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Bed and Breakfasts are entering a new age

FINGER LAKES—The chintz is gone.
“It was tacky,” explains Nancy Happel of Tudor Rose Bed and Breakfast in Watkins Glen. It’s the first visible signal that Finger Lakes bed-and-breakfast establishments affectionately known as B&Bs—have moved into a new, more competitive age of tourism with accommodations more suggestive of a resort than something slightly more upscale than staying with Mom and Dad.
“A lot of things have changed in the past 12 years,” says Gary Smith, owner-host at Trimmer House B&B in Penn Yan. “When I began in Yates County, there were five of us. Now I think there’s 45 of us. Until this past year, sales and volume have continued to grow. The addition of other hotel and lodging accommodations suggests the overall market of visitors has expanded.”
And while Smith and other innkeepers report a slight softening in the pattern of bookings over the summer, reflective of national trends, most signs point to the Finger Lakes as remaining a strong tourist destination. Smith, a former professor of hotel management who is now a vice president at Keuka College, says today’s American B&Bs have for the most part evolved into small, boutique hotels where the owner serves as a concierge for the guests as well as their host, guiding them to destinations and providing a well-appointed sanctuary at the end of the day.
When he and his wife Yang bought the house, their renovations were aimed at creating an environment “like a hotel in terms of amenities,” he says. Each room has a private bath, a telephone, a 32-inch flat-screen TV, air conditioning and good water-pressure their redo included upgrading to larger water lines. “Customer expectations are higher,” he says. “They don’t want to stay in a guest room and go down the hall to a bathroom, or plug in a hairdryer and have the circuit-breakers go off.
“You’re not just selling lodging, you’re selling an experience,” he continues. “You have to remind yourself, if people want lodging, they’ll go down the street to an economy motel. They want interaction with the innkeeper, the concierge function, and interaction with other guests. And you may picture innkeepers as an empty nest couple, but I think you’ll find they’re younger. My wife and I are under 45 and we’ve been doing this for 12 years.”
At Tudor House B&B, Nancy and Dave Happel discuss sightseeing options with their guests as Dave cooks breakfast. The Happels say they’re seeing fewer European tourists than in previous years, and many guests are no longer asking for recommendations to the area’s best restaurants. Instead, many want to be pointed toward fast food eateries.
Almost next door, at Echoes of the Glen B&B, Barbara Merrill says she’s seen fewer guests from driving schools and races at Watkins Glen International, but overall, business is fine. “They’re still coming for the wineries, the gorges, and Corning Glass,” she says. Rita Newell, an owner of Reading House B&B in Rock Stream, also reports fewer European and Asian travelers, though occupancy rates are otherwise looking good.
“People are not booking quite as far ahead,” she says. Where people once booked rooms well in advance of their vacation, now more people are making last-minute decisions, “Could be that people are working more hours and not sure they can get away,” she suggests. “But people eventually decide they can get away, they’re going to go.” Trade journals report this is a national trend.
And once away, says Peter Muller, of The Pearl of Seneca Lake in Dundee, “I think people are staying longer. Part of it might be the economy, they’re not taking longer vacations elsewhere, so they’re choosing B&Bs instead of long trips.” Like most B&Bs, his does not take children under age 10, though they see a share of older teens traveling with their parents for college visits or to make a vacation of the annual trip back to campus.
Many B&Bs now advertise spa services, like massages, afternoon cookies, packed lunches and other extras. Distinguishing oneself is another way to stand out from the crowd, particularly if it offers guests another level of comfort or serves a slightly different population.
At the Ginger Cat Bed and Breakfast in Rock Stream, Gita Devi created a natural, vegan environment, excluding animal products from toiletries, furnishings and foods. Named for her own, rescued ginger cat, Wally, Devi says she began this in part because, “When I’m traveling, going somewhere vegan is such a relief!”
Unlike many B&Bs, she welcomes children and will also take guests for a single night’s stay. And while the lion’s share of her guests are vegetarian or vegan, often coming to visit the Farm Sanctuary, some are not, allowing Devi the opportunity to amaze them with sumptuous, cholesterol-free breakfasts she calls “Activism—one stomach at a time.”
A rural atmosphere similarly prevails at the South Glenora Tree Farm Bed and Breakfast in Dundee, where two sumptuously converted barns offer guests a chance to sleep where tractors once lived. Host Steve Ebert says the Finger Lakes area has matured as a tourist destination, from the wineries to restaurants and other businesses serving visitors to the region
“We’ve gotten bigger as a community through working together,” he says. Ebert also notes our location is an ideal geographic site between New York City and Niagara Falls.
“Each place is unique that’s a good definition of the B&B experience,” Ebert says. “And at least 50 percent of the experience of coming to a B&B is enjoying a host and hostess.” And like most hosts, his own cheerful attitude is evident when he sums up his own take on being an innkeeper “The bottom line is YES!”

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