TO BE AN INNKEEPER by Syd Blackwell
In 1991, when I signed a new three year contract with the college to do research, I was informed it would be the last one offered. Fair enough notice. I had already been employed there six and a half years, longer than any other employment in my life. Near the end of the first year of that contract, I was invited to the president´s office. He told me he had received inquiries from presidents at two other colleges in Alberta who wondered if I would consider doing liaison work for them after my contract expired. I had been liaison coordinator at my college for four and a half years. I was impressed by their interest, but I had another idea.
I wanted to be an innkeeper.
Why? Now, more than thirty years later, the answer is still vague. When asked, my most consistent response was and is Fawlty Towers. The twelve episode British comedy series was a favourite, but the behaviours of innkeeper Basil Fawlty were hardly the stuff of a successful business. A better explanation is that I wanted to work for myself. Much of my work at the college had been in positions in which I was, more or less, my own boss. My supervisors lacked sufficient knowledge to do much more than monitor my results. I liked it. I wanted my contract to end my quarter century working in education. I was ready for the world of hospitality.
There were a few obstacles – no relevant education, no relevant experience, no idea of design, location, or size needed for a successful bed and breakfast inn, no idea of cost, not enough money, no idea how to do a business plan, no ideas on business financing, and, firstly and most importantly, selling the idea to my wife.
In June 1992, I told my wife about the two inquiries that promised further employment at a college. A good salary and future employment appealed to her. Then, I told her how much I did not want to return to liaison work with travelling again, and reporting to bosses more controlling than I had at my college. I quickly followed with, “I think we should build a bed-and-breakfast inn and be innkeepers.”
This was not well received. A look of incredulity was followed by an avalanche of questions – what? why? how? where? are you crazy? After more impassioned discussion, she left me with a challenge to show how we could overcome the obstacles. I think she expected I would, during the next two years of my contract, acknowledge that the obstacles were too great and the idea was impossible. I had already declined the informal offers and was eager to start researching.
Research in 1992 from a town of 3000 in northern Alberta was difficult. The internet had just begun using audio and video. “Surfing the internet” had become an idea, but Google was still six years away. However, the primitive internet was my best research tool.
I was not much concerned with my lack of relevant education and experience. Almost all the work I had done for the college, in four positions, was without previous experience or the normal educational requirements. I was willing to bet on myself. I had little appreciation at that moment of just how huge this gamble would be.
The most glaring problem was money. Although I had few answers yet, I was sure we would require a lot more money than we had. To borrow money I would need a business plan. There, my research began. It took a long time to gather information to attempt a first business plan. Of course, it was flawed by the lack of particulars, but at least I now had an idea of what it was and how it should be presented. The business plan would be rewritten a dozen times before it was presented.
The next concern was location. Alberta was unlikely. The majority of tourism occurs in the large national parks in the Rockies. Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise were already successful and under bureaucratically difficult parks administration. Costs would be extraordinary. Other tourism was not significant enough to warrant building an inn. I turned to British Columbia.
I made lists of qualities needed and to be avoided. Topping the needs list was adequate year-round traffic. Following were area attractions, available/affordable/suitable land, and a smaller community. Topping the avoidance list was big cities, followed by poor or mediocre property location, too many accommodation properties, and non-receptive civic government. It was a start.
If you eliminate Vancouver and Victoria, the search for sufficient year round traffic becomes limited to the Trans-Canada highway corridor that bisects the province, or the Okanagan valley, or the Kootenays, or Whistler. From these areas, a maximum of a dozen communities were identified. All this had been easy.
Next item was area attractions. What does that mean? Well, there simply have to be enough things for people to see or do that will cause them to stay one or more nights. And, things need to be available all year. In BC, this means multiple summer activities plus winter skiing with weaker but still existing fall and spring business. A quarter of the communities were eliminated and another quarter were limited.
I skipped land needs and addressed community size. The B&B inn would have to have enough rooms to survive. How many? I did not know but guessed eight rooms would be a minimum, regardless of location. At that time, no bed and breakfast operations of that size existed in BC. The accepted standards seemed to be three rooms or less. I had to sell a new vision. Well, at least new to BC. I thought about community size. The larger the community, the more bureaucracy that exists. I believed quite strongly that a smaller community would better serve the process.
When suitable property was considered, it was quickly apparent that at least a few communities were simply going to be too expensive. Any other land issues would require a visit to the community. I was not ready for that.
The only other item I could research was existing competition. The very complete annual BC Accommodation Guide issued by the provincial government allowed me to glean a wealth of information.
In a surprisingly short time there were just three cities, and properties in two of those were probably too expensive. While those two were not completely eliminated, the target city was Revelstoke.
I immediately subscribed to the Revelstoke newspaper. I was sure this weekly paper would give me insights into the community, real estate, existing businesses, personnel and workings of the civic government, and how the community viewed itself and its future.
Revelstoke is located on the Trans-Canada corridor, on the Columbia River, between the Monashee and Selkirk mountain ranges. It is naturally beautiful. It also had attractions. A paved road with viewpoints climbs directly from the busy highway up adjacent Mt. Revelstoke to the “Meadows In The Sky”, fields of summer wildflowers. At the top further trails lead to alpine lakes. The road and surrounding areas form Mt. Revelstoke National Park. Several other interpretive walking loops are in Glacier National Park, a few kilometers east towards Rogers Pass. The large Revelstoke Dam, just upriver from the city, provided excellent free tours. In the town, the newly opened Revelstoke Railway Museum, a natural for this once important railway center, provided immense promise of luring visitors. An attractive golf course flanked the Columbia River; a second mountain course was rumored. There was also a small ski hill in operation. However, much more importantly, a huge ski resort development seemed imminent. Revelstoke also had snowmobiling in winter with an entire mountain and several lesser areas dedicated to the activity. And, there were two heli-skiing companies and a backcountry ski touring operation already in business. The population was just under 10,000.
It was time to show my wife my work so far. Her reaction was a mixture of admiration and resignation. I had done a lot and not given up. However, she had no enthusiasm. She still could not share the vision. I had more work to do.
I spent the next few months on money acquisition and the business plan. I was gathering a wealth of local information from the Revelstoke Times Review. The size of building and number of rooms needed clarity. I now knew there were parcels of land in several parts of Revelstoke. The majority of accommodation properties, fast food restaurants and gas stations were strung along the Trans Canada highway. The downtown had considerably less traffic. While this was an issue, it ensured available and affordable land. A trip to Revelstoke to look for suitable land had to happen soon.
Early in 1993, my wife received an invitation to attend her 20th high school reunion in Victoria in the summer. She wanted to attend. We had not taken a big vacation in the summer of 1992. This was unusual. She confirmed her attendance, and we talked about enlarging the trip. She had relatives living near Grants Pass, Oregon, We soon decided that a visit to southern Oregon could end in Victoria. I was very excited with this development. I had never been to Oregon. We would stay in bed and breakfasts and it would be valuable research. We planned a route through the interior of BC, Washington and Oregon to Grants Pass and then up the Oregon and Washington coasts to the Olympic peninsula and a ferry to Victoria.
LET´S LOOK FOR LAND
We agreed that it was time to look at land. The project could not continue without the right property. My wife was a school librarian; her schedule was inflexible. I would go alone. I had already targeted a realtor through my newspaper readings. It would prove to be a good choice.
The realtor had only four properties to show me. He was well prepared. He explained small B&Bs were allowed on-street guest parking, but my inn (I told him ten rooms) required off-street parking. The first property was large, flat, and void of vegetation. It could easily handle an inn and parking. It was also the least expensive. However, it was too close to the highway and railway and not close enough to downtown or any attraction. I was not interested. The second property was also large enough but not a great location. It seemed possible. The third property overlooked the mighty Columbia with spectacular views of the Monashees. It was close to downtown. It wasn´t big enough for my inn with required parking. However, with eight rooms it might be possible. The realtor really believed I would only want the fourth property.
The block facing the magnificent historic Court House had a motel, with parking, that occupied the entire southern half. The northern half had two lots on the east and two lots on the west separated by a designated alley that was not and had never been an alley. The corner lot on the east had a Victorian house that was vacant and badly in need of repairs and restoration. The other lot was empty. The land sloped down from these higher properties through the non-existent alley and the two lower lots to the street on the west. It was overgrown with grass and brush and littered with garbage. There were also three large cedars, one near the corner and two near the motel. The entire block was owned by the motel owner. The unused portion was not currently listed for sale but the realtor knew that it had been for sale. The realtor was right, of course. I instantly saw all the possibilities for this property. It was just two blocks from the main road into Revelstoke and away from the train tracks. This ensured quiet with an extraordinary view. Downtown was a scenic ten minute walk away. I was excited.
I paced out the parking lot and realized the remaining space was very limited with just the two lots. However, if the designated alley could be included, there was enough room for everything. And what about the other two lots? Did they have to be purchased as well? Apparently the half block had been previously for sale as a whole package. We needed to talk to the owner. Before we did, the realtor explained that even if the owner was willing to sell just the part I wanted, it would require approval from City Hall. It would be an extraordinary request but as half the alley was under the motel and before that a brewery, that is, it was never an alley, he hoped the city could allow a re-parceling of the land.
The owner wanted to sell everything together. He invited us to tour the house. The house had once been quite elegant, but had not been maintained or used for a very long time. The biggest problem was the main floor was severely buckled, particularly near the kitchen. Something beneath had collapsed. The whole floor would have to be repaired or replaced. Was the rest of the building okay and strong enough? An engineering assessment would be needed. I had never thought about buying an existing building. I just wanted to construct a functional inn. The motel owner thought I could build my inn and use profits to restore and then rent out the house as an annex. Our resources would not allow such a grand plan. In short order, he agreed to sell the portion I needed. His price was high. Later, I would learn it was nearly twice what would have been assessment value. He knew I wanted this property. We made a tentative agreement pending city hall approval. I went home.
Approval came within a week. We had sufficient cash to pay for the land. We transferred the money. We were Revelstoke landowners. With this came a level of acceptance by my wife who remarked, we can always sell if plans don´t work out.
THE RESEARCH VACATION
We were always at our best when we travelled. This trip went very well. We carefully examined all the buildings where we stayed. All the bed and breakfast owners were willing to talk and answer questions. I filled a notebook with ideas and sketches. Most B&Bs were three rooms or less. However, one in Bend, Oregon, had eight rooms and had been specifically constructed to be a B&B inn, This was a good approximation of what I thought we could do. Also, the B&B in Sequim, Washington, had six rooms. By the time we arrived at the school reunion in Victoria my head was bulging with ideas.
DESIGNING AN INN
And my wife came to life. She was creative and artistic. The variety of buildings and stories from our vacation had an effect. She was interested in designing our building. And, for the first time in this process I felt I had a partner. This felt very good.
The first question was number of rooms. We started to think of some possible negatives. Although Revelstoke was attractive with many heritage homes and buildings, it did not draw large numbers of visitors from the highway. While this could be changed, it would take time. The ski resort project might be delayed. Also, we had limited ability to accommodate small touring groups. We thought about the possible revenue difference between eight and ten rooms. Ten seemed the right answer.
The other questions were discussed as well: how big do the rooms need to be; how many floors in the building; how do the dining room and kitchen work; guest lounge areas; location of private quarters; should any rooms be wheelchair accessible; do we need an elevator; decks and porches; height of ceilings; window locations and sizes; roof type; building style; fire escapes; owner parking; and more. And then it was time to draw.
We had decided on three floors and our goal was to create a plan view of each floor on graph paper so that we could keep all the proportions correct. The outside measurements were defined by the space necessary for the parking lot and the property perimeter. The building would be approximately 15.25 m x 18.25m (50 ft x 60 ft). Every guest room would have an en suite bathroom.
Weeks later, we had three floor plans. The bottom floor, more than half embedded in the ground, exposed only at the back and onto the parking lot, would contain the laundry room, the furnace room, the guest recreation room, two public toilets, a second owner bedroom and a large storage space. The second or main floor would have a lobby, a small reception office, two guest rooms, a wide corridor, the dining/living room, the kitchen, and the owners´ bedroom, bathroom, and small living room. The third floor had eight guest rooms and a service closet.
At the front was a wide veranda, wheelchair accessible from the owner´s parking space, and three steps up from the sidewalks. The back featured an upper deck the length of the building and a lower, wider and shorter deck. Finally there was a fire escape stairway on the east side of the building and a roofed entrance from the parking lot on the west.
Our plans needed to become blueprints. Also, we had not given much thought to the appearance of the outside of the building. We found an architectural drafting company that was very helpful. They could make blueprints from our drawings and they had ideas for the appearance. Their vision was black asphalt tiled roof, grey wood-shingled upper floor, white vinyl-sided main floor and river rocks on the visible portions of the bottom floor. With a few modifications, we accepted their exterior look and were happy with the blueprints.
We decided that every guest room would have a different design theme. We chose themes that had relevance to Revelstoke. Eventually, we had Grandma´s Room (Victorian), the Garden Room, The Columbia Room, The Nest, The Court Room, The Summit, The Powder Room, The Station, Woodlands, and Ranges. My wife was in her element, thinking of décor and colours for each. We were a long way from needing these decisions, and others like floor coverings, wall coverings and more, but her enthusiasm was much appreciated.
THE MONEY – NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON´T, NOW YOU…
I was ready to find some money. How much? Well, the project had become more defined. It seemed we would need a total of around $700,000 (approximately $1.5 million now). Most of this amount would be cash, but some of it would be things we already owned that could be used at the inn. We believed that if we liquidated everything we could not use, including our house, most of our furniture, all our investments and my pension plans, plus the land we already owned, we could amass about half the amount. Armed with my completed business plan, vetted by the financial advisor at city hall, I visited the Revelstoke Credit Union. It was January 1994.
The visit went exceedingly well. The credit union strongly believed in helping local projects. They liked nearly everything about our project. They soon agreed to loan us $350,000. Money had been the greatest worry and it seemed to have been resolved in just an instant. Of course, we still had to deal with our own resources, but I was most happy to return home with good news.
On St. Patrick´s Day, March 17, I received a phone call from the loans officer at the credit union. He had bad news. The credit union had discovered internal embezzlement. A forensic audit had begun and all pending commercial loans were cancelled until this investigation was completed. The time frame would not be short. We were devastated.
I was forced to return to Revelstoke. I hoped one of the three national banks operating in town would provide us with a loan. The visit was brief. They all dismissed me rather quickly. One loans officer skimmed my business plan and announced they could not do this loan, and besides, I had no apparent skills to do the job. Karma and I would meet him again in a couple years.
Eventually, and in total desperation, we reached the bank of last resort, then called the Business Development Bank, operated by the federal government. We had been warned against this course of action, but we had run out of options. After analysis, they agreed to loan us $325,000. The bureaucratic rules, procedures and demands that came with this loan began immediately and never subsided until I paid them out a few years later.
The City of Revelstoke had a business assistance loan of up to $25,000 available on approved projects. We applied and were granted the full $25,000. Our own contributions to the pile of money would have to wait for a few more developments.
The next step was approval from the City of Revelstoke. This meant obtaining a building permit. They had already been quite helpful with advice and had loaned us $25,000, so we were confident we would get the permit. I knew we needed to be in a small community.
There was a concern. Even in this small bureaucracy, the ability to see beyond rules was limited. The city had defined bed and breakfasts, and there were at least six operating, as three rooms or less. Our ten room proposal was not in their rule book.
Eventually, we were classified as a hotel and breakfast was irrelevant. As they had no objection to us advertising ourselves as a bed and breakfast inn, we were content with their decision. We had a building permit.
FINDING A CONTRACTOR
What we needed was a contractor who was communicative, caring, knowledgeable, skilled, flexible, experienced, and nice. Following suggestions from the city, we took our plans to two local contract companies. They weren´t nice. And besides, their quotes were so far above our contractor budget we were experiencing panic attacks.
After floundering around in the local contractor market, we were blessed to meet our new contractor. He had done many small projects and had references. We found him communicative, caring, knowledgeable, skilled, flexible, and nice. The experience he desperately wanted was to completely construct a substantial building. His desire fit with our limited budget. He would gain his experience and we could afford him. We also knew we would get a superior effort on his showcase building.
SELL, SELL, SELL
My college contract ended in June, but our yard sales began earlier. We were selling much but had limited buyers. Some furniture we could use in the inn; the rest was just sold, some with a proviso to let us use it until we left. The freezer was sold. My 600+ record albums were sold. Our stained glass tools and supplies all sold. We were ruthless to our goal.
The big item was the house. There aren´t ever a lot of buyers in such a small town. It was getting tense as July began. No more income, no buyer in sight, and a contractor ready to build to get to lock-up before the winter snows. July became August. And then, like a rare summer snowstorm she blew in without warning and made us an offer on the house. She had been in our house before. She worked at the college and had just signed a new contract. Her offer was what we had paid many years before. We were delighted to accept.
LAST MINUTE GLITCHES
While we had an offer, there was a problem our buyer had to sort out with her bank before funds could be released. The house sale would take at least a month. I decided to go to Revelstoke as soon as possible, pulling a trailer behind my vehicle. My wife would stay until the house sale was completed.
The delay in selling our house created a new problem in Revelstoke. The machinery to clear and shape the land had been committed to another job. Little could be done until it was available. Also, our contractor, needing money through the summer, had taken on another contract, an expansion of another bed and breakfast from three rooms to six. Even when we could start, his time would be divided. This was worrisome.
Land clearing began on September 13.
The house sale was completed before the end of the month. I would fly back north and pick up a rental moving truck. My wife would have everything packed and ready and a crew of helpers to load. I arrived to a house filled with boxes, furniture and helpers. Throughout the packing, my wife seemed distant and sad. I attributed it to the stress of the sale and moving. We said thanks to all and were on our way. We had to take a longer route through Alberta to avoid steep grades. My wife was not very communicative throughout the trip. I had a lot of driving to do and let her be with her thoughts.
When we arrived late afternoon the next day, we were surprised to find my parents waiting outside the house I had rented. They had decided to come to help unload. Unpacking would wait for the next day. I was exhausted. We went somewhere for dinner and we all retired before 9 pm.
A few minutes later, my wife confirmed I was still awake before announcing, “I am leaving you.”
I do not know what my first words were. I was in shock. Discussion with my parents in an adjoining bedroom was not possible. I told them we had to go out and we did not know for how long. We drove to the river edge and in the next two hours came to an agreement.
All our assets were tied to the inn. We agreed that she would stay and work throughout the construction, purchasing, and furnishing, and the first summer of operation without any remuneration. I needed her. I had no money to do anything else. At the end of a year she would be free to leave and I would pay out her share over time. I did not sleep the rest of that night.
The next day, our agreement was legalized with separate lawyers. My parents knew nothing.
THE NEXT SEVEN MONTHS
Our legal separation, albeit not physical, had to be kept secret. The Business Development Bank would have cancelled the loan immediately as our business plan was predicated on a couple. We secured an out-of-town accountant. In Revelstoke only the two lawyers knew.
We quickly adapted to our deceit. We played our public roles well. Alone in our rental house and later in our partially completed inn, we generally only came together to eat.
By the end of September, our contractor had been working two weeks. The land had been cleared and shaped, bottom floor walls constructed, plumbing pipes installed and the floor ready for cement. However, nothing had been paid to our contractor by the BDB despite complying with their demand for photographs. He´d spent $60,000+ already. It would be another week before an inspector from Kamloops verified the work and the first payment made. Every subsequent payment would also be significantly late.
The building progressed rapidly. Our contractor wanted lock-up before the first snow. We did not make it. The third floor was not closed. Later, huge gas heaters ran for several days to dry the interior.
We were living in the partially completed inn before Christmas and working on our shopping list. We would purchase all furniture, blinds, curtains, fixtures, wallpapers, and accessories in Calgary. Alberta had no provincial sales tax, a 7% saving. We were treated like royalty at IKEA, where we spent the most. We got three Okanagan carpet companies into a bidding war before selecting the middle bid. Two linen suppliers magically appeared at the inn. For the kitchen we wanted a dark green range that perfectly matched our counters but coloured models cost $200 more. We ordered white, but it was not delivered when needed. The company said production had fallen behind and because we needed it now, offered a dark green one. We accepted.
We had brochures, a necessary advertising tool in 1992, printed and distributed to various venues.
A listing in the BC Accommodation Guide was more problematic. All they would allow was “New inn under construction. Tentatively opening May 1995.”
Our together time grew as the inn grew towards a May opening. We had few problems as we worked together towards our different goals. It really was the best of a very difficult winter.
Wintergreen Inn opened on May 1, 1995.
THEN FIVE MORE MONTHS
Although I was an innkeeper, it would be five months before my wife would leave. Those last months together were incredibly busy as we learned how to run an inn with just two people. Our working hours began around 6am and rarely ended before 9pm.
At the end of September, I was the only innkeeper at Wintergreen Inn.
(Sequel: Innside Stories: Anecdotes from Wintergreen Inn 1995-2004)
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