St. Croix's small hotel owners got advice on tax breaks and low interest loans, tips on cost-effective interior design and architectural style, and business advice from a celebrated New York bed and breakfast owner at a "Small Hotels Economic Development Summit” Friday.
The owners of some of St. Croix's signature small inns – The Inn At Salt River, Cottages by the Sea, Sand Castle On the Beach, and others – gathered in the conference room of the Palms at Pelican Cove.
The day's highlight was no doubt an energizing talk from successful bed-and-breakfast entrepreneur and author Monique Greenwood, filled with practical advice on how to market the business, how to close sales and get rooms filled, and how to make people seek your place, by giving them the fantasy experience they daydream about.
Greenwood is the owner of Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns, a collection of five historic bed and breakfast inns located in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Cape May, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; and most recently the Mansion at Noble Lane, a boutique resort and spa on 22 acres in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains.
"Some people have a paycheck mentality," Greenwood said. "But with a bed-and-breakfast a lot of it is a lifestyle industry.
“People from all over the world come and sit at our table. That is priceless. Now we may not get a check every two weeks and we have to figure out how to monetize it. ... But you want to love what you do. If you don't love what you do I want you to fire yourself. If they show up to the door and you are sucking your teeth, that is a problem. That is why I have my husband come in through the back door," she joked.
"This is a fantasy. When they ring that bell it is showtime," Greenwood said at another point, drilling home again and again that small hotel and inn owners need to create and sell a unique experience. She pointed to a would-be inn owner in the room, as someone with the right sort of idea.
"This lady, Dolores Fielding, she wants to do a cook house on the farm, and she is not far from where the cruise ships come in, so when they come, let's figure out how to package the tours," Greenwood said.
Fielding wants to showcase an organic farm, with fresh, local tropical produce, she said. "She said she would like to show them how to make a Johnny cake. People love that kind of thing. So I think that concept is great. ... Have an island experience, show how something is grown, how something is made, then eat it. I love it," she said.
Earlier in the morning, EDA officials outlined the authority's tax break and lending programs, which offer up to 90 percent tax breaks for qualifying businesses. (Information and applications available at www.usvieda.org)
Assistant Tourism Commissioner Brad Nugent briefed the crowd on how Tourism can help them promote their establishments. Small inns that do not have websites can piggyback on the Tourism Department's website, and can even arrange to have bookings made through them, Nugent said.
He encouraged small hotel owners to post promotions on Tourism's Facebook page, and talked about the departments small hotel promotion package "Inntimate Treasures."
Interior designer Colette Anderson offered up lots of advice on practical strategies for beautifying on a budget. For example, "it's better to have a few good plants than many half dead ones," Anderson said, as an example. "Take all your dying plants and put them in one place out back, call it your plant hospital and see if they come back. But your guests don't need to see them."
Also "get rid of the faded artwork – take the painting off the wall and paint it with some accent color instead," Anderson suggested.
Architect James Hanna II, a principal at high-end international architectural firm Lessard Design, offered practical advice for making a big impact on a budget, saying whenever you can frame a view, through arches or with a small trellis, it draws the eye toward the most appealing visual elements. "And you make it human, you bring it down to a human scale," Hanna said.
People's first impressions are critical, Hanna said.
"When I walk up to you and shake your hand, that is your first impression," he said. "So if you are going to spend money on hardware, make sure it is on your front door," he said, showing a photo of a very attractive, well-designed hotel door handle.
Miguel Quinones of the V.I.Energy Office urged the small hoteliers to work on making their businesses more energy efficient, and to consider solar hot water and possibly solar electrical generation. To those who say they cannot afford it, Quinones said they were already spending the money without getting the savings.
"You are using the money that could be used for energy upgrades for utility bills," he said. Lots can be saved by changing to high efficiency lighting, getting reflective blinds and energy efficient air conditioners, "not really super painful stuff," he said. "But you will have a return on investment that leaves any Wall Street investment in the dust. You can get a rate of return of up to 30 percent" per year, he said.
In the afternoon, hoteliers split up into working groups, for one-on-one discussions with the speakers and more in-depth help with tax benefit and lending programs.
All the officials and guest speakers talked about these issues with St. Thomas small hotel and inn owners Wednesday at the Best Western Plus Emerald Beach Resort on St. Thomas.