Call Debbie Lennon an “innkeeper,” and she cringes. For Lennon, the word conjures up images of the sitcom adventures of Bob Newhart, playing a befuddled Vermont innkeeper coping with a leaky roof and wacko townspeople. Lennon, the proprietor of the elegant five-star Kennebunkport Inn in Maine, is more of a professional hospitality manager than a frazzled B&B owner.
Sure, she has her share of leaky faucets, horror guests, and power outages, but in-season, her staff of 50, from general manager to housekeeper, take care of the daily operational details, while Lennon oversees the strategic direction: marketing, finance, and business administration. “Behind every guest stay, there are hundreds of transactions to produce that experience. People may not understand the dynamics behind the scenes: changing light bulbs, clean bedding, wake-up calls, check-in,” says Lennon.
Unlike numerous refugees from corporate America who romanticize the experience of owning a quaint New England B&B and end up disillusioned or burnt out, Lennon knows the ins and outs of owning a hotel firsthand. In college, she worked at a Cape Cod resort, rotating through different positions, including chambermaid, bellboy, bartender, and room attendant. She went onto train at two major hotel chains, rising to general manager and regional vice president. But she always wanted to own her own business, and purchased The Kennebunkport Inn with her husband 10 years ago. “It’s the classic New England inn; and serendipitously, we had our rehearsal dinner here when we were married.”
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring innkeepers?
A: The hotel business is 24/7. If a property is small, work is completely hands-on, cleaning toilets, making breakfast or checking guests in. People fantasize about owning an inn and living in New Hampshire or Vermont, where it’s idyllic and a quieter lifestyle, but it’s a lot of hard work.
Q: Is this a profitable business?
A: You can make a living, but it can vary seasonally and depends on the location. Even a small property can be highly profitable if you have a high average rate (average income per occupied room in a given time period) or you need offer more amenities or services, such as a restaurant.
Q: You’ve been in the hospitality business for 20 years. What sort of crises have you been through?
A: In larger hotels, I had everything from a blizzard to guests deaths; a riot in the ballroom, and a fire.
Q: How has the hotel business changed thorough out the years?
A: The level of customer’s sophistication has risen as well as what they’re seeking in a travel destination. The physical plant needs to match the guest expectations. Today, what guests have at home, they also want to see in a hotel, whether it’s flat screen TV, wireless everywhere, Keurig coffee makers, free standing mirrors, granite countertops, or dual showerheads in the bathroom. We try to balance having amenities with retaining the classical architecture and feel of an 1899 building.
Q: Your hotel is in Kennebunkport, which is George H.W. Bush’s stomping grounds, of course. Do you ever see him?
A: Of course. He was friendly with the previous owners of the inn, and we used to host his secret service staff. We see him out on the street as well. He’s very friendly and amendable. Because he’s a part of the town, we attract more tourists, so politics aside, naturally, I think that’s an asset.
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