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McClatchy-Tribune  08/31/2014 9:20 AM ET
Want to own a B&B in Wine Country? [The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. :: ]

Aug. 31--When friends on LinkedIn saw that Jenny Lamarre had become an innkeeper along the Russian River, many of them gave her the same response.

They wrote, "Oh, I've always thought about doing something like that," said Lamarre, who with husband Sherman Tyler moved out from Massachusetts this summer and in July purchased the Fern Grove Cottages in Guerneville.

This year many aspiring innkeepers are doing more than merely thinking about switching careers. Lodging Brokers Network, a Napa-based brokerage for a variety of California lodging properties, reports that the number of its completed sales of bed-and-breakfast and other inns in 2014 has increased by more than 200 percent from a year earlier.

More than 20 inns are currently on the market in Northern California, according to Lodging Brokers. And Wine Country is part of the hottest region for those seeking to become innkeepers.

"The Bay Area is by far the most popular area that buyers are looking at," said Kathryn Proctor Seo, who specializes in B&Bs and inns for the brokerage.

Proctor Seo and others said some innkeepers are ready to sell now after holding on through the recent recession and its aftermath. As tourism has bounced back, so has the value of lodging properties.

Among those selling are Joe Hensley and partner Celeste Ford, the owners of Aurora Park Cottages in Calistoga. The couple has put their property, including six guest cottages and an owners' unit, on the market for $1.55 million.

"We've got nine grandkids back East, so that's the magnet" pulling the two away from the business, said Hensley, who worked 20 years in the software industry before becoming an innkeeper in 2000. The couple had contemplated selling earlier, but the recession hit and the value of inns tumbled.

"This is a better economic time to be selling than it was three or four years ago," Hensley said.

Inns vital to tourism industry

Inns constitute an important segment of Sonoma County's $1.5 billion tourism industry, said Ken Fischang, president of the county's tourism bureau. The guests typically have "fairly healthy" amounts of disposable income, he said, and many of them form loyal attachments with the innkeepers and staff that keeps them coming back year after year.

"That's a really intimate connection that you don't get almost anywhere else," Fischang said.

California's boutique inns began with innkeepers welcoming guests into their homes, said Shelley Post, president of Monterey-based Four Sisters Inns.

Post's family did just that after her parents purchased the Green Gables Inn on Monterey Bay in 1971. The family originally used the seaside Queen Anne-style inn exclusively as their residence, but after a few years they began renting out rooms to travelers.

Some innkeepers still see their efforts as more of a lifestyle choice in which the income they receive does little more than cover expenses. But more owners today are looking at inns as a business. That change has come even as innkeepers have become expected to have wide-ranging knowledge of social media, Internet reservation systems and regulations that include labor laws, food safety rules and access requirements for people with disabilities.

"The complexity of running a small inn is far greater today than it was ... in the '70s, '80s and '90s," said Post.

Four Sisters has grown to own or manage 16 properties, including three inns added within the last year. Its seven Wine Country properties include The Healdsburg Inn, the Inn at Sonoma, Gaige House in Glen Ellen, Milliken Creek Inn and Blackbird Inn, both in Napa, and Lavender and Maison Fleurie, both in Yountville.

Giving a homey experience

Today's inns typically involve larger structures built specifically for lodging rather than as homes. Proctor Seo explained that innkeepers with fewer than five guest rooms today have a hard time making a profit.


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