Read Roberta's reflections on the Bar Harbor bed and breakfast experience. The following items are included in the forthcoming collection by Roberta Chester called “Be My Guest: The Inside Story of a B & B in Maine.”
“Keeping It Simple”
(g.b.t.b. getting back to basics - a.m.a.p., as much as possible)
Entering Maine off the bridge at Kittery, the billboard reads, “Maine, the Way Life Should Be.” It's a promise to travellers eager to get away from it all, to a place where, if only for a few days, they can get off the beaten track and escape the madding crowd. Given the psychic stress of modern life and all its complexities, the prospect of experiencing a bit of utopia is definitely seductive. The hospitality business, long preceding the time three angels stopped at the patriarch Abraham's tent, has the potential to fulfill that promise. But it is a struggle to maintain a low-tech operation, so as to remain faithful, at least in spirit, to that ideal of life as it should be and, by inference, the way life used to be.
The B & B business, traditionally a mom and (handy) pop operation (just a mom in my case, dependent on the kindness of strangers to fix stubborn windows and leaky faucets) used to be uncomplicated. In the 1980s our guests were folks who stopped in town at the local Chamber of Commerce or just drove around till they saw a place that struck their fancy. Or they looked us up as a result of that time-honored reference, word of mouth.
They paid by personal check or travellers checks or cash. Far fewer people made reservations, so that much of our business was from people coming off the street. When there wasn't a single vacancy in town, it was not unusual for as many as 50 people coming off the Bluenose ferry from Nova Scotia to be sleeping on cots in the basement of the Congregational Church.
In those days we had no locks, and we never had a request for a key, even from New Yorkers. In many years we only had one intruder: a skunk (of the animal variety) walked through the front door and sat in the living room. Our cat came to the rescue and stared at him till he walked out the way he entered, without spraying.
I would close the house for the winter and leave the front door unlocked. When I returned months later, everything was just as I left it, except for a few cobwebs. Our guests came with luggage, but without any electronic gadgets. There were no cruise ships in our backyard, just kayaks and sailboats, and maybe one or at most two tee shirt shops. If a guest needed a pair of pajamas she could find them in town without travelling to Ellsworth, 45 minutes away.
Unlike those early days when such publications didn't exist, I often spend time leafing through catalogues advertising shampoos, body lotions, specialty soaps, sachets and sewing kits to offer our guests who expect those amenities. They are much more conscious of security so it became necessary to install double bolt locks, required by AAA. This is not easy in a house with pocket sliding doors. And we do have wireless and a web site and belong to several B & B search engines and take credit cards.
It was necessary to satisfy the needs of today's tourists who come with electronics that the tourists of yesteryear could never have imagined. In addition to their luggage, they all have cell phones, and generally laptops. (And to be honest, when I'm a tourist I too travel with these.) They require keys, and feel relieved when they have the password to go online soon after they arrive. Thanks to the internet, prior to their arrival they are aware of all the excursions and other opportunities available on Mount Desert Island, which they can't possibly take advantage of in just three or even four days. We help them narrow down the possibilities to the number of doable, enjoyable activities, so they won't need a vacation from their vacation.
Though I have made concessions to technology, I have held out against TVs in the rooms or even in the house, and installed wonderful ceiling fans in our rooms that benefit from ocean breezes in lieu of air conditioners. We like to make personal contact with all our guests so we can be aware of their preferences. When they arrive at night after a long drive, we give them a powerful flashlight so they can walk down to the shore path beneath a star-studded sky and take a long whiff of the sea and the pristine scenery that has not changed since time immemorial.
Unquestionably, it is the internet that has made the biggest difference in this essentially simple age-old business of bed and breakfast. Web sites are amazingly slick, sophisticated, and incredibly artistic, so that it is fairly impossible to make an informed decision, because each site is more appealing than the next. Several times a day we get offers to join another search engine or sign up with another web site developer offering to provide us with an interactive web tour, or mobile apps, all guaranteeing to get us more bookings. The technology demands a degree of expertise to navigate the complexities of various reservation programs, etc. It all requires a leap into the 21st century, made more difficult if you are a child of the 20th.
And then there is Trip Advisor, a great service-in theory, unless you have a guest who is hard to please or just doesn't like you on general principles. B & B owners live in fear of guests like that, which is why sites like Trip Advisor have spawned companies like “Reputation Defender.Com”
But even if I have stand in line at the post office, mailing chargers to the guests who have forgotten them, or have to make endless duplicate keys, or worry about the guest who doesn't seem happy, or find myself out of breath trying to keep up with the high-tech aspect of this business, managing a B & B has to be one of the most satisfying and gratifying vocations. I enjoy pampering my guests with sterling at the breakfast table, fine china, fresh flowers and homemade cookies. I associate these amenities with gracious living, simple gestures that make a big difference. Perhaps this is our way of saying “we appreciate your being here and we want to make this time especially memorable.”
But all these details are add-ons to what is really essential in the B & B business - a really comfortable bed and a great breakfast in a beautiful location. Happily, regardless of technology, those basics are still the same and probably always will be. Here on Mount Desert Island where generations have come to refresh and revive, today’s tourists and those who come tomorrow will enjoy essentially the same activities on land and sea. They will confirm that nature nourishes our spiritual selves and provides us with enough distance from our human constructs and distractions to appreciate the timeless beautify of the natural world that is Acadia National Park.
Here in Bar Harbor, in our treasured spot on the ocean, we can certainly understand why this town on Mount Desert Island was originally called “Eden.” For the tourists who vacation here (and most come year after year), it is a taste of paradise that calls us back again and again. No wonder they all want to take a little bit of this place away with them, like photos, crafts, shells, our Maine blueberry jam or a twig from our rugosa bushes, perfuming the air with beach roses all season, that our guest this past summer hoped would take root in Ohio.
And there are those folks - the ones we lose as guests and gain as neighbors - who will settle for nothing less than putting their roots down here in Eden. It has happened so often over the years, I sometimes think I should warn my guests to be aware they may be “smitten,” by this taste of the way life should be, just as I was years ago.
- Roberta Chester, 2012