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Wine Country Inn Ownership: Living The Dream

or Tidy Bubbles?

Have you ever wondered what it's like to live the dream? Many folks hosting you this summer at the Russian River were once corporate executives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Without any prior hands-on experience in the hospitality industry, they somehow got the notion that becoming an innkeeper in the wine country would be just the thing that could fulfill them. Fresh air, a starry sky, the gentle flow of the river, a slower way of life… and Tide.

No, I don't mean the way the ocean laps the beach. I mean the detergent.

The reality of resort ownership is one of two things; masterful delegation to a pricey loyal staff, or an intimate relationship with the bank of Kenmores in your laundry facility. Because, when all is said and done, it's been said and done on the towels and sheets of your guest rooms.

Staffing is a problem in a seasonal community. Everybody is vying for the good workers. To lure them away from their return roosts at other establishments, you have to pay more. The good workers are worth it. They embrace Monday morning with the air of a seasoned soldier. They are capable of creating a system, and they can train other staff members.

For owners with superior staffing, Monday is the day to socialize in the aisles of Safeway or carpool to Home Depot. For the ‘have-nots,’ Mondays are the penitence you pay for every sin you ever committed. The horror goes beyond the amount of work you behold as you pop and whir between the laundry timers. There is a coy little surprise behind every door; anything from gum on the rug to shower curtains fashioned into togas.

The romantic cycle of resort ownership takes about 17 months, depending on what season the property is purchased in. Optimism, distraction, competition, disillusionment and resignation all play out in many of our local innkeepers during the cycle.

In the beginning they have many ideas for upgrades, and the excitement is white-hot. The first suite they remodel is as precious as their first-born. But like the harried parents of quintuplets, the successive renovations soon make them impatient. You can always spot a newbee by the amount of money they spend initially. After closing escrow, you'd think they bought a money-tree farm.

For the visitor, this is the best season to patronize these new owners. Their rooms are clean, the sheets are crisp, and the staff is intimidated to the point of total submission by the fanatic perfectionists the new owners have become. They offer sophisticated extras like shampoo and body wash, and many greet you with a glass of local wine when you are checking in. If you are planning an extended stay, ask them if they give a length-of-stay discount. Clumsy with the new industry math and caught off-guard by the question, they will usually give you a great deal.

After about two months, you'll be asking them if they are on the Atkin's diet. They'll answer you breathlessly, eyes darting back and forth like the hunted prey. At this stage, they are so distracted you might as well try and carry on a conversation in the middle of a birthday party of four-year olds. It's no use making small conversation, like asking how their spouse likes the new business; they probably can't remember his or her name, and when they do, down comes the avalanche of gripes about how their partner has neglected to contribute their fair share to the enterprise. Either partner; doesn't matter. They might complain about not seeing their friends so much anymore, but what they really mean is 'why aren't my friends offering to lend a hand?'

There is nothing you can do for them except get them drunk in the evenings after everyone is checked in. Or talk on the phone to them after they've had a glass or two of wine. For some reason, alcohol allows a little celebration seep out, and it usually formats itself in complete sentences - even if they aren't related to anything you've been talking about. Things like, "I never knew drywall was so easy… actually, I never thought removing wallpaper would be so hard. Do you know that the number 4 coffee filter outsells the others 3 to 1?"

Oh, and the other thing you can do is share a miracle. If you have a timesaving device, magical cleansing agent or a new-fangled gadget that does something like make ice-cubes freeze faster, donate it to the cause. That's when you'll be revered as a true supporter.

My tip; FOLEX carpet stain remover, Safeway, $8.99. It's also a bottle-tan remover.