New Hope, Pennsylvania - Mike Amery awoke to a rapid-fire succession of missed calls on his cellphone.
They had come minutes apart, between 11:30pm and midnight. At breakfast, he was a knot of nerves and worry.
What could've happened to his guests? He would learn soon enough.
A trio of latecomers from New York had locked themselves out of their suite at the Inn at Bowman's Hill in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Rather than sleep on a hammock in the back yard or curl up on a chaise lounge by the pool, the visitors had smashed a windowpane in the door and let themselves back in. They appeared the next morning well-rested and uninjured.
“I am so relieved,” he said after learning about the escapade.
Mike lives in a land of worst-case scenarios. His days and nights are filled with what-could-go-wrongs. The 72-year-old Englishman is not a pessimist; he is the owner and operator of an eight-room B&B that specialises in R&R - romance and relaxation.
“We make a contribution to people's lives,” he said. “People come here to renew their vows, repair broken relationships and celebrate life.”
The guests have it easy. They just have to show up and surrender to the coddling and the pampering. (Pamper comes in many disguises, such as breakfast in bed, in-room massages and whirlpools built for two.) Mike, by comparison, remains in a state of high alert and preparedness. Though he wears the shell of a laid-back person, he bears the soul of a FEMA respondent.
“There is a lot of problem management - you didn't put a second toilet paper roll in the bathroom; the air-conditioning is down,” said the 10-year innkeeper, who has weathered a recession and Hurricane Sandy. “It is about how you manage the negatives.”
For all of you daily grinders who dream of a quiet life flipping frittatas for gracious guests and bonding with strangers over pots of camomile tea on the porch, this your reality check. The job of innkeeper is no sashay down the boxwood-lined driveway.
“You are in the court of public opinion every day,” he said.
On a June weekend, Mike invited me to work as an assistant innkeeper while his partner (in all senses of the word) was away. As his shadow, I would gain a deeper understanding of the challenges - and joys - of running a B&B.
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A few days before my stint, I received a list of possible tasks, including carrying luggage, reviewing reservations for food allergies, shuttling guests to town and collecting chicken eggs. Once I met Mike, who wears a grin as wide and bright as a lemon wedge, I received my first lesson: Never, ever let your smile slip.
Mike is not a typical B&B owner, nor is the Inn at Bowman's Hill a traditional B&B. Both owner and ownee shatter stereotypes. Mike, for instance, didn't open the property as a salve to an existential crisis. After a lucrative 35-year career with Bristol-Myers Squibb, he took an unexpected early retirement.
Due to strained financial circumstances, the million-dollar Bucks County property, which he had purchased for personal use in 2000, became a means of survival.
“I didn't intend to open a B&B, because I don't stay at B&Bs,” he said. “But it seemed like a very good short-term solution.”
During his time with the global pharmaceutical company, he frequented luxury hotels that later became inspiration boards for his business. For example, to keep the water in the whirlpool tubs from cooling down, a personal dislike, he installed circulating heaters in all of the baths. He hung heated towel racks in each bathroom. He provided choices for the morning meal, including a classic English breakfast (he is a fellow with the English Breakfast Society). And he eschewed the hallmarks of B&B design: shared bathrooms, communal dining and fusty tchotchkes.
“B&B is a lousy word. There are too many misconceptions,” he said. “I like the word 'resort B&B.' “
In England, he explained, a B&B is historically a spare bedroom in a seaside house. The proprietor will serve visitors eggs and a cup of coffee before shooing them out the door. The definition is broader in the States, which supports about 15 000 B&Bs, according to Kris Ulmer, president of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. (Bucks County alone has about 30.) In general, Ulmer said a property wears the B&B label if it satisfies several prerequisites, such as it only serves breakfast; does not have an on-site restaurant; is constructed as a home; is often the innkeeper's residence; and is subject to municipal zoning laws, food safety regulations and taxes. An inn, by comparison, is typically larger and has more services - a more personalized hotel.
Mike said some of his guests admit that they have never stayed at a B&B before and don't know what to expect.
“We get many B&B virgins,” he said.
Since opening in 2006, Mike has received couples, friends and family members celebrating birthdays, promotions and round-number anniversaries, including a Minnesota pair in their 90s who commemorated 70 years together. Babymoons are big, as are last hurrahs before a military deployment or a hospital stay.
A chalkboard in the kitchen offered clues to the status of the weekend's arrivals. “PH” needed “cheese,” “C” and “M.” Mike decoded the message for me as: The couple in the penthouse requested a cheese platter, champagne and in-suite massages. “GW” needed “S,” “M” and “O.” Translation: The occupants of the George Washington Suite wanted chocolate-dipped strawberries, massages and “other” - in this case, roses.
We had two hours to shop and prepare the special orders before the 3 p.m. check-in time. Mike scooted me into the company van adorned with vanity plates: “The Inn.” In the supermarket parking lot, his cellphone started to ring. The vehicle became his office. A man was calling to confirm his reservation.
“While I have you on the phone,” Mike said, “do you like champagne?”
He listened to the answer.
“Because I am going to give you a complimentary bottle.”
The clock was ticking, so we sped through the aisles. Mike threw into his basket various cheeses, French bread, grapes, strawberries, celery and melting chocolate. When we returned to the inn, he handed the shopping bags to Anastacio Olliveria, the inn's longtime manager. He shot Mike a beseeching look.
Slap palm to forehead: We forgot the flowers.
Back in the supermarket lot, the phone rang again. I was partially out the door but crawled back into the car.
“Hi. This is Mike from Inn at Bowman's Hill. How can I help?”
“No, we can't just move you to another date.”
After he hung up, I asked what happened.
“A last-minute cancellation, and I don't have their credit-card number on file,” he said. “This is the nasty side of the business.”
Unless he could re-book the room, he would lose at least $1,000.
Running a B&B is like throwing a sleepover party for family members you've never met before - and might like to disown after the weekend. Mike contends with an array of personalities, personal preferences (especially dietary) and peccadillos, such as the couple who lit candles for tantric sex and set off the fire alarm. His inaugural guest was the inventor of a successful dog harness company who was on a yoga retreat. Since then, he has welcomed a minor-league baseball player, a professional rodeo clown, a high-level military leader, a Cirque du Soleil artist and Princess Diana's brother. The Regal Tower Suite was renamed in his honor.
Mike spends a chunk of his 14-hour days flitting around the property. Most of his face time with guests happens during the arrival period and at breakfast, but he checks in on them intermittently. On the backyard veranda, he delivered a garnished Klondike bar on a plate to a New Jersey visitor. In the side courtyard with the fountain, he chatted with a couple headed to town for lunch about their dinner plans. He discussed local birds - red-tail hawks, black vultures, bald eagles - with a guest lounging at the pool.
As a self-taught innkeeper, he has picked up tips from conferences and workshops but learned most of the trade in real time. Nearly two dozen types of responsibilities and concerns demand his attention, including licensing and inspections, maintenance, mechanical systems, housekeeping and communications. He is currently battling an issue that falls under “reputation management.” (See the single terrible review on TripAdvisor.) He is also facing the rise of Airbnb and other sharing-style lodgings, which he files under “competition and pricing strategy.” In addition to the larger issues, he must also handle smaller disruptions. For example, the night before, a fox stole one of his chickens. A toilet in the Hidden Pines room was not flushing. And then there was the matter of the broken glass in the Regal Tower.
“When you get a problem,” he said philosophically, “how do you deal with that problem?”
For the chickens, he would construct more secure fencing. (Juanita, the guard dog, was also on fox patrol.) For the women with the temperamental toilet, he would offer them a $50 (about R700) gift certificate to Marsha Brown Restaurant. For the window, he would decline the guest's offer to pay for the damage and take one for Team B&B.
Breakfast starts at 8am, and we were ready for the diners - a slow trickle on a lazy Saturday.
The morning meal starts with yogurt, granola, fruit and homemade muffins, followed by a choice of entrees. Sample menu: the signature breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, sauteed potatoes and baked beans; eggs Benedict with Vermont cheddar; or Belgian-style waffles with blueberries or bananas.
The eggs, which are labeled free-range, are also hyper-local. During a lull in service, Mike and I crossed over a wee bridge to the coop and filled a bucket with still-warm eggs. In the corner, a hen watched us warily.
I approached Susan Rossman and Eric Mageheim's sunroom table wearing my official uniform, including a mint-green polo shirt inscribed with the inn's logo. I had noticed the New Jersey couple at the pool the previous day and had overheard Eric declare in mock distress: “I am trying to find something to complain about, but I can't.”
For a brief moment, I abandoned my role as assistant innkeeper (main duties: delivering baskets of muffins and jam, pouring French-press coffee, clearing plates) to chat with them about their lodging experiences.
Eric and Susan had been burned by B&Bs before. At a property in Princeton, New Jersey, they described the staff as aloof and said a floodlight shot through their blindless windows and into their eyes. They left at 1 a.m. for darker accommodations.
“Staying at someone's house is kind of creepy,” admitted Eric, a self-described Hilton guy.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” added Susan.
For their getaway in New Hope, they flirted with the idea of a B&B, but conducted thorough research before committing. Susan peppered Mike with detailed questions about the lighting, the noise level, the meal options.
This time, they didn't check out early. In fact, on the last day, Susan hugged Mike and said, “We're sad that it's come to an end.”
Late Sunday morning, the cars started to depart the grounds. Five of the previously occupied rooms were empty, with only crumbs and creases left as reminders of past inhabitants. Juanita was dozing curled up in a shaded corner; Anastasia and a housekeeper were turning over the rooms. I hung up my mint-green shirt.
Mike was in his office reviewing the reservations for the following night. He had received a message from a husband stationed in Japan. In the note, he explained that his marriage had hit a rough patch and he wanted to arrange a getaway for his wife, who desperately needed to unwind. Mike, assuming they were traveling together, responded with an offer for a couples massage and an upgrade to the manor suite. The email bounced back. He called the wife. In a small, sad voice, she informed him that she was traveling alone.
“This is a special place,” he said softly. “We'll take care of you.”
If you go..
The Inn at Bowman's Hill
518 Lurgan Rd., New Hope, Pa.
Rates start at around $430 and include a multi-course breakfast.