Before opening a bed-and-breakfast, consider your target market, local regulations and the property you're working with.
Going on 17 years as innkeepers, my husband and I love the bed-and-breakfast lifestyle, which provides an overnight farm experience for folks looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Running a bed-and-breakfast can diversify your farm income while providing a great outlet for sharing your love of farming with others. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind.
1. Target Market
Ask yourself these questions to determine your potential market reach: Is the geographic area you’re looking at one that draws tourists? Where might your guests be coming from to visit your farm?
We chose southwestern Wisconsin for our bed-and-breakfast, Inn Serendipity, because we’re less than a two-hour drive from the major metro areas of Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee—easy driving distance for a weekend getaway. Plus, there are plenty of things to do in our area, including brewery tours, cheese factories and bike trails. Remember that there might be a seasonal component to your tourism business, as well. Most of our visitors arrive between the months of May and October, so that’s when we generate the bulk of our income for the year.
2. State and Local Regulations
Check out your state’s regulations for starting a bed-and-breakfast; they often fall under a state’s health department or the same agency that inspects restaurants and other tourist lodging facilities. In general, regulations involve basic safety measures, such as working fire alarms and fire extinguishers, annual well inspections, and temperature checks for refrigerators and freezers. In Wisconsin, a representative from the Department of Health Services visits our farm every year to perform an on-site inspection.
You also might have local zoning ordinances to abide by at a county or township level. Rural areas can vary tremendously in the extent and intensity of requirements, from no regulations to lengthy regulation checklists, including board hearings and various permit applications and fees. It’s important to get this information up front in writing to ensure that you can operate a bed-and-breakfast on your potential property. In some cases, you might need to educate officials on the benefits of a bed-and-breakfast to the community; you can do so by highlighting the positive economic impact on other local businesses, as well as the role that bed-and-breakfasts can play in promoting local tourism.
3. Farmhouse Considerations
When viewing farm properties, consider the rooms you’d be using for the bed-and-breakfast and factor any necessary upgrades or renovations into your overall budget. Private bathrooms are in high demand at bed-and-breakfasts. Even though many European bed-and-breakfasts offer shared bathrooms, most American travelers prefer private ones. The Writing Room at Inn Serendipity has a private attached bathroom that’s connected directly to the room, while the Music Room has a private bathroom that’s located across the hallway. We can charge a higher price for the Writing Room because of the attached bathroom.
Bathrooms don’t necessarily need to be large or fancy. As we looked at farm properties, we considered closets as potential bathroom spaces and ended up adding basic shower units, sinks and toilets.
4. Bed-and-Breakfast Options
Visiting other bed-and-breakfasts lets you visualize the type of experience you want to create. There are many styles of bed-and-breakfasts, from formal to casual. Experiencing a range of these options will help you decide where you fall in the spectrum. Our 1,900-square-foot farmhouse is a typical Wisconsin turn-of-the-century, American Foursquare-style building, so our guests, by default, become part of our everyday family experience. We like that intimacy and informality, sharing late-night discussions with guests around the wood stove in winter and serving breakfast on our enclosed front porch in summer.
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist runs Inn Serendipity farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin with her family. She and her husband, John Ivanko, co-authored Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011), Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009), and ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008).
This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Hobby Farms.