So You Want to Run a B&B?
There’s a saying in the B&B world that goes like this: Walk into any inn and ask the owners whether their business is for sale, and you’ll be invited to talk numbers. For many, the pull of an idyllic Bob Newhart kind of life quickly morphs into the reality of long days, low profits, and little relief. It’s why the average B&B owner lasts just six years on the job.
Dan and Penny Cote haven’t hit that wall. They bought the Inn Victoria, set in the heart of Vermont’s Okemo Valley, in 2010. Like so many others, they came to the business by way of a dream. The Cotes, both 54 and Mainers, had first hitched onto the idea of becoming innkeepers 25 years ago, while staying at Vermont’s Quechee Inn. The lure of working together, as well as the chance for Penny and Dan, who have a heightened talent for making people feel welcome, to build a business around helping others, was also appealing.
For the next two decades, Dan and Penny lived their lives, settling into a large home outside Portland, Maine, raising three kids and assembling successful careers. Penny started her own school; Dan became an insurance executive. He earned six figures, drove nice cars, and took his family on expensive vacations.
But three decades in a pressure-packed corporate environment took their toll. In 2009, Penny watched with alarm as her husband shed 20 pounds in just two months. He was stressed, she says: “I knew that if we didn’t change our lives, I was going to lose him to a heart attack. And Dan, since I’ve known him, was and is a dreamer. We couldn’t go down the street without his talking about buying a business and fixing it up. It got to the point where if you’re going to do it, do it.”
And, like that, the Cotes redirected their lives. The couple’s long-held plan to retire at the age of 55 got bumped up five years. They cashed in their savings, put their house on the market, and started shopping for a B&B. In September 2009 they set foot inside the Inn Victoria for the first time. Four months later, they owned the place.
“The banks all thought we were crazy,” Penny says. “Dan wrote himself out of his position [at the insurance company]. He was probably the only person back then willing to leave his job. But we got a buyout and used the money to make the down payment on the business.”
“We’re doing nothing!” Penny exclaims.
Two hours into their workday, the Cotes are taking a quick break. It’s a ritual they’ve built into their mornings, a little five-minute moment near the start of the day in which the two check in with each other, see what’s pressing, and gear up for what lies ahead.
“You have to do something like this,” Penny says, clutching a mug of coffee. “And you have to take a vacation here and there, because otherwise you’ll burn out. And we don’t want to burn out.”
But that’s exactly what nearly happened their first year in the business. Back then, they hadn’t hired anyone to help run the inn. They did all the laundry, all the cleaning, all the cooking. They’d finish cleaning up the kitchen at night, then scurry up to their apartment to iron sheets until 10:00 or 11:00. By autumn, a Vermont B&B’s busiest time of year, the Cotes were running on fumes.
“Those first six months, we were just exhausted,” Penny says. “No word for it. It was like having a brand-new baby. You don’t know your name. I’m alive and I’m walking, but I really don’t know what else I’m doing. At one point, we were going to the grocery store for like the 92nd time that week: We pulled into the parking lot, locked the doors, put the seats down, and fell asleep in the car.”
When their break ends, Dan and Penny head back inside. The Florida group is finished with breakfast and is getting ready to leave. It’s a long goodbye, with hugs from Penny and photos of everyone together.
It’s also a window into the quick bonds the Cotes form with their guests. Many are repeat visitors who have grown close to them. Cards, e-mails, and presents are all exchanged. During my time with the couple, Penny received an expensive-looking Army jacket from one of her regular guests as a show of support for the Cotes’ son, who’s served three tours in Iraq. Other presents have included a rocking chair, bottles of wine, and jewelry.