July 5, 2014

New owners bring bed-and-breakfasts to urban setting

The Hattie May Inn in south Fort Worth and the Thornton Inn in Arlington are part of a growing B&B industry in Texas.

Scott Slayton has dreamed of owning and operating a bed-and-breakfast since he watched the Newhart TV sitcom years ago. But everyone in his family always thought he was kidding.

Apparently he wasn’t.

Slayton, 60, and his wife, Laura, 53, who hail from New York and spent the last few years in Scottsdale, Ariz., are the happy new owners of the Hattie May Inn south of downtown Fort Worth, one of the city’s few bed-and-breakfasts. It’s in the Maxwell-Liston House at 712 May St., built in 1904 and registered as a Texas historic landmark in 1985.

Slayton isn’t exactly like Bob Newhart, the comedian who played the writer-turned-Vermont innkeeper in the 1980s sitcom. He’s a software lawyer, and his wife, once a certified public accountant with a large accounting firm, is a certified nutritionist who runs a consulting business. She will host cooking classes at the inn.

“Scott’s always had a dream of having a bed-and-breakfast and I always wanted to have a plant-based cooking school,” she said. “The idea just came together one day. Why not have a home setting that’s big enough and invite people in?”

In the few weeks since they bought the four-room property and business, bookings have been good, Scott Slayton said.

Nationwide, the $3.4 billion B&B industry is doing pretty well, and the Slaytons feel confident about their business plan.

Pete Holladay, former chairman of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, who was an innkeeper for 12 years in Virginia and now brokers inn sales, said the couple should feel good about their future.

The economic downturn had little impact on small bed-and-breakfasts, or those with fewer than 10 rooms. But even in down times, individuals tend to take shorter vacations and jaunts and are turning to inns.

“The number of aspiring innkeepers has not diminished at all,” Holladay said. “I’m seeing more younger people getting into this business.”

In Texas, only four bed-and-breakfast properties are for sale, according to the organization’s website. There are about a dozen bed-and-breakfasts in Tarrant County.

Ruth Ann Hattori, the newly named president and chief executive of the innkeepers association, who has provided consulting services to the hospitality industry, said she has seen growth in select service hotel brands and luxury hotels, which bodes well for bed-and-breakfasts.

Hattori said there’s “an opportunity to capture new and younger guests who never thought about staying at a bed-and-breakfast before. There’s tremendous room for growth.”

That’s partly why Jim and Debbie South got into the business. They opened the Thornton Inn at 719 W. Abram St. in Arlington on April 1. Along with silent partner Sunny Graham, a real estate agent, they turned the historic 1905 home, later used as a fraternity house and Graham’s real estate office, into a five-room inn.

“The bed-and-breakfast industry is morphing into a professional industry,” Jim South said. “It is also one of the most underserved industries. We’ve been interested in the bed-and-breakfast as a business for quite some time. We did a lot of research.”

That included talking to as many Texas innkeepers as they could from Lubbock to Granbury, South said.

He said they’ve achieved a 30 percent occupancy rate so far, which is good this early in the game, but still a way from their 70 percent goal. That may not happen until they are in their second year of business, he said.

“Debbie and I are having such a joyful time meeting new people and becoming friends with many of them,” said South, 67, a former custom home builder. Debbie South, 64, is a real estate agent and good friends with Graham, who owns the property and leases it to the couple.

The Souths live in a renovated apartment carriage house on the property and are leasing out their 4,300-square-foot home on Eagle Mountain Lake.

“We’re enjoying the journey,” he said.

In a 2013 report, the association said occupancy and revenues increased in 2012 at Texas bed-and-breakfasts. In 2012, the average annual revenue for a B&B in Texas was $149,510. Occupancy rose to 36.6 percent in 2012 from 28.8 percent in 2011. Revenue per available room, a performance metric in the hotel industry, rose $2 in 2012, to $52, over 2011.

The Hattie May Inn, at about 2,600 square feet, has four rooms, but the Slaytons are planning to start construction soon on a 2,000-square-foot addition that will give them a private living space as well as three more rooms. Scott Slayton said he wanted not only an urban inn, but also seven rooms.

It’s not unusual for new innkeepers such as the Slaytons to take over where a former owner left off, Hattori said. In the case of the Hattie May Inn, the prior owner renovated the house and operated the business for several years.

In January, around the time he turned 60, Slayton decided it was time to pursue his dream. He had already narrowed his search to Texas, visited several properties in East Texas and in the Hill Country before deciding on the Fort Worth property.

They closed the deal in late May, impressed with the city’s business climate and the willingness of others to help and encourage them. Getting financing has been about the hardest aspect, the couple said, having approached three possible lenders before getting the OK from a fourth bank.

They, too, say that one of the benefits of running a bed-and-breakfast is the guests. Their first guest hooked up the credit card machine and another fixed the washing machine, they said, showing the “actual, real-life friendliness” of Fort Worth.

“Everybody was extremely friendly,” Scott Slayton said. “It’s just amazing.”

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