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A Quiet Industry: The quaint charm of Victorian bed and breakfast inns have captivated generations of tourists

By Michael Beadle

Western North Carolina prides itself as a tourist destination — the mountain getaway where you can hike and shop and rest among the soothing sounds of nature.

Travelers looking for that extra personal service in a cozy atmosphere have long enjoyed the comfort of bed and breakfast inns. Since the 19th century, folks have come to the mountains to catch the fall leaf season, get away from big city bustle or cool off from hotter climes. Boarding houses eventually turned into bed and breakfast inns, and dozens sprung up throughout Western North Carolina, ranging from the small-town, mom-and-pop inns to the individualized, fully furnished cabins and exclusive resorts that cater to guests willing to shell out $300 or more a night for gourmet meals and a romantic room with a majestic view.

As the tourism industry revs up this spring, the bed and breakfast industry continues to turn on the charm, raising county revenue with room taxes and pumping dollars into the local economy by hosting guests who spend vacation money at shops, restaurants and tourist attractions.

In 2004, tourism revenue for Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties soared to $461 million, and 3-percent room taxes generated $1.7 million, most of which goes back into each of the counties’ tourism authority organizations to spend on advertising. Figures aren’t broken down to see exactly how much of that revenue is generated by B&B’s, but just by the number of inns, cabin rentals and resorts in the region, conservative estimates would put that figure in the millions.

The Tourism Development Authority of Haywood County lists 25 bed and breakfasts and inns in Haywood County alone, with another 70 more listings for cabins, cottages and villas. There are 11 B&B’s listed with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority that help make up the 1,400 available rooms in the county.

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Tourism officials will gladly admit that B&B’s quietly serve a key role in helping generate county revenue while extending a gracious welcome to vacationers, second-home shoppers, visiting entertainers, and would-be business leaders who may want to relocate to the area.

“It’s a clean industry and it employs a lot more people than you would think,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

Spiro and other tourism leaders have noticed a trend in Western North Carolina — new inns catering to a more sophisticated clientele, those who want to stay longer, relax in a cabin or villa, and take advantage of three meals a day, hiking trails on the property, and a spa-type atmosphere. Bringing in massage therapists, exercise specialists, chefs, wait staff, cleaning services and other amenities, these inns can also expand the local job market, Spiro explained.

“It’s not just a mom-and-pop industry anymore,” she said.

But will higher gas prices hit the hospitality industry this summer?

“It’s probably premature to speculate,” Spiro said, adding that last year’s post-Katrina gas prices did hurt the area and the state as Gov. Mike Easley urged drivers to cut back on traveling during the gas shortage. However, rising gas prices could also raise airline tickets, and that may mean more driving vacations.

A 2004 study by the North Carolina Department of Commerce found that 85 percent of travelers who come to the state come by automobile. Spiro noted that Jackson County is poised as a great tourist destination for motorists — about three hours from Atlanta, two-and-a-half hours from Charlotte, and Waynesville is about 90 minutes from Knoxville.


A savvy business

Bed and Breakfast inns are often used for courting physicians to the area, according to Lisa Allen, director of physician recruitment at WestCare Health Systems.

“I have found that to be a very successful recruiting tool,” Allen said.

In a year’s time, the hospital may get 30 to 40 physician visits, and it’s crucial to offer professionals a great stay when they come. Doctors may be coming from Baltimore, Charleston, and various cities all over the country. They tend be familiar with Asheville but may not know as much about Jackson County, Allen said.

“You have to show them the best of what you have,” she said, and B&B’s are happy to oblige, providing helpful information about area attractions, local history and a picturesque snapshot of the county.

It makes good business sense for innkeepers to get repeat customers, so it’s not like Allen has to give the B&B’s any extra hints on how to treat physicians being recruited.

“They are so savvy,” Allen said. “They roll out the red carpet. They can really talk about the quality of the area.”

Perhaps it’s as simple as having a homemade breakfast or a special bunkbed for the kids to sleep. Unlike larger hotel chains, B&B innkeepers offer that personal service for guests who want to know more about the area.

Last year, when J.C. Walkup and a literary committee in Haywood County wanted to organize the Haywood High Country Book Fair, they used Waynesville bed and breakfasts like the Herren House to give incoming authors the royal treatment.

“Everyone who went there just raved about it,” Walkup said.

And that helps generate more interest for top-notch authors to come again.


A changing market

B&Bs and their amenity-rich alternatives appear to be thriving, according to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, a leading organization that promotes the B&B industry worldwide.

A 2002 worldwide survey by PAII found that the number of bed and breakfast inns and vacation cabins grew from 1,000 in 1980 to 29,000 in 2001. The number of B&B/cabin guests served in that same time period grew from 1 million to 55 million. The survey also found that the average inn was 99 years old, usually had private baths in all of its rooms, did not allow smoking, and employed at least four people on its staff., a popular informational Web site in the hospitality industry, currently ranks Asheville as the 17th most popular destination in the world for bed and breakfast inns — above Montreal, Canada; Washington, D.C.; and St. Augustine, Fla., and just behind cities like Rome, London and Boston.

That puts Western North Carolina in a marketing haven for worldwide travelers — especially those looking to get away from it all and take in the vistas and natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and nearby tourist attractions like the Biltmore Estate, Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

While tourists continue to visit Western North Carolina, they may not be coming for the same reasons.

“Now, they’re all moving here,” said Mylan Sessions, visitors center manager for the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “They’re all looking to buy.”

Sessions said she’s been getting a steady stream of phone calls and emails from people looking for homes rather than inns or hotels.

At the Herren House, an historic bed and breakfast in downtown Waynesville, innkeeper Tom Halsey said about a fourth to a third of his guests come looking to buy property or a home.

One market innkeepers will be sure to watch for? The massive Baby Boomer generation now retiring. Many of Halsey’s guests tend to be retirees looking for a more upscale, personalized kind of experience rather than a hotel, where you probably won’t meet the owner.

A 2004 study done by TravelScope, Travel Industry Association found that about three-fourths of North Carolina’s tourists are married and more than half have a college degree or graduate education. Of these tourists, the average age is 46, the average stay is two nights, and the average household annual income is $70,000 or more.


B&B business

Tom Halsey and his wife, Jenny, moved from Atlanta to Waynesville to take over the Herren House about a year ago after tiring of the hectic traffic, pollution and corporate downsizing of city life. They both had careers in marketing and had traveled extensively.

“We knew what it was like to experience high levels of customer satisfaction,” Tom said.

The Halseys looked at 15 different B&B’s around the Southeast before picking the Herren House, which first opened in 1897 as a boarding house, was renovated from 1989-1994, and then reopened as a bed and breakfast. Waynesville’s mayor, Henry Foy, was born and partly raised in the house; his mother got married there. It’s the kind of history Halsey knows his guests appreciate. He likes to call Waynesville a “real world Mayberry,” alluding to the simpler life of bygone years but with all the modern conveniences.

While the idea of running a B&B might seem romantic — living in a large, charming house, serving light meals and enjoying company in a relaxed atmosphere — there’s much more to running a B&B than making the beds and fixing breakfast, Halsey explained.

“Behind the scenes, it really is a lot of work,” he said.

It’s not like you can go to B&B training school, he added.

Halsey recommends spending at least a week doing all the odd chores and running the business of the inn before owning one — something he wishes he would have done before taking on the duties at the Herren House. Besides booking reservations and greeting guests, there are sheets to iron, clothes to wash, rooms to dust, foods to buy, phones to answer, as well as accounting, marketing, and publicity. Today’s traveler often books reservations over the Internet, Halsey said, so that means making sure your B&B is listed on key sites where would-be guests might surf the Web.

Halsey said the Herren House enjoys a “symbiotic” relationship with the downtown Waynesville merchants — he recommends guests go shopping there and they, in turn, recommend customers to stay at the bed and breakfast. Halsey serves as vice president of the Waynesville Bed and Breakfast Association and helps market the town’s B&B’s and the friendly atmosphere of the town.

“We are probably the best ambassadors for this area,” Halsey said.


Rest and relaxation

Traditionally tourists escaped to the mountains during summer and fall seasons.

“It used to be that way,” says Mathew Gillen, manager at Fire Mountain Inn in Highlands. “Now it’s become more year-round.”

Fire Mountain is a unique kind of inn, although most innkeepers like to make that claim. This one caters to people seeking to get away from it all. There are no phones or TV’s, and many of the stresses of everyday life are taken away so that guests can relax in a soothing environment in the mountains. Guests come from all over the United States and from foreign countries.

“We’re a retreat from the outside world,” Gillen says. “You have to get away.”

Having been in the hospitality business for 25 years, he takes pride in giving people the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate. They may come on a Friday noticeably stressed out, he says, but by the third or fourth day, they appear much more relaxed and gladly proclaim how much they’ve enjoyed themselves.

Some inns such as the historic Balsam Mountain Inn in Jackson County cater to guests as well as wedding receptions and special events. With its 50 rooms and five suites, the three-story inn also hosts music events like its popular “Songwriters in the Round” series, highlighting top-notch songwriters and musicians. While some inns revel in having haunted guest rooms, others like The Swag, an elegant respite 5,000 feet high in Haywood County, can boast having such guests as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Other inns like the newly built Brooksong Bed and Breakfast Inn (open since July 2003) come much smaller — only five bedrooms — but all are equipped with gas-log fireplaces, showers and TV’s. The house was designed to be a bed and breakfast inn, unlike some inns that were originally built as large homes and then renovated.

Brooksong is located next to Jonathan Creek within walking distance of Maggie Valley shops and a short drive from tourist destinations like Cherokee, the Biltmore House and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. People can kick back on the porch or go for a hike.

Cletis Wagahoff, who runs Brooksong with his wife Betty, maintains the inn year-round. They receive guests from throughout the Southeast.

“There’s a whole bunch of nice people out there,” Wagahoff said with a chat-on-the-porch congeniality.

He enjoys picking up a conversation with guests while his wife prepares a complementary, sit-down, candlelit breakfast. There’s a neo-Victorian style to the house with antiques and a grand piano in the living room. Couples come to celebrate a honeymoon, an anniversary, a birthday. Sometimes it’s a wedding or reception. Running an inn means you get to see people celebrating some of the happiest moments of their lives.

“It gives us an awful lot of satisfaction,” Wagahoff said.

The industry of bed and breakfast inns has expanded to include not just single buildings with multiple rooms but also sites where guests can choose from a number of cottages.

That’s the case with Mountain Brook, located off U.S. 441 outside of Dillsboro in Jackson County. The family-owned cottage business is run by husband and wife Gus and Michele McMahon and their daughter Maqelle. The 14 individual one- and two-bedroom cottages are fully equipped with fireplaces but without TV’s and phones. Guests can relax in the spa/sauna bungalow on the property at no extra charge or fish in the trout pond also on-site. Mountain Brook has three “Romancer” cottages for couples looking for a special secluded getaway. These cottages come equipped with a Jacuzzi, a netted canopy king-size bed, and open floor space.

Over the 27 years the McMahons have operated Mountain Brook, they’ve developed some perks to offer guests such as recipes for cooking mountain trout, a nature trail around the property, and a “blue book” — an all-in-one guidebook full of brochures, news articles, maps and information guests can use during their stay. There’s even a newsletter called “Mountain Brook Babblings.”

About half of Mountain Brook’s guests are repeaters. One couple from Georgia has been coming since 1990 — some 43 times. The husband proposed at Mountain Brook, the couple later had their renewal of vows there, and the family just keeps coming back.

“It’s like coming back home again,” Michele McMahon said.

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