakfast, by Lisa Angowski Rogak (Upstart Publishing, $15.95).

B&Bs Online

The Internet is a strong marketing tool for B&Bs. Just ask Ted and Eva Kidwell, who say as much as 80 to 90 percent of their business comes from the Web. That may be because of their location in tech-savvy Northern California. However, industry-wide, 22 percent of all bookings come from the Net. That's up from 6 percent in 1996. In fact, 60 percent of all B&Bs now own an Internet domain name.

Where does the Internet bring in the most business? Here's the percentage of bookings that come from the Net in different regions:

Southeast: 28 percent

Northeast: 22 percent

West: 22 percent

Midwest: 17 percent

Source: 1998 B&B/Country Inn Industry Study, PAII

Chow Time

Don't skimp on breakfast. here's what B&Bs regularly serve their hungry patrons:

Fruit, juice and baked goods: 99 percent

Cheese and egg entrees: 90 percent

Waffles and pancakes: 87 percent

Source: 1998 B&B/Country Inn Industry Study, PAII http://www.wellerhouse.com


Andrea Poe is a freelance writer specializing in business issues. A nomad by nature, she's never met an inn she didn't like.