One recurring, idealistic vision of entrepreneurship we often hear from Waldron Center guests is the idea of escaping the 9-to-5 world to run a small inn in some idyllic location.
Chris and Shelley Smith’s version of the proverbial mid-life crisis was less driven by actual crisis than by a thoughtful lifestyle re-examination as they saw the empty nest on the horizon. Shelley, who entered Harding University in 1988, finished her degree in medical technology at UAMS. After working in health care for 16 years, she became a licensed massage therapist. Chris had worked for an oil company offshore as a safety and performance coach, so his life was often removed from Shelley. Their introspection resulted in the purchase of Wildflower Bed and Breakfast, a seven-room inn on the court square in Mountain View, Arkansas.
Stone County Courthouse is the centerpiece for the musical activity that happens in Mountain View. Wildflower Bed and Breakfast is located on the courthouse square.
Mountain View bills itself as the “folk music capital of the world.” The 18th and 19th century Scots-Irish immigrants who settled these Ozark hills brought with them a wealth of traditional music. On any weekend night multi-generational clusters of pickers, pulling from a repertoire ranging from Ralph Stanley to Merle Haggard to gospel standards, jam late into the evenings around the court square and in the adjoining city park. Visiting musicians are invited to sit in. The Mountain View area is also home to Arkansas State Parks’ Ozark Folk Center, the mission of which is to preserve traditional music, crafts, art and culture through education and workshops. The town is convenient to nearby Blanchard Springs and Caverns, a popular destination property of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.
Built as the Commercial Hotel around 1918, the Wildflower now houses seven rooms and suites as well as the Smiths’ 900 square feet of personal living space. The structure’s crowning glory is its inviting wrap-around porch; its perennial border blooms profusely during the warm season, thanks to the ministrations of family friends the Sandlins, who originally arrived at the Wildflower as guests, but who now provide ongoing gardening consultation and labor in exchange for fellowship. From the porch, guests in rockers survey downtown and are tempted from their chairs by music carried on the breeze. They share reports about their day at the Folk Center or shows at such local music venues as Mellon’s Hole in the Wall, where the Pam Setser Band performed this weekend.
The wrap-around porch is the heartbeat of the inn. Guests bring their own instruments, or borrow from Chris.
Shelley cautions potential owners that many bed and breakfast establishments do not make a profit, but are run essentially as a lifestyle choice. That was not the Smiths’ intent. She emphasizes that entrepreneurs interested in purchasing such a property should pursue due diligence.
“I’m not really a risk-taker. My best advice is to buy a property with a track record and a database of returning guests. And hire a solid hospitality industry consulting broker to go through the books with you before you make a decision. It was extra peace of mind for me to feel we were making a good decision.”
Once the deal is closed, a new owner must get creative to generate continued interest. The Wildflower embraces the local musical heritage. Instrument hangers are mounted on the porch pillars, an upright bass occupies a dining room corner, and the living room offers a mandolin and guitar for guests who play. Chris, who played electric bass before they bought the inn, has since added folk instruments to his skills. His gleaming hammered dulcimer stands inside the front door. Saturday morning he introduced a vintage 1920s ukulele banjo to porch sitters after breakfast. Local musicians often offer to play for guests on the porch. Award-winning mountain dulcimer player Dwayne Porterfield provided guests sweet accompaniment during Sunday’s breakfast.
After owning the Wildflower for two years, the Smiths added the Mountain View Meeting Place, a well-appointed meeting space where locals now gather on Tuesday evenings for Club Possum, a free weekly gathering for live music and contra dancing. Marketing strategist Chris leverages social media, streaming Club Possum shows on Facebook Live. It has proven to be an effective tool for increasing occupancy through midweek specials. Although there is no charge for Club Possum shows, Chris sells a limited number of sponsorships to local businesses, displaying their information on the big screen on Tuesday nights to help offset costs. The Meeting Place has not only become a defacto community center, but its location and technology provide meeting planners a unique offering for small executive conferences, retreats, or family reunions. One February booking is a ukulele conference hosted by “Ukulele Bill,” as Shelley called him. “Ukulele Bill” is Dr. William Higgs, an Arkansas musician who manages to run a successful dental practice in Conway during his spare time.
The Wildflower Bed and Breakfast is both a serious business venture and a work of love. Chris and Shelley have written a book of reflections, The Wildflower Bed and Breakfast: Our First Season, with insights from their experience.
- Attend a professional conference, such as the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, before you purchase a property.
- Have an experienced innkeeper and an industry consultant evaluate the books when considering a purchase of an existing business.
- Develop a relationship with an experienced owner who can give ongoing counsel.
- Negotiate a period in which the previous owners will stay and provide training for a week prior to closing the purchase, and for a week afterward. Longer would be better. Maintain that relationship after the purchase.
- Expect infrastructure challenges with a historic property.
- Find reasons to love people, even when they are cranky.
- Tune into what your area has to offer. Be able to reliably recommend activities that might not be otherwise on the radar of your guests.
- Become involved in the community through local government meetings and the local chamber of commerce.
- Mark out “family time” days to recharge to avoid burnout. Be prepared to say no to callers for reservations. Shelley says, “Your life and your work in this business–there is no separation. The phone still rings and the doorbell still rings, no matter how you feel or what you have going on. It is important to have a relationship with someone who can “inn-sit” for you on occasion so you can recharge. For us, that has been our friends the Sandlins from Bryant.”
The Wildflower Bed and Breakfast is an easy hour and a half drive from Searcy, 60 miles via Hwy. 5. Check out their website and their blog for special events that might entice you to Mountain View. If you are interested in owning your own bed and breakfast, you might benefit from meeting the Smiths and spending a night in their inn. They are generous with their hospitality and wisdom from their personal journey.
Entrepreneur Magazine offers an industry-specific overview for potential bed and breakfast purchasers with some startup considerations here.