Evan Penner had acquired a wide range of skills during 16 years in the hotel industry before he invested his life’s savings into a bed and breakfast in Vancouver’s West End. Unlike many who approach the B&B lifestyle with idealistic — and sometimes unrealistic— notions, he embarked on this venture with the level-headedness of a serious businessman. “You have to have a well-researched business plan,” he says, “not just a muffin recipe!”
Penner’s first exposure to the customer service field occurred while he was working at his family’s pharmacy in small-town Clearbrook, BC. However, he decided early on that he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. When the family travelled, it was the hotels that intrigued him the most, especially those in Europe, where service is widely regarded as an art form. So, after high school, he gravitated toward the hospitality industry, starting as a bellboy at the Richmond Inn. Many hotel jobs followed over the next decade in various cities throughout Western Canada, most notably at the Four Seasons in Vancouver. “I got a good overview, there,” he says. “I was night manager, mini-bar manager, and then I was cross-trained in the accounting department, room service, catering and a few other places.” After six-and-a-half years, he finally decided he was not cut out for the rigorous corporate side of the business, so left hotels behind to gain experience in the restaurant milieu. He also took a computer course on the side, which included a job placement with an accountant, who had a client with a B&B for sale. Having renovated “seven or eight houses,” in 1991, Penner recalls, “I ended up buying it with a partner,” with plans to renovate foremost in his mind.
The West End Guest House, built in 1906, was a seven-room operation he immediately refreshed with new wallpaper and furniture. For a while, he augmented it with two additional rooms in an adjacent condominium building before scaling back to refocus on his core property. A few years later, he helped found what is now known as the British Columbia Bed and Breakfast Innkeepers Guild, an organization with a membership of approximately 200 business operators aimed at establishing and upholding consistent standards across the industry. Penner currently serves as its president.
He and his partner live on-site and invariably get an early start on the day, up at 6:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast, which he tries to make a social event. “Breakfast is from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., but the biggest reward is when guests stay longer to chat and have a good time.” Helping them plan their visit eats up more time, after which there are shopping, cleaning and maintenance duties. The early evening is then anchored by a social event he calls “afternoon sherry,” at which he always plays host. After he has his own late dinner, he bakes cookies and sets the tables for the next morning. “I prefer to do a high-end B&B with lots of customer care, so time is my biggest obstacle,” Penner says.
Running a successful B&B requires having what Penner describes as, “a bundle of strengths. You have to be good in hosting, good in cooking, have good knowledge about the city, be a good marketer and a good bookkeeper.” While the Internet has simplified the reservations process, there is always the human factor to add interest to his day. Guests can be tardy about checking in at an agreed-upon time, so in contrast to the extensive workload there can actually be periods of inactivity and solitude. “A 5:00 p.m. check-in might decide to go for dinner first, so you can sit around for four or five hours waiting for them to arrive.”
In the end, he says, running a B&B is a service job like any other. “It comes down to putting the customer first. Some people need to be Number One in their own life. If you’re that type of person, if your own story is more important than someone else’s, if you can’t listen to people, this is not the place for you. You can’t have people wandering around with their luggage because it’s not convenient for you to check them in. Ultimately, if you can’t make the profit you desire by meeting your guests’ needs, then you’re in the wrong business.”