As bed & breakfast numbers have declined in Duluth and Minnesota, running the inns remains a labor of love
For Duluth bed and breakfast operators like Joy and Jim Fischer, the nonstop marathon begins in May and continues through October.
That's the busy season for the city's six bed and breakfast inns. The rest of the year — November through April — is the quiet season. Most of Duluth's bed and breakfasts specialize in romantic getaways for couples, with most guests in their 20s to 40s and from the Twin Cities. Five B&Bs are in grand century-old houses located in the city's historic East End mansion district; one B&B is on Park Point and resembles a vintage seaside cottage.
For the Fischers, who have operated the Firelight Inn on Oregon Creek Bed and Breakfast for 20 years, work days begin at 6 a.m. and stretch to 10 p.m. seven days a week during the busy season. It starts with cooking a gourmet breakfast — a main entree, fresh-baked sweet breads, muffins and scones, fruit, juice and coffee — for up to 20 overnight guests. Breakfast is served to their rooms at 9 a.m. or, if guests prefer, served in the dining room. When guests check out, the rooms are cleaned.
"There's a lot of cleaning, just to get ready for the next guests," Jim explained.
When the inn's five rooms are fully booked, washing the sheets, robes and bath and kitchen towels can take 16 loads of laundry. Because of the constant wear and tear, they've gone through several washers, dryers and dishwashers during their two decades in business. Work includes meal planning, accommodating guests' vegan and other special diets, grocery shopping and baking muffins, sweet breads and scones.
There's time each day at the computer, with online reservations, marketing and social media updates. There's being available for guests' questions and needs and time "schmoozing" with guests, they say.
"You need to be friendly, and you need to love people of all ages and all walks of life," Joy said.
The first-floor living room, dining room, great room and large enclosed porch of the 117-year-old mansion at 2211 E. Third St. also needs to be kept clean and tidy for guests. There's regular window washing to do, and the general upkeep of the house and tending to the grounds — mowing and gardening in the summer, snow removal in the winter. And while the couple renovated the whole house when they bought it in 1998, blending new amenities with the house's historical features, upgrades are ongoing.
"You can't just make over a room and leave it," Joy said. "It has to be updated continually, with fresh paint, colors and linens."
While it has been a lot of work, for the Fischers, who do it all themselves, running a B&B was a dream realized. Tired of the corporate world, they left their traditional jobs — Joy at a law firm, Jim in sales — in the Twin Cities in order to start their Duluth bed and breakfast.
"You entertain guests every night, and you really need to love it," Joy said. "It's a lot of work, but what isn't if it's successful?"
For Jim and Joan Halquist, opening the Ellery House Bed and Breakfast at 28 S. 21st Ave. E. 30 years ago was a lifestyle change. It moved the couple closer to the trails and outdoors they enjoyed.
"The B&B was a way to make a living, raise a family and be in Duluth," said Jim Halquist, who moved his family from Waverly, Minn., to do it. At that time only one B&B, the city's first — The Mansion at 3600 London Road — was operating in Duluth.
The couple ran their 1890 Victorian home as a B&B with four guest rooms while their family lived in the third-floor servants' quarters. That worked out when their two sons were young. But when the boys got bigger, the family moved to a smaller house they built on their 1.3 acres.
"It's always been quiet in the winter and busy in the summer," Halquist said of the business. "Like a dairy farmer, you get up early and take care of chores. Your life and work merge. You're making coffee. You're a barista, a baker, a semi-gourmet chef, a maitre d' and concierge."
And you become a jack-of-all-trades, he said.
"You have to have a business acumen, be an advertiser, a webmaster, a cook and cleaner," he said. "You have to like people. You have to get something out of serving people. You have to like variety. And having a good partner is important. It's a hard business to do by yourself. Usually, there's a division of labor."
His days begin at 7 a.m. and continue to midnight, even with some hired cleaning help. But he says it's not all work. He finds time during the day to walk the dogs and for other activities. And he enjoys the business. Like the other B&Bs, he gets repeat guests. Some have become friends. He's gotten honeymooners who come back years later for special anniversaries and stay in the same room.
"We don't travel much but the world comes to our breakfast table," he said. "I still find our guests interesting even after 30 years."
The Fischers have also found running their B&B rewarding.
"How many people get to live in an historic mansion and meet people every night?" said Jim Fischer. "A lot get into it because it's a lifestyle change, and a chance to meet different people. We learn their stories and they want to hear our stories. One of the cool things about being an innkeeper is telling our stories."
While summers are busy, along with weekends year-round, innkeepers will block out days on their room schedule to grab days off for themselves.
"We know what it takes to pay the bills, but we have to have a life," Joy Fischer explained. Added her husband: "We run the inn, we don't let the inn run us."
Looking back over his three decades operating the Ellery House Bed and Breakfast, Halquist said the biggest change came with the Internet. And it was a whopper of a change.
"The internet was a revolution for reaching people — in a positive way," he said. "Online reservations changed everything. That's how most everything comes now."
It even allowed him to quit a full-time job he had to make ends meet. Before the internet, B&B operators advertised through word-of-mouth and by placing ads in newspapers and regional magazines which were expensive, he said.
In 1998, when the Fischers were opening the Firelight Inn, business websites were just emerging. Other innkeepers would ask them if they were going to have a website because it was so new and untested then.
What began as a one-page website for the Firelight Inn has evolved into a comprehensive internet strategy with a sophisticated site and the guidance of a marketing company. The business uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media as well as online booking sites such as TripAdvisor to solicit customers, book rooms and promote their business.
"Now it's the only way to be in the game," Joy Fischer said.
Encouraging guests to write online reviews of their stays at the A.G. Thomson House Bed and Breakfast catapulted that inn to TripAdvisor's No. 1-ranked B&B in the United States in 2012 and 2016. And it placed the inn at 2617 E. Third St. in its Travelers' Choice top 10 list four times in the past six years.
"We realized early on that reviews would be important," owner Tim Allen said. "We always encouraged guests to write a review."
Vacation rental impact
Whether the rise of vacation rentals — short-term stays at furnished apartments, houses and condominiums for tourists — has affected Duluth B&Bs' business is unclear.
"We're not directly competing with them," Allen said. "We cater to people looking for a different experience, for romantic getaways. And our breakfasts are important. You don't get that with vacation rentals."
As president of the Duluth Bed & Breakfast Association, Allen argued for vacation rentals to be held to the same regulations that the city's B&Bs must comply with — licensing, inspections, collecting sales and hotel/motel taxes and being held to the same health and public safety standards. In 2016, the Duluth City Council put such regulations in place for short-term vacation rental properties where owners are not on site during guest stays and don't serve meals.
"We were never trying to shut them down," Allen said. "We were trying to have them regulated, to make them follow the rules, because there's a cost to do that."
How to regulate the growing vacation rental industry is an issue throughout Minnesota as B&Bs seek a level playing field.
"It's a difficult situation for us," said Tami Schluter of the Minnesota Bed & Breakfast Association. "As it grows, it will affect our businesses."
The association's president, Joe Pacovsky, has already heard from some B&B innkeepers around the state who say their businesses have been hurt by vacation rentals, while others report no impact.
"It varies a lot by area and region," he said.
In Duluth, a limit of 60 vacation rental licenses set in 2016 was reached last August. The Duluth City Council is considering raising the cap and by how much. If the limit is doubled to 120 licenses, as one councilor advocates, that could hurt some Duluth B&Bs, Allen said.
The number of B&Bs in Duluth rose through the 1990s, peaking at 13 in the early 2000s. Since then, the numbers have declined to the current six. Besides the Firelight Inn, Ellery House and A.G. Thomson House, there's the Olcott House, Cotton Mansion and Solglimt bed and breakfasts.
Over the past 20 years, the total number of B&Bs statewide also has seen a roughly 50 percent decline. There's no specific tally of B&Bs with Minnesota Department of Health, since the required licenses also go to hotels, motels and restaurants. But membership in the Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association has dropped from 111 in 1999 to the current 55. The industry group estimates that its membership represents half the total number of B&Bs in the state, which makes the actual decline from about 222 to 110.
While running a B&B involves hard work and long days, Pacovsky attributes the decline mainly to retirements.
"There are people interested in getting into it, but more are retiring than are getting into it," he said.
In Duluth, some innkeepers retired. Some reverted the inns back to private homes or sold them to new owners who did. Some were hurt too much by the 2007-09 recession and closed.
"It was a scary, challenging time for inns," Allen recalled.
But the current six survived. The strength and growth of Duluth's tourism industry helped, boosted by the trend of shorter getaways that the recession spurred. Duluth was just a tank of gas away for many in the region.
With most of Duluth's current B&B owners at or approaching retirement age, the future of those inns is unclear.
"Not as many young people are getting into it," Allen said. "It's not because they don't want to. There are people who want to do it. I hear it's their dream. But they need financing and down payments. And that's tough to get."
That challenge comes as half of Duluth's B&Bs — the Olcott House, A.G. Thomson House and Firelight Inn — are currently for sale with asking prices of more than $1 million. A fourth, the Cotton Mansion, was on the market for several years but is currently not listed. All are turnkey operations, already restored and renovated to be inns. As for Halquist, he says he wants to continue running the Ellery House B&B another five years, then retire.
A. G. Thomson House Bed and Breakfast
2617 E. Third St.
Although this three-story Colonial Revival was built in 1909 for William Ryerson, general manager of the Great Northern Power Co., it carries the name of its second owner, grain merchant Adam Thomson, who purchased the house in 1918 and built an addition and added a carriage house. It was designed by Minneapolis architect Edwin H. Hewitt and sits on a wooded lot with sweeping views of Lake Superior. Tim and Angie Allen bought the inn in 2007 and offer seven rooms to guests, including two suites in the carriage house.
Firelight Inn on Oregon Creek
2211 E. Third St.
Overlooking Oregon Creek, this eclectic mansion was built in 1910 for grain baron George G. Barnum — the city of Barnum's namesake, for his philanthropy there. The house was designed by architects William Bray and Carl Nystrom to show off Barnum's art collection and to accommodate guests. Jim and Joy Fischer have operated the inn for 20 years and each of their five guest rooms feature fireplaces and Jacuzzi whirlpools. The inn's name was inspired by the house's unique cove fireplace that's tucked under the first floor main staircase.
Olcott House Bed and Breakfast Inn
2316 E. First St.
This grand brick mansion and matching carriage house, totalling 10,000 square feet, is considered the finest example of Georgian Colonial Revival architecture in Duluth. Designed by William T. Bray, the 1904 house with a two-story portico and covered veranda has 11 fireplaces, a mahogany wood-paneled library, a music room with a grand piano, and period antiques. It was originally the home of of William Olcott, president of the Oliver Iron Mining Co. and the first president of the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway. The property has been owned by David Vipond since 2006 and offers five multi-room suites, including one in the carriage house.
Cotton Mansion Bed & Breakfast Inn
2309 E. First St.
This palatial three-story Italian Renaissance mansion was completed in 1908 for Joseph Cotton, an attorney for U.S. Steel Corp. and John D. Rockefeller. The 16,000-square-foot mansion framed with I-beam steel construction features expansive rooms, exotic woods, Italian marble, hand-carved stone, wood and plaster and a four-story grand staircase topped with a large stained-glass atrium dome. Ken and Kimberly Aparicio saved the neglected mansion from possible demolition when they bought it in 1998, restored it and opened it as a bed and breakfast. They offer seven rooms for guests, including two suites in the carriage house.
Ellery House Bed and Breakfast
28 S. 21st Ave. E.
This Queen Anne Victorian, built in 1890 for real estate tycoon Ellery C. Holliday, is not only the oldest house serving as a bed and breakfast in Duluth, but, at after 30 years, it's the city's longest-operating B&B. Billed as "A Charming Victorian Bed & Breakfast," it features a period look inside and out with curved lines, a turreted porch, balconies, and antique furniture. Owned by Jim and Joan Halquist, the inn is right off Interstate 35 and offers four rooms including a suite with a sleeping porch.
Solglimt Bed and Breakfast
828 South Lake Ave.
This Park Point house was built as a two-room cabin in 1910 by Oscar Frederick Nelson, a machinist with the Duluth District Army Corps of Engineers who was the first Duluthian to receive the Medal of Honor. The Nelson family lived there until the late 1960s. Current owners Brian and Mary Grover bought the house in 1978 and turned it into a bed and breakfast in 2001. They added a 2,000-square-foot "green" addition in 2009. Renovations have given the inn's exterior the look of a late 1800s Victorian seaside cottage, with the inside sporting a light, clean, modern look. Five rooms are available for guests, who need only walk outside to reach the beach.