Real Estate - Commercial

Local B&Bs Face Changing Industry

By Cece Nunn, posted May 18, 2018
Gwenyfar Rohler, owner of Old Books on Front St., is shown in the library of her childhood home at 1817 Market St., which she is turning into Between the Covers: A North Carolina Literary B&B. (photo by Cece Nunn)
Gwenyfar Rohler is transforming her childhood home, a 120-year-old house at 1817 Market St., into a bed and breakfast inn.
Between the Covers: A North Carolina Literary B&B will be one of the newest bed and breakfast facilities in the Wilmington area, where a city staff-produced map in 2017 showed that there are more than 30 properties in downtown Wilmington alone that hold bed and breakfast establishment licenses from the city.
Not all properties that hold a license are home to functioning bed and breakfast facilities. As part of a discussion that broke off from the short-term rental rule debate that Wilmington officials and residents have had for a few years, the city staff has also been asked to look at the city’s rules regarding bed and breakfast establishments.
Meanwhile, the industry is changing, with new concepts on the way.
“I felt like we are at a point where there’s more of a demand for lodging and hospitality in general,” said Rohler, who also owns Old Books on Front St. at 249 N. Front St. “What I am doing is different than the traditional bed and breakfast experience. It’s a really specific niche market that is really aimed at literary tourism.”
Rohler has already found success with a smaller bed and breakfast literary tourism concept called the The Top Shelf: A Literary Loft, located above her bookstore, that stays occupied.
“We have done fabulously with it. If we had any more bookings, I physically would fall over,” Rohler said of The Top Shelf.
Her latest lodging project already has bookings for a planned October opening. The inn will have three units, a cap set by current city rules for bed and breakfast facilities. Some bed and breakfast owners have taken issue with the room limit, part of rules put into place in the 1990s when downtown residents were concerned that too many homes were being turned into bed and breakfast businesses.
“The national studies in the land of bed and breakfasts show that five is the optimum number for being able to meet all of those needs [of a business] if a couple own and manage the business together and live on-site,” Rohler said.
City rules also state that bed and breakfast facilities are limited to one per square block and one per numeric block.
“My opinion is they should let people have more than three rooms,” said Dave Billitto, co-owner of hospitality company NachoMamasNC, along with his wife, Pam Jorgenson. “Let it at least be viable as a homebased business.”
Billitto and Jorgenson recently purchased a home on Nun Street to turn into a bed and breakfast concept.
They want to be part of the latest and future trends for travelers, Billitto said, because they believe the industry will continue to change with visitors’ tastes.
“When you think of B&Bs, you think of parlor chairs and furniture and big omelets in the morning, and we’re trying to rethink what it is a little bit,” he said.
Instead of a traditional breakfast, they’re offering a “signature snack pack, everything from organic Pop Tarts to Moon Pies to chips and snacks,” Billitto said. “It’s kind of a fun basket of goodies that revolve around morning, noon and night and possibly even late night.”
It’s important to have a variety of lodging types, said Paula Tirrito, who owns Camellia Cottage Bed & Breakfast with her husband, Steven Skavroneck.
The couple has operated Camellia Cottage at 118 S. 4th St. for 16 years and have put the property up for sale for $900,000 as a bed and breakfast or $850,000 for buyers who want to use it as a residence only. The 4,600-square-foot house was built in 1889 and occupied by members of the Williams and the MacMillian family, including well-known Wilmington artist Henry MacMillan, Tirrito said.
She said she and Skavroneck are ready for the next phase of their lives, after being in the bed and breakfast industry in Wilmington and before that in Milwaukee for a total of 22 years.
They’ve done well with their business in Wilmington, she said, and expect demand to remain high in the Port City for bed and breakfast inns and other types of accommodations.
“The more Wilmington becomes a destination, the more different types of people are going to be coming here for different reasons. It’s better to have a bigger variety of lodging. Some people like the anonymity of a hotel or they just want something grander; some people just want a kitchen and a hot plate,” Tirrito said. “It’s all over the map and so we’ve always done what we feel most comfortable doing and that’s worked out well for us.”
The Verandas, a bed and breakfast at 202 Nun St., is also for sale. Chuck Pennington has owned and operated the establishment for more than 20 years. The 8,500-square-foot mansion built in 1853 was rebuilt in 1995 after fires ruined the interior.
The Verandas has eight rooms because it was grandfathered in when the three-room rule was put into place.
“If you just want [to operate a bed and breakfast] like a hobby and supplement your income, you can have three rooms, but to have a really fully functioning business, you should have at least eight rooms,” Pennington said. He said despite the number of downtown properties that have bed and breakfast licenses from the city, he estimates that there are only about 12 or 13 functioning establishments. Some property owners might be holding onto the licenses under the assumption that a property with a license attached can increase a potential sale price.
Pennington wants to sell The Verandas because he wants more time to continue his worldwide travels. Operating a bed and breakfast is a complicated endeavor, he said.
When Pennington first started, there were 26 bed and breakfast establishments in downtown Wilmington, Pennington said. “The burnout rate is about three years,” he said.
The Verandas provides handironed sheets and a full gourmet breakfast and has repeatedly garnered AAA Four-Diamond designations. On top of high service standards that bed and breakfasts can require, they also face a lot of scrutiny – from health and fire departments, insurance companies and neighbors.
“It’s a careful balancing act,” Pennington said.
And there are hoops to jump through before a new bed and breakfast establishment can open, Rohler said. They include health department requirements for serving food.
When Rohler first broached the subject with local health department officials, “It had been so long since somebody had opened a new licensed bed and breakfast in Wilmington that they didn’t know whose problem I needed to be. I got sent to four different people, all of whom were very, very nice.”
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