Want to own a B&B in Wine Country?

Wannabe innkeepers are flocking to Wine Country looking for inns to buy, making it one of the hottest regions for sales in the country.|

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.

But even with larger properties, innkeepers say they still seek to give guests a homey experience, with yummy breakfasts and such touches as the Four Sisters afternoon tradition of freshly baked cookies.

The state inn association lists nearly 60 member properties in Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino and Lake counties, with 17 in Sonoma County alone. But the total number appears to be much larger. For example, Trip Advisor listed more than 60 inns in Sonoma County that could be booked online or had reviews written about them within the past two years.

Among the properties listed for sale this month is the Joshua Grindle Inn in the town of Mendocino. Listed for $1.595 million, the inn and its 10 guest rooms was taken back by its lender in foreclosure in December 2013. The property features an 1870s Victorian house, cottage and three-story water tower.

Also on the market is the Inn at Occidental, a bed-and-breakfast with 16 guest rooms listed for $3.9 million.

The inn’s owners, Jerry and Tina Wolsborn, became innkeepers after separate careers in the hospitality industry. Jerry Wolsborn had worked 30 years for Westin Hotels, including time as managing director of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. His wife had managed food service operations at the U.S. Supreme Court and at corporate sites in Denver and Houston.

But like Hensley and Ford in Calistoga, the Wolsborns now want to see more of their grandchildren. The time, said Jerry Wolsborn, has come “to put a new chapter in our lives.”

The couple spent years searching for the right inn within 90 minutes of the Bay Area. Now that they want to sell, they are working with Lodging Brokers to help find the right buyer.

“You need a good broker to get the word from coast to coast, or even internationally,” Jerry Wolsborn said.

Revenue stream important

The value of an inn involves more than its location, size and amenities. The selling price also takes into account the property’s revenue stream. Innkeepers said buyers want specifics on occupancy and average daily room rates. Proctor Seo said she provides clients with revenue projections by month and shows how the expected return on investment compares with other properties on the market.

Most aspiring innkeepers have had previous careers, partly because they need to have saved enough to make the 20 percent down payment often required to complete such sales.

“A lot of them do not have direct lodging experience,” Proctor Seo said of the buyers. But they often have some sort of related skills, including human resources or culinary expertise.

The California Association of Boutique and Breakfast Inns offers workshops for aspiring innkeepers at its annual conference, with its 2015 gathering set for February in Rohnert Park. The last conference drew more than 20 prospective innkeepers, the most in 23 years.

“We’re seeing a lot of fresh interest in opening B&Bs and boutique inns and small independent properties,” said spokeswoman Jenn Wheaton.

One reason may be that lodging revenues keep growing. STR and Tourism Economics predicts that the average daily room rate for the nation’s hotels will increase 4.2 percent this year to $115.02 and grow another 4.4 percent next year to $120.13.

County tourism doing well

Sonoma County tourism has fared well since the recession and continues to outperform the competition, according to local officials. To date this year, county hotel room rates have increased 8.3 percent from a year earlier to $131.42, according to STR and Tourism Economics.

Fern Grove Cottage’s new owners, Jenny Lamarre and Sherman Tyler, first considered purchasing a business franchise in such industries as fast food and medical testing. But the couple said that seemed more like “buying a job” rather than doing something they really enjoyed.

Now they’re busy working long summer days to keep repeat guests satisfied and to make sure that newcomers can find them. Lamarre said first-timers often come to her with a smartphone in hand and an explanation that Fern Grove came up on a list of lodging reviews.

Success, she said, will partly involve “figuring a way to keep our name coming up on the top of their lists.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@press democrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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