Geyser Lodge Owners Face Profitability Problems

Norm Bovee and Sandy Macica

Norm Bovee and Sandy Macica stand in front of their bed and breakfast in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They have been running the inn for eight years. Jim Zarroli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Zarroli, NPR

Many people dream of opening a bed and breakfast somewhere in the countryside. But it's not an easy business unless you have some outside income. The story of Geyser Lodge is part of a series of stories on how people in business for themselves make ends meet.

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Dreams of quitting the rat race and opening a bed and breakfast are pretty common. Those who do take the plunge and buy a B&B often discover it can be a tough way to make a living.

As part of our series on how people who work for themselves make ends meet, NPR's Jim Zarroli visited a couple who opened a bed and breakfast in Saratoga Springs, New York. After eight years, they're just starting to make a return on their investment.

JIM ZARROLI: At the Geyser Lodge, breakfast is served at nine. The guests here eat family-style, grouped around the dining room table, so everybody gets to know each other.

Unidentified Woman #1: You work at MIT?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, we - I was right there…

ZARROLI: Geyser Lodge is owned by married couple, Norm Bovee and Sandy Macica, who also live here. They're in their 40s, friendly and unpretentious, and they work hard to create a comfortable atmosphere.

Mr. NORM BOVEE (Co-Owner, Geyser Lodge): We really want you to be a part of our house. We don't want you to come in and feel like, you know, you're here to give us money, go to your room, eat and get out. We want this to be your home in Saratoga when you come here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZARROLI: Today is a Saturday in August, which is racing season in Saratoga Springs. For six weeks, the town is deluged with visitors. Like most places in town, the Geyser Lodge raises its rates. You can get a room for $69 a night here in the slow season. Right now the best room goes for 239. And still Norm Bovee says the inn is full.

Mr. BOVEE: Oh, we have eight guests this morning, one couple from Manhattan. We have some people here from Connecticut.

ZARROLI: This is a busy time for you?

Mr. BOVEE: August is our busiest season. In fact, we had people calling last night at 8:55, looking for a room. And there're just no rooms to be found. If we had more rooms, you could certainly sell more rooms.

ZARROLI: After they put breakfast on the table, Bovee and Macica return to the kitchen and try to take stock of which guests have eaten.

Mr. BOVEE: Okay. So Jen, Debbie(ph) are still here.

ZARROLI: Then as they clean the breakfast dishes, the couple talk about running the inn.

The Geyser Lodge is a rambling Victorian with a wraparound porch that was once a tourist hotel and a home for alcoholics. When they bought it for about $280,000, the couple took out a home equity loan to pay for renovations. They're still paying it off. But over the years, things have gotten more comfortable, financially.

Ms. SANDY MACICA (Co-Owner, Geyser Lodge): This is our best year, currently. Last quarter, we had 38 more room-nights than we did the same quarter for last year.

Mr. BOVEE: Initially, the start-up here was expensive, you know, what it cost to put bathrooms in and develop a parking lot. Now, you know, we don't have as much overhead costs anymore, and money is starting to come in better.

ZARROLI: That's not to say the Geyser Lodge turns a profit. The inn brings in almost $50,000 a year, but food and supplies take up 12,000. They employ a part-time housekeeper and a teenage boy to help around the house. And there are numerous other expenses. There are taxes and utilities and fees for the local hotel association, which helps refer customers. They pay a Web designer. Add it all up and the couple make virtually no money off the inn.

Like most bed and breakfast owners, they have to work full-time jobs to get by. Bovee is a physician's assistant. Macica works for a health care consultant. They constantly have to balance their jobs with the demands of the inn.

(Soundbite of ringing telephone)

Ms. MACICA: So…

ZARROLI: As she's cleaning up, Macica gets a phone call. Yesterday, she rented a car for work. Today, the rental agent calls to say there's a scratch on it.

Ms. MACICA: Yeah? I didn't - I know.

ZARROLI: Macica worries about whether her employer will pay for the repair. She wants to go see how bad the damage is, but with a half-dozen guests in the dining room that's not possible, so she heads back to the sink.

Ms. MACICA: I just don't have the time to do that. You're on a pretty tight schedule in the morning here and anything else that comes up that takes you away from that is a problem.

ZARROLI: So Bovee goes to check out the car for her. The couple have to do a lot of juggling. They're lucky in one sense - both of them have relatives nearby who can help out in a pinch and they have no kids making extra demands on their time. Modern technology helps, too. Macica can transfer calls to the inn to her cell phone and take reservations even if she's on a job in New York City.

So why did they do it? For one thing, they enjoy it. Perhaps more important, the couple see themselves as building up a business.

Mr. BOVEE: Anybody who owns a bed and breakfast could tell you that it has to grow. You don't open up and money just starts flowing in, hand over fist.

Ms. MACICA: I mean, that's your income but that's not your profit.

Mr. BOVEE: Right.

Ms. MACICA: There's - not as much profit obviously. They're - it's expensive.

Mr. BOVEE: You develop a home. You draw people in. And as people come and see it, they either come back, tell friends and they come back. And now we have people, actually, when they're leaving here, are telling us that next year at this same time, they want the same, you know, the same days again. They want to do the same room again. And now, you're seeing kind of a return on that.

ZARROLI: In other words, Bovee says, the Geyser Lodge has a loyal customer base that gets bigger every year. That will enhance its value if they ever decide to sell the inn, or maybe one day they'll be able to quit their jobs altogether and run the inn full time.

Still, one industry trade group says nearly three of every five bed and breakfast owners need outside income to stay in business. The most that the couple can hope for is that their hard work and sacrifices will one day help them overcome the odds.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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