The Golden Rule of Innkeeping: Put yourself in the guests’ shoes

Before becoming an innkeeper/owner, I stayed in numerous small inns and B&Bs, always making mental notes on what I would and would not do if I ever had my own inn.   Now, I realize how important it is to view one’s inn through the eyes of the guest, anticipating his/her needs and realizing what’s most important to them. One of the best ways to gauge this is to stay at other inns, and experience what it’s like being the guest.

Another excellent way is to pack a bag with a few clothes and toiletries, and stay overnight in each of your own guest rooms throughout the year. You will often realize what you’re lacking that you never noticed just walking around the room to inspect it. That light you thought was so nice looking is too in-your-face or too dim. That edge of the sink is just not enough room for your toiletries, the hot water--not so much and that ceiling treatment that looked great while standing, could be seen peeling away once you laid in the bed.

I was reminded how important this Golden Rule of Innkeeping is, whilst traveling through Europe and England on a much-needed respite after a long and extremely busy summer running our B&B. While the inns needing improvement shall remain nameless, the rest of us might benefit from their blunders. I realized on this month-long trip, that there were some key elements a traveler needs to feel secure and satisfied.

The three most important elements required by most travelers are ease, comfort and security.  The hard truth is that it doesn’t matter how elegantly decorated an inn looks, if these three essentials are not present.

1. Ease: When traveling, one has enough things to worry about without having to work hard at the basics once arriving at your destination. The innkeeper should make it easy to get to their inn, and provide for many of the daily issues that might come up during their guest’s stay. At check in, go over the 5 w’s: what’s offered, where to find it, when breakfast is served, who to contact if assistance is needed, your house rules and why they’re required.

Getting there: On the website and all confirmations, provide clear and concise text directions and a map, as well as the number to call if lost.  Directions should be listed specifically from airport, train station or by car from major highways, when applicable.  The innkeeper should familiarize themselves with the area streets so that they can “talk the guests in” if they are lost and calling for assistance.  After spending 35 minutes in the dark, driving around the circuitous maze that is Bath, England, using the vague map and directions off their website, I called the inn in desperation. When the innkeeper answered, she spoke in a barely audible whisper, and did not  know where the street was that I was currently on when I gave her its name.  Turned out the major street I was on, that she had no idea about, was right around the corner from her inn and intersected with her street just a block away. Incredible. In Venice, our pensione gave no street address on its website; if I had not Googled the hotel name prior to arrival and seen it on a bird’s-eye-view map, we would have never found the place.  

Provide private parking, or directions to public parking: Many local zoning codes require inns to provide a certain amount of parking, and it should be convenient for the guests. If not available, then give clear directions to nearby public parking.  In my Bath inn, I was directed, upon arriving at night, to squeeze backwards into an tight area that could barely fit a tiny car, and if you missed by an inch or more, you could easily hit their fence, large stones or flowers in their garden. Although I’m an excellent reverse driver, at night in a strange car and place, it was an anxiety-inducing feat.

Getting around town: Provide local maps, brochures, or write-ups on local places of interest, and menus from nearby restaurants. Having menus for guests to look at alleviates the embarrassment of recommending a place to a guest that you believe is  moderately priced, only to have that penny-pinching guest come back and harangue you about their “overpriced” meal. It also saves you lots of time trying to go over all the various options with the guest. 
Innkeeper accessibility and communication: Have an easy, clearly defined method, for guests to get in touch with staff. An inside doorbell system works best, and keeps guests from going into kitchens and private areas looking for assistance. In several of our English inns, one was left to stand around the hallway hoping by chance the innkeeper might appear when needing assistance, and there was no other known way to contact them except to call them on the phone. Our Bath innkeeper continued to speak in an inaudible whisper throughout my stay, making it difficult to communicate.

Be sure that TV controls are working properly, and change batteries regularly. I stayed in several b and b’s in America and Europe that had defective TV remotes or worn batteries, which of course were not noticed until late at night when contacting the staff was not an option. Offer wi-fi internet service to your guests or computer access; and if using a password, make it simple. Trying to type in the random 20-digit code given by our Paris inn and type it twice in a row was like trying to crack the infamous Enigma spy code. Be sure there are plenty of electrical plugs for laptops and cell phone chargers, and adaptors if you get lots of foreign guests.  Spend some time in your guest rooms with the ac, and again with the heat on, to be sure both systems work well at the set temperatures.

Laundry: For guests staying or traveling long-term, it would be a plus to offer a laundry service for a charge (say $5-$10 a load), or have printed directions and times to the nearest Laundromat. In Bath, I was told to go “just down the street” with vague directions to the nearest Laundromat. I ended up walking--and schlepping my full bag of dirty clothes-- down to what was actually the neighboring village at least ½ mile away, and the place was on a different street. “Did these innkeepers ever go out of their inn?,” I asked myself, as my arm ached from the load. Of course there were no change machines at Laundromat, so with the long walk, and running around buying things at nearby stores to get enough change, I spent most of my day doing laundry, when I could have been enjoying the sights on a lovely afternoon.  Perhaps innkeepers should keep a roll of quarters for people to exchange for this reason, or find out if there are laundry services nearby.

Room Essentials:
Be sure to provide a few cups and always, always, a trash bin or two—one for the bed room and one for the bathroom. One barebones b and b in Windsor offered no toiletries other than a used bar of soap, one towel, no trash bin anywhere, no tissue, and no drinking cup, which was problematic late at night when I needed to take medicine. I ended up going into the kitchen (wide open to the hallway) to grab a drinking glass.
Do not push beds up against the walls you one can help it. My small room in Bath was jammed against one wall so tightly, I had to wrestle with the bed linens to loosen them up, and as the bed seemed immovable once I was laying in it. Keep the beds at least an inch or two away from the wall to alleviate elbow banging and swaddled bed covering. Do not put lamps too high up where they glare into the eyes, use 40 watt bulbs if you must have them up high. Provide a lamp switch within easy reach whilst lying in bed. Have a bedside table on both sides of any bed big enough for two guests and one for a single bed.  The Bath inn had only a miniscule wall shelf above my single bed, just big enough for the clock and TV control, with no room for a cup, glasses, jewelry or box of tissue--which is also a must for any bedside. If you do offer tea and coffee in the room, make it easily usable and accessible. We had to perform a juggling act with a tea tray in one London inn. The tray of items and kettle were stored in a low cabinet that was very difficult to get to and remove. Provide a place for luggage, preferably a luggage rack or large, sturdy chairs. Our Bath, England inn had only the bed or the floor to put my small suitcase, and with a bad back, this made for a painful ordeal whenever I needed something. If you have only a shared bath down the hall, provide a handled basket for guests to carry their wash cloth, towel and toiletries to and from the bathroom.  It's nice to have hairdryers included in the rooms, but be sure they work and can actually reach over to use near a mirror, which you have also hopefully provided. In Bath, the room hairdryer plug was too far to stand near the mirror, and the dryer shut off after a few minutes and would not reset

Miscellaneous conveniences:
Some of the items provided to guests I have noted at the better inns include a sewing kit, shoe polish cloths, safety pins, and shower caps, all of which can be purchased at a dollar store, and make life  much more convenient for their guests.  If your inn is near the beach or lakeside, other items you might consider providing:  Sun hats, beach towels and sun lotion for sale, and beach umbrellas or bicycles for loan with a security deposit, ( for bicycle loans you should strongly consider having them sign a waiver of liability and a guarantee allowing charges for damage/ replacement cost). Rain umbrellas should be kept available by the front door, and if purchased at the dollar store, it’s no great loss if the guest forgets to return it.

All Creatures Great and Small:
Many people appreciate having a friendly critter to spend time with while traveling, especially if they have ones themselves at home. Pets are fine as long as you notify each guest at the time of booking, and be sure they know that you have them in case of allergies or other issues. Dogs should be obedience trained, and not bark or jump on guests. Ideally, have them out of the way during check-in and allow out later, that way guests don’t miss important information while being distracted by Willow or Max.

2. Comfort: Do inspect rooms prior to guest arrival; do not rely on housekeeping to remember everything or notice something out of place unrelated to cleaning. Check all cabinets, drawers and closet, under bed for left items.  In our Windsor room, we found an empty beer bottle inside of a cabinet!  The bed is the most important aspect of a guest’s stay, so do not scrimp on this one. If the guest wakes up tired and sore, it will define their entire experience, and that’s what they’ll remember about our inn. Mattresses must be comfortable, not too firm and not sagging, and pillows should err on the side of soft rather than hard. The pillows offered in England tended to feel like rocks, too dense and hard for a good night’s sleep and left us waking up with stiff necks and headaches. We also found the beds in England were typically too soft and lumpy, not affording one a much needed rest after long hours of flying, driving and walking. A British “stiff upper lip” is fine, but a stiff neck is not so great.  Down comforters are nice in cold climates with no heat, but can be way too warm for a normally heated room. Always provide an additional lightweight blanket and extra pillows.  At our inn, we use medium firmness mattresses, topped with 3 inches of memory foam and a quilted mattress pad. We began receiving countless comments on how comfortable the beds were as soon as the foam toppers were added. Provide ample towels and washcloths. Providing disposable makeup removal cloths will prevent makeup stains on your washcloths and towels. The Windsor inn run by a depression-era older couple offered just one rough towel for two days and no washcloth!! Hot water should be regulated so that guests cannot scald themselves, but also provide adequate hot water. Periodically run the water in your rooms and make sure there’s enough hot water. Although my bathroom in Bath was clean and elegant looking, the shower was a frustrating roller coaster ride of burning hot to freezing cold and back, although I had not moved the temperature control.  It was such an awful experience; I didn’t bother to shower the next day.

Noise: If you know there typically noise in the inn, whether from the street or inside activities, leave fresh packets of earplugs in the rooms. If you know there is going to be construction or other unusual issues, you should discount the rates and notify guests in advance so they can opt out or find other accommodations if they don’t wish to take advantage of the discounts. While in Paris, there was scaffolding and construction noise along one side of the inn during the day; one guest was rather irate when she could not change her room.   In Venice the ac didn’t work well, and when the windows were opened, the noise from the street was extremely loud--inebriated voices were heard at all hours of the night, along with the clomp clomp of feet on wooden planks along the sidewalk.  In Bath, the innkeeper (husband of the woman who spoke in a whisper), spoke in a loud, booming voice, even at night in the hallway with apparent disregard for guests who might be sleeping. I always travel with earplugs, and this saved me from many sleepless nights in these various situations.  Try and alleviate any other noise issues in your inn: blow in additional insulation in walls that allow noise from room to room, or replace windows with more soundproof ones in areas of high traffic or street noise, fix flooring that creaks loudly, and pad stairs. We have draft busters hanging on the back of our room doors to place along the floor against the door bottom to block out noise and hallway light.

Design: Give a sense of relaxation with soft, muted wall colors and wall hangings. Our Bath b and b had a wall into the dining area that assaulted the senses with a visual cacophony of tacky pictures that clashed with one another and gave a cheap and disturbing look to the place, which in all other areas was nicely painted and decorated. 

Munchies: Providing snacks is a comforting gesture; just provide ones that won’t make a mess in your inn and make you wish you hadn’t. Forget chips, peanuts or chocolate, unless you enjoy constant cleaning and throwing out chocolate-stained linens or furniture. Opt for quality cookies or granola bars in a jar with small plates alongside the jar. It must have been a man or someone who never cleans who thought up that chocolates-on-the-pillow silliness…. And who can sleep after eating chocolate at night anyway?

3. Safety and Security:  Doors: Be sure that all doors and keys work smoothly and efficiently. We use a keyless code lock on our inn’s front door, which allows multiple codes, so that each guests can choose a code they can easily remember to get in, then just push one button to lock the door. The front door codes are changed out after each weekend, so no worries about lost or stolen keys, guests waking you up in the middle of the night when they lose the key, and the guests appreciate the ease of getting in and out.  We provide keys to each guest room and make sure those work well. In one inn I was awakened by the continual slamming of a door that another guest could not get to close.  In Bath (are you detecting a pattern here?), I had to go across the hall to use the bathroom, (although it was just for my room, not shared), but the locks to my room door and the bathroom were very finicky, requiring extensive turning back and forth before they would open, which was no fun during my late night rendezvous with la toilet.

If you do give out keys, be sure to leave off any inn name or info on the keychain. Our Bath inn gave out keys with the full address of the inn, along with the room number on the keychain.  I wondered what might happen if a typically weary, guest left a key somewhere, and a criminal type picked it up—they’d have access to the entire inn and at least one room before the guest even realized they had lost the key.   This same inn left a side door wide open until the late evening, and were located on a busy street with lots of foot traffic, and hoped the wrong sort didn’t decide to take advantage of that open door.

Offer the use of an iron, but consider only providing them upon request and have them returned once they finish ironing, so there are fewer fire risks. One place we stayed had a permanent burn on the room rug in the obvious shape of an iron…One shudders to think what may have happened if the iron had been left on that carpet.  Leave a light on in the hallway at all times, for guests that are coming in late at night or those trying to escape in an emergency don’t injure themselves.  Innkeepers who feel compelled to turn all the hall lights off to save a few cents on their energy bill are being penny wise and pound foolish, as well as putting guests at risk for injuries or death during a fire if they cannot find their way out. All rooms and hallways should have smoke alarms and plug-in emergency lights that come on when the electric goes out (available at hardware stores for about $10 apiece).

Bathrooms: When designing or remodeling the bathrooms for guest use, be aware of differences in height and weight, and limited abilities of older guests. Put in handle bars in any areas where guests might need assistance.  We found getting in and out of extra high tub in one small London hotel demanded a real climbing workout, and our Venice pensione was something else again… Apparently they felt compelled to jam in a full bidet alongside the toilet in a very cramped space, so that one had to move awkwardly through the cramped space and straddle with feet inside the shower to sit on the toilet!

The elegant-looking Bath inn was lacking in so many basic essentials, it seemed the quintessential example of how not to run an inn. Fawlty Towers, you’ve met your match!  I finally found the perfect English B&B at the end of my trip in London. It truly ticked all the boxes and offered a much-appreciated stay after my experiences elsewhere.  The Bay Tree B&B in Southgate, London is the top rated B&B for London on TripAdvisor, and for good reason.  James and Janice Monahan, he originally from Ireland and she from New York, have thought of everything. The inn was elegant yet comfortable, safe and secure, with great food prepared by two innkeepers who delighted in their guests. They offered helpful suggestions for places to eat and visit, good directions on how to get there, and they always asked about our day upon return. They provided lots of soft towels; all toiletries including powder, deodorant and razors; plenty of hot water and perfect room temperature; cups, trash bins, mirrors, lots of hangers; two ample bedside tables and good lighting; various blanket options, plenty of soft down pillows, and most importantly…an incredibly comfy bed. Downstairs, there were healthy snacks, countless guide books, maps and brochures, secure doors with easy locks and unmarked keys.  When I had problems with my feet and back, they had a bag of ice waiting for me every day on my return.  In addition, they offered easy access wi-fi, free long distance Skype calls, plenty of plugs and adaptors, which made conducting business away from home effortless.  This experience gave me more than some much needed R and R, it gave me new insights on running my own inn.  

Elizabeth Alexander is the innkeeper/owner of
 The Alexander House Booklovers’ B & B