Three years ago, Doug Rapien's personal and professional life changed dramatically when his wife, Beate, died suddenly.
She had been the primary caregiver for the Rapiens' daughter, who is a special-needs adult and requires 24-hour care. With the loss of his spouse, Mr. Rapien decided to stay at home with his daughter, now 22, to oversee her care.
He gave up his career as a senior information technology executive to launch Stone Edge Estate, a luxury bed and breakfast business near Georgetown, Ont., about 60 kilometres west of Toronto.
Mr. Rapien and his wife had purchased the property in 2000. They lived in the original farmhouse for four and a half years then built the current 6,000-square-foot house.
They had talked occasionally about turning their home into a B&B to provide extra income, but had taken no steps toward it, although Ms. Rapien had come up with the name. The large house is set on 96 peaceful acres and has an indoor pool – a unique amenity for the area.
"Though it was not designed as a bed and breakfast, it's worked out quite well for that," says Mr. Rapien, 56.
After deciding to start his small business, Mr. Rapien set a $50,000 budget and went about buying everything from cutlery to new furnishings to transform three guest rooms, all with private bathrooms, into five-star suites. (The family's quarters are in a separate part of the house.)
If the B&B idea didn't work, he figured the furnishings could be used to stage the home should he have to sell it.
"It had to be a business, not something to do for fun or as a supplemental income, and it had to get to a certain level or it was not worth keeping it," he explains.
He was surprised to find there was little in the way of benchmark marketing data about B&B operations.
"The B&B industry is more like a cottage industry than a business industry," he says. "The hotel industry is changing so much due to social media, yet some B&B operators don't use it or do online business. Eighty per cent of my bookings are made online."
He had a professional create Stone Edge Estate's website and signed up with Expedia and booking.com, two online sites that book accommodations.
Drawing upon his project management skills, he created spreadsheets to track where customers came from and why they chose to stay at Stone Edge. That helps him to project growth.
"Because it's a unique B&B in a large home, I've learned that it's a destination. A lot of people come here as a getaway, whether it's for a birthday, anniversary or for a weekend away without the kids."
He's aiming for a 33-per-cent occupancy rate on average. Currently, it's in the high 20-per-cent range, ahead of projections. In time, Mr. Rapien believes he'll be able to achieve an average occupancy rate of 50 per cent.
Besides keeping on top of budgeting and marketing, he's also had to step up his culinary skills. He decided to offer a breakfast menu that guests could order from the night before. It results in less waste, as people tend to eat what they've ordered, he says.
Though Mr. Rapien could cook and bake, a niece helped him hone his food presentation skills. He now runs the B&B by himself and focuses on providing the best guest experience possible. He recently added microwaves to the rooms. Referrals and repeat business are starting to climb. This winter he's offering discount coupons to previous customers and friends.
Mr. Rapin says the business income has put him in a financial position equivalent to his previous job. The business aspects came easily to him because of his background – he has worked for large companies such as the Data Group of Companies and SNC-Lavalin ProFac – but the softer skills were more of a challenge.
"The nice thing about B&Bs is I'm dealing with the general public, not managing them," he says. "I used to manage groups of 120 people and it's very different trying to please the general public. It's been a real learning curve."
Advice for others
He suggests others who are considering leaving a long-time career to open a B&B or another small business should ditch their romantic notions of what it might be like and take a logical approach.
"I think the key is just planning … I had to sit down and say 'Is this going to work, what can I rent these rooms for, how much money do I need?' As we get older, age brings wisdom and we don't rush into things. You have to think through possible problems and benefits."
Mr. Rapien says in hindsight, it may have been better to sell the house and open in another location, as Niagara Escarpment rules are prohibitive should he wish to add more rooms to his house. Instead, he plans to focus on building his occupancy rate.
The switch away from a nine-to-five job was the right decision, Mr. Rapien says. His new business allows him the flexibility to take over from his daughter's caregivers overnight and on the weekends. It has eliminated his commute, allowed him to control his workload and, if business continues on the upswing, he'll consider hiring a manager.
"At this point, however, I have no firm plan beyond operating the B&B for the next five years," Mr. Rapien says.