Chapter 21 The Art of Innkeeping
I have spent about half of my career as an employee and the other half as a small business entrepreneur. In this chapter I am really addressing those that have never owned their own business. I would like to clear up some common misconceptions about business, the struggle to keep government happy, the insurance monster and the value of a business to its community.
As someone who has worked hard to achieve I am sensitive to an under tone of negativity towards business. I know that most of that is aimed at big business. To the surprise of many a big business is just a small business that has grown wildly beyond the expectation of the founder. People like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are my heroes. Yes, they have become very rich but they have also created millions of jobs, advanced our living standards and have contributed tons of tax and charitable dollars for the good of everyone else. In some ways these individuals have shaped our world in more profound ways then anyone in Washington. Unfortunately few businesses achieve this kind of success.
Many small businesses fail resulting in serious financial pain for the owners. There is no minimum wage for entrepreneurs to guarantee a living wage. Business is all about risk taking. Play it safe, copy what everyone else is doing and may be with good management you will eke out a living. Thinking outside the box will result in greater success or a bigger flop.
Most people go into business for themselves because they have a craft or trade that they enjoy doing or they have new ideas that they wish to develop and introduce to the market place. Others go into business because they want to control their own destiny or seek the freedom of being their own boss. The freedom that entrepreneurs seek tends to be elusive. When you are the boss you are never truly off or carefree.
Before you can practice your trade or explore your passion there are fees and paper work that need to be done first. And I just don’t mean taxes. The following must be renewed every year for the inn involving paper work, time and fees; Liquor license, Food Service License, Corporate Registration, Trade Name, Boiler Inspection etc. Our water must be tested four times a year by the state. False positives can result in even more testing, forms and fees. Every time we hire a new employee there is paper work. Forget to check box 3D and your paper work will be mailed back.
In all fairness I have to say that our local town of Sugar Hill is well run and a pleasure to do business with. As a former resident of New Jersey I can say that it is certainly easier to do business in New Hampshire.
As a businessperson the last thing that I want is for an employee or guest to be injured at the inn. However sometimes I think the regulators have lost site of their mission and are more focused on forms and fees. They also have no idea of the impact and cost that a new regulation may have. Unlike big business who have whole departments devote to compliance small business must fend for its self. Although I do my best to stay informed, I am sure that there are laws being passed in Concord and Washington pertinent to the inn that I am totally ignorant of. One of the more confusing things is payroll. There are too many land mines here to take chances. That is why almost any company with more then a few employees uses a payroll service.
I am neither an expert on insurance or building codes but this is how it looks from my vantage point. Property insurance along with workers comp and auto insurance is one of our larger expenses and is absolutely necessary and required. Occasionally we get the question why are we so pricy. The answer is that there are so many expenses that have absolutely nothing to do with our core mission of hospitality.
For years our commercial property insurance was not that much different then having home owners insurance although much more expensive. You paid the premium each month and they left you along. We have never filed a claim and have a perfect safety record. About three years ago our insurance company contacted an independent insurance inspection company to visit their properties. They are paid to find issues and that is what they do. Many of their suggestions were reasonable and we quickly complied.
When it come to safety and fire protection there is always room for better technology. Regulators are continually updating building codes as better methods become available. If I was constructing a new building, not only would I be required to follow the best building practices, that is of course what I would what to do. The question is with an older building do we replace perfectly good and effective system every time building codes change. Our local town officials are very familiar with the inn and are guided by good common sense. I can’t say the same for the insurance companies we have worked with.
Two years ago our insurance company had us replace a perfectly good fire suppression system for our restaurant kitchen with then latest and greatest. We also did everything else they asked and the next year they came back with a new set of demands. While poorer we are not safer. It is this collusion of big government and big insurance that is needlessly hurting small business and driving up costs. This year we will be changing companies but I am sure that we will continue to experience similar issues in the future. In the long run these costs are passed along to consumers.
I am most proud of our contribution to our community. We employ a staff of twelve and support our local stores, farmers, venders, plumbers, painters, electricians, artists etc. We also refer our guests to the local attractions, stores and restaurants. Anyone who has studied economics know that there is a multiplier effect as these transactions make their way thru the local economy.
We also contribute $20,000 in property taxes to the town of Sugar Hill, most of it going towards education. Since we do not use the schools this is a net contribution to our community. I am a believer in good schools so I am not complaining but I mention it because I want my readers to understand how a business contributes to the community and also to have a better idea of the underlying costs of being in business.
The State of New Hampshire has a 9% meals and rooms tax. We collect over $55,000 per year for our state government. Although technically it is our guests who pay the tax, the cost of collecting it (credit card fees, filing requirement) fall on us. I think that most travelers look at the total cost of travel so that the larger the bite of government the less there is for the private economy. Fortunately in New Hampshire taxes related to hotels and dining are about half of that charged in many big cities such as New York or Boston.
It seems like a week doesn’t go by without receiving a request by a local organization for a donation. We give gift certificates to numerous organizations and enjoy being generous and supporting our community. Since we can’t give to everyone, I recommend to fundraisers, patronize those businesses you call on. Every other year we give Public TV the ultimate weekend away in the Dream Cottage including dining and a hot stone treatment for their annual auction. I understand that the cynic among us will say we are just being self serving. I like to think of it as win win. I see it with tipping at the inn, generous givers are the happiest people.
Every year we participate in the Taste of the Nation Manchester to raises critical funds needed to support Share Our Strength’s efforts to end childhood hunger in New Hampshire and across the nation.
We are also active in Respitality, a program offering a night away to parents with special needs or ill children.
I have been an active member of the Franconia Notch Chamber of Commerce. Serving Six years on the board of directors. While it is true that most people join because they believe that it will help their business unfortunately there are many businesses that are freeloaders. They benefit from the increased tourism in the area without paying membership dues. To avoid embarrassment I will not name names. For those that volunteer their time to be President and to chair committees I solute you and thank you for making our community a better place to live and work. We also belong to the Western White Mountain and Littleton chamber.
If you ask someone about his or her hometown they might start off with a memory of their school days, friends from the neighborhood and move on to their favorite stores, restaurants and landmarks. The restaurant where special occasions were celebrated with the grand parents or the coffee shop where you would meet your friends. Discovering that your favorite diner has been replaced by an office building or the drive in theater is now a shopping center is bound to create a sense of sadness.
For many the Sugar Hill Inn is that iconic business. We are their favorite neighborhood restaurant or their special romantic getaway. While Karen and I are the sole legal owners so many of our guests and local residents consider the Sugar Hill Inn to be their place. After almost 90 years of operations it would be impossible to count the number of birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, honeymoons celebrated at the Sugar Hill Inn. I meet people from time to time that fondly recall that they had their first summer job at the inn. Even people that have never stopped in but drive by occasionally would feel a loss if one day they discover their scenic landmark had been replaced by a condo development. Times change and businesses come and go. The Sugar Hill Inn over its long history has had owners with the vision to keep the inn relevant and vibrant.
Running a small business might not be the easiest way to earn a living but the priceless rewards of providing a living to a great team, preserving a historic landmark, creating thousands of happy memories and being an important member of the community makes it worthwhile.