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County's B&Bs get creative to fight plunging revenue caused by COVID-19

Lynne Griffin, co-owner of the Australian Walkabout Inn in Lampeter, has started working part-time at CVS to help fill the void in revenue from her bed-and-breakfast. 

Greystone Manor owner Angela Skiadas in Bird-in-Hand has retooled her marketing strategy, using Facebook to target people in nearby counties who want to get away but not travel too far.

Rebecca Gallagher, co-owner of the Historic Smithton Inn, gift shop and Weathered Vineyards Ephrata wine bar, is looking to make some extra money by taking substitute teaching jobs.

The outcome of these businesswomen’s efforts — as well as those of the owners of Lancaster County’s 150 or so bed-and-breakfasts — is likely to have an outsize impact on the county’s tourism draw. With the second highest number of B&Bs on the East Coast, the county offers a diverse selection that enriches what’s a normally robust tourism business. But with revenue down as much as 80% in some cases, and nearly twice as many B&Bs for sale than before the pandemic, owners of these inns are facing unparalleled challenges and uncertainty.

In response, they’re using their imaginations — and their work ethic — to generate revenue, cut expenses and stay open. 

“When you get in a situation like this, you really have to think creatively,” said Rick Waller, co-owner of The Limestone Inn in Strasburg and president of the Lancaster County Bed and Breakfast Inns Association.

B&Bs are small enterprises individually, but collectively their authentic charm plays a key role in making the county attractive and distinctive to visitors. The tourist industry, in turn, generated $2.2 billion a year in visitor spending before the pandemic, a sum that made it a vital cog in the county's economy.

Lancaster County trails only Barnstable County, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, for the highest number of B&Bs on the East Coast, according to research by Discover Lancaster, which promotes tourism here.

“Our large and diverse B&B community is one of the key reasons that Lancaster County’s lodging offerings are so unique and appealing,” said Edward Harris, president and CEO of Discover Lancaster. “Helping them navigate and survive the pandemic is crucial to our overall tourism industry returning to full strength," he said.

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Janis Kutterer, co-owner of King's Cottage, disinfects a banister to combat COVID-19 on Wednesday, January 21, 2021.

Industry issue

COVID-19, which arrived in Lancaster County in mid-March, has been the scourge of the entire hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, bars, B&Bs – as well as other sectors of the local economy.

B&Bs are the tiniest part of that hospitality sector, accounting for less than 10% of the county’s 8,000 lodging rooms and maybe 3% of its 17,000 tourism jobs.

But B&Bs are experiencing the same pain as their bigger brethren, while lacking the corporate guidance and resources that some chain hotels get from their parent companies to help them figure out how to adjust.

B&Bs, like hotels, went through a de facto shutdown last spring when Gov. Tom Wolf prohibited nonessential travel. Since the travel ban was lifted, B&B owners have grappled with the extra expense and extra work needed to keep guests and themselves safe.

Still, with COVID-19 continuing its rampage, killing more than 800 people in Lancaster County and more than 400,000 nationwide, health concerns and the state’s intermittent travel restrictions are keeping many potential guests at home.

And for those who are comfortable with traveling, the absence of many of the usual activities in Lancaster County, or severe limitations on them, deters those potential guests just the same.

Consider the depressed live-event sector, for example, a magnet for tourists in normal times. Due to COVID-19, some leading tourist attractions here such as American Music Theatre and Fulton Theatre are staying dark rather than operate unprofitably under state-mandated seating restrictions.

Others that resumed live shows last year when allowed, then went dark under Wolf’s recent three-week shutdown, are choosing to reopen.

These include Sight & Sound (to reopen Feb. 12) and Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre (to reopen Feb. 24). But just like last year, they’ll be using fractions of their seating capacity due to state restrictions.

"A lot of us B&Bs on the east side of town are keeping an eye on (Sight & Sound, AMT and other attractions in the area)," Waller said. "So go they, so go us. They're the draws."

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Janis Kutterer, a co-owner of King's Cottage, disinfects a doorway to combat COVID-19 on Wednesday, January 21, 2021.

Time’s up

Not all B&B owners are hanging on until the pandemic fades, though.

For the owners of at least three B&Bs here, who already were pondering whether to retire due to their age or to leave the business due to health problems, the additional burden of coping with the pandemic has prompted them to close.

Among them are the owners of The Hurst House Bed and Breakfast in Ephrata, which has been operated by Richard Hurst and his wife Bert for 12 years. The Hurst House closed last March, except for honoring a handful of reservations made by longtime customers.

“We were going to shut down anyhow, because we wanted to retire. So the timing wasn’t that bad for us,” Richard Hurst said. But COVID-19 accelerated the process.

The deep cleaning made necessary by COVID-19 posed “too much work” for the couple, both of whom are “pushing 80,” he said. And the health risk posed by welcoming guests from “all over the globe” was too substantial.

The Hursts know the danger firsthand; they contracted the virus but have recovered. “It’s not a fun thing. We were tired all the time,” said Richard Hurst, a builder who’s also one of five brothers proposing the Oregon Village mixed-use development on Oregon Pike.

The couple’s B&B, with five guest rooms on a hilltop property of 16.5 acres, is for sale for $2.99 million.

It’s among a dozen or so local B&Bs listed for sale, which Waller estimates could be double the usual number, caused in part by some prospective buyers backing out of tentative purchases since the pandemic hit. That’s left those B&Bs on the market.

For B&B owners who still have their doors open, their strategy consists of adjusting to the new normal. Here’s a sampling of what some owners are experiencing and how they’re responding.

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Ann Willets, a co-owner of King's Cottage, sets up an air purifier  on Wednesday, January 21, 2021.

Coping creatively

Historic Smithton’s Gallagher said she was able to contain the total drop in revenue from her three ventures combined to 25% -- not too bad, under the circumstances.

The wine bar did extremely well when local bars, restaurants and liquor stores were closed by COVID-19, Gallagher explained. Meanwhile, her $25,000 investment in upgrading the Wi-Fi for her seven guest rooms and guest house made those accommodations more appealing for office workers looking to get away while working remotely. This has often led to longer stays.

“We’ve seen a boom in ‘work-cations,’” she said. “If your B&B is set up with good Wi-Fi, good cell service and a well-lit room with adequate working space, then guests are going to feel comfortable coming and spending five days at your B&B where you pamper them, rather than staying in their house and staring at the same sofa and crack in the ceiling they’ve been looking at for months.”

Gallagher, who bought the property in 2009 with her husband Dave, also changed with the times in another way. Because social distancing nixes guests from having the traditional breakfast at a shared table, she invested in serving trays, plate covers and extra coffee pots to serve guests in their rooms.

“People feel like they need to get away but they also know they really need to do it safely. So if you’re in a position to offer both of those things, you’re going to do OK,” Gallagher said.

As she’s added to the appeal of her B&B, Gallagher has subtracted costs.

“I’ve shed every possible expense,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs I used to pay other people to do that I’m doing now. I’m becoming an expert in SEO (search engine optimization, which makes her website more prominent). I’m in there every day, working on my SEO, something I used to pay somebody $250 a month to do.

“If you can’t make money, you have to save money.”

Griffin, who has owned the Australian Walkabout with her husband Bob for 13 years, is taking a number of steps to cope with a 50% drop in revenue during the pandemic.

In addition to getting a part-time job, Griffin has obtained a federal loan and free personal protective equipment from Recovery Lancaster for the business. She’s also virtually eliminated its cancellation fee, noting the extenuating circumstances.

“If I stick somebody with it, what are the chances that when they can travel, they’ll come back to me?” Griffin asked.

Despite the adversity now, she’s optimistic about B&Bs long term, saying Lancaster County will remain a desirable destination once attractions are back on their feet. “It’s just a little bit longer of a storm than we’d like,” Griffin said.

The Griffins have had their B&B for sale, with an asking price of $680,000, for more than two years, long before COVID-19 was a word. “It’s time to do something else,” she said.

An owner of King’s Cottage in Lancaster Township shared a similar perspective.

“We’re doing the best we can. It’s been a struggle,” said Janis Kutterer, as COVID-19 has cut revenue by 42% during the pandemic overall, and slashed revenue in certain months by 75%.

Simultaneously, it’s increased the time needed to clean the B&B’s six to seven guest rooms, as well as high-touch surfaces throughout the house. In response, she’s removed nonessential items such as guest books, afghans and accent pillows from guest rooms, so there’s fewer things to clean.

Like the Australian Walkabout, The King’s Cottage got a financial lifeline in the form of government aid. Recovery Lancaster, a program that allocated federally funded grants, gave The King’s Cottage a $35,000 grant.

“It was a godsend,” said Kutterer. “It helped so much. It took the pressure off. It makes a difference whether we can make it through until things recover.”

Limestone Inn B&B

Denise Waller, co-owner of Limestone Inn Bed and Breakfast, sprays Lysol on the mattress during a guest-room turn down in Strasburg on Tuesday Jan. 19, 2021.

Kutterer drew a straight line between her B&B’s shortage of guests and the dark stages at the county’s entertainment venues. “They didn’t have a show to go to, so they didn’t need a place to stay,” she said.

But like the other B&B owners interviewed by LNP | LancasterOnline, Kutterer sees better days ahead.

“I’m anticipating that this summer we’ll be very busy as our guests have their vaccinations and feel more comfortable coming back. There will be a lot of pent-up demand to get away,” she said. “Lord knows, I’d love to get away.”

Kutterer and business partner Ann Willets, who’ve owned their B&B for 19 years, put it up for sale more than two years ago, due to their ages; they’re both over 60. The asking price is $989,000.

Skiadas, who bought Greystone Manor nearly 20 years ago, sees a trend resembling the wave that Gallagher notices. “We’ve seen an influx of ‘stay-cations’ – people who don’t feel comfortable driving to another state but want to stay in their own backyards,” she said.

She’s adjusted her marketing accordingly.

Skiadas also is emphasizing that, despite the pandemic, there are things to do in Lancaster County. “We’ve made it a point to mention that auctions and farmers markets are still ongoing,” citing Root’s Country Market & Auction, Lancaster Central Market and Green Dragon Market as examples.

“And the food is much cheaper here than in big cities,” Skiadas continued. “They can stock up on meats and produce.”

She’s also finding that her B&B appeals to visitors who believe that COVID-19 may pose less risk at a B&B than a hotel, because the B&B has fewer people, an observation made by other B&B owners too.

Skiadas, whose marketing strategy and B&B location in the middle of Amish country have helped limit the decline in revenue during the pandemic to 30%, also noted that guests are staying longer than in years past.

Skiadas continues to offer her B&B for sale with an asking price of $1.15 million; it went on the market three years ago. With 13 guest rooms, it’s among the county’s largest. It’s also one of the few here with a swimming pool.

The Limestone Inn, which Waller has owned with his wife Denise for 23 years, has been caught in the same financial vise as the other B&Bs in the county. It closed when the pandemic hit in mid-March, then reopened half of its six rooms in May.

The shutdown and partial reopening have caused the inn’s revenue during the pandemic to fall 65%. The Wallers have offset some of the financial damage by signing up for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and getting a $10,000 Recovery Lancaster grant.

But the workload has grown. For instance, it takes more time to serve breakfast to guests in separate rooms, for social distancing, rather than at one large table, as was the practice pre-pandemic.

It also takes more time to perform deep cleaning rather than conventional cleaning. That’s prompted the Wallers to set a minimum stay of two nights, to lessen the number of times a given room turns over and needs to be cleaned.

“All of it is manageable,” Waller said, “but it’s a different way to look at things."

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