Turning Inns into Wedding Venues

Owning a wedding venue as part of an inn is not for the faint of heart, as wedding venue owners must deal with the pressure of staging the …

Owning a wedding venue as part of an inn is not for the faint of heart, as wedding venue owners must deal with the pressure of staging the perfect day dozens of times a year. Investors who look beyond the gossamer veil of those perfect days will discover how stressful the behind-the-scenes work of a wedding can be.

Still, opening a wedding venue can be a highly rewarding experience in terms of both financial and personal gains, and having a wedding at a bed and breakfast or inn has become a popular option for many engaged couples.

“I think most innkeepers [who have] an attractive property have been approached at least once by somebody who wanted to have a wedding there,” Peter Scherman, a consultant and founding member of The B&B Team, said.

Thus, innkeepers or potential innkeepers may wish to weigh the benefits and costs of operating a wedding venue as part of their inn so they are prepared to make the right decision when clients inevitably pop the question about holding a wedding on the property.

Investors meet their match

An investor who decides to start their own wedding venue business will first need to decide their level of involvement in the venue’s operations up front, from “[doing] almost nothing to…almost everything,” Scherman said. Owners can choose to simply rent out their space for a wedding or to take a more active role in the event coordination.

“The main thing is [that] weddings are events, and event planning is very different from booking rooms,” Scherman said. He said that although providing a high level of service on site allows owners to reap higher profits and have control over their space, they then become event planners and “have to deal with all of the minutia…that invariably come with a wedding.”

Vernon and Lynn Brady opened Burke Manor Inn in Gibsonville, N.C., in 1999, knowing that wedding coordination would be a central part of their overall innkeeping business. Lynn’s extensive background in event planning was a major factor in developing their business plan.

Innkeepers who run a successful wedding venue can easily “see equality on the bed and breakfast income to the event income,” Lynn said. In other words, innkeepers can potentially double their cash flow by filling rooms and reaping event-related profits year-round as a result of their wedding venue business.

“Weddings don’t just happen May [through] June,” Vernon said. “They happen every month of the year, every week of the year….So the fact that weddings [happen] year-round [opens up] a way to increase revenue.”

Because weddings are booked so far in advance, wedding venue owners are also able to come up with a reliable estimate of their profits relatively early on.

“I can think of one venue that knew they had 32 or 34 weekends a year where…the weather would be suitable for outdoor weddings,” Scherman said. “And if they could book for every weekend…they knew exactly how much money they were going to make [before the year started].”

However, operating a wedding venue as part of an inn has its disadvantages. A small inn, for instance, that provides a venue for weddings might sacrifice potential business from regular leisure guests, as both types of clients tend to book on weekends, Scherman said.

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Furthermore, innkeepers may not be prepared for the damage to property or sheer consumption of utilities caused by weddings and wedding guests.

“People will pull flowers out of your flowerbed, they’ll tear wallpaper off your walls while they’re sitting in a bathroom stall, you have things spilt, your upholstery ruined—you’re dealing with the public,” Lynn said. “If you allow 100 people on your property, [guests are] going to flush that toilet a minimum [total] of 300 times during that event.”

Taking the next step

Ideally, aspiring innkeepers should determine whether or not to incorporate a wedding venues option before purchasing property. Zoning laws can limit the range of properties that can be eventually used for weddings; they define how often large events can be held, if at all, and how many people can be allowed on a property at a time, Vernon said.

Scherman said he knew of a situation in which an innkeeper who opened up his bed and breakfast to weddings and became successful at it had not checked zoning laws beforehand.

“They were eventually shut down because…it exceeded what the zoning permitted,” Scherman said. “It was an incredible facility and they…ran a wonderful wedding and made a lot of money at it. But at the end of the day, being successful didn’t save them from being in violation of the zoning and that was a very costly mistake for them.”

Some innkeepers who choose to incorporate weddings late in the game might still be able to meet zoning requirements. In those situations, the transformation of the inn will require creativity and realistic expectations in the timing and use of available space.

“Not every bed and breakfast can do what we do,” Vernon said. “[We don’t have] a huge piece of property, but we have three and a half acres, which allows us the main inn, [a] couple cottages, beautiful gardens, the 4800-square foot pavilion and room to park all the cars.”

Lynn said she is “careful on…scheduling the grounds [so] that there aren’t any conflicts,” which allows them to accommodate leisure travelers and wedding guests at the same time, or to house multiple weddings simultaneously.

In addition to assessing their ability to provide adequate parking, innkeepers must also consider whether they have sufficient access to nearby alternate lodging “unless the inn [will] be putting up all the wedding guests,” Scherman said–an unlikely scenario for large weddings.

Thus, remote, rural areas—although often beautiful—may not be ideal locations for wedding venues. Proximity to high traffic areas offers physical advantages and broader exposure to potential clientele, Lynn said.

Generally, it will take one year to 18 months before a startup venue’s business begins to pick up steam, Lynn said. Owners who market prior to opening can book weddings several months in advance and hit the ground running.

Weddings booked far in advance carry the added pressure of being able to honor those commitments when the big days arrive. Thus, effective planning and execution are critical. Owners will have to forego plans to sell their property until all their wedding commitments have been honored, because cancelling someone’s wedding is “a pretty difficult thing to do,” Scherman said.

Anyone who decides to open a wedding venue will need at least $200,000 for a down payment “as a general rule, whether it’s a wedding venue or a bed and breakfast or any other kind of inn,” Scherman said.

Investors will also need additional capital for at least six months of operating expenses, Lynn said.

In terms of time commitment, “you’re going to get out of it what you put into it,” Lynn said. Frequently, owners need to adjust to a new work schedule, giving up their weekends and working outside normal business hours.

Although setting up a successful business can be an attractive part of a wedding venue’s resale package, owners should keep in mind that a wedding venue’s property value could appreciate to an extent where buyers are only interested in purchasing the real estate, not the business. Scherman said he recalled such a situation, in which a successful wedding venue was sold “in a heartbeat” as a house rather than as an overall business.

“The cash flow couldn’t support what that waterfront property was worth just as a house,” Scherman said. “This has happened to a lot of [bed and breakfasts over] the last few years.”

Personality pays off

Scherman said a successful wedding owner must have “above-average patience” because weddings are “a stressful time…for all [those] involved.”

The “bridezilla” phenomenon can be prevented if wedding venue owners build trust with their clients, Lynn said. Being organized and planning effectively are crucial elements in building that trust, especially when it comes to dealing with “the tricks of the day,” she said.

“If the cake fell over on the way to be delivered, I don’t run in and [tell] the bride’s [mother]….I take care of it,” Lynn said.

While it is important for wedding owners to be polite to their clients, it is also important for owners to be firm in setting expectations and boundaries. Specifically, owners should clearly state detailed rules and policies in client contracts.

“Brides will take advantage of you if you don’t know up front what you will allow and what you won’t,” Vernon said.

Above all, owners who love people will find the work most rewarding, according to Lynn.

“Making people happy—that’s what we do,” she said.

For more information on owning and operating a bed and breakfast or inn, please see our previous article Opening a Bed and Breakfast.


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