Bed-and-breakfast inns in South Jersey seem to have found the keys to success, which is fortunate because they're an important part of the regional hospitality industry and tourism economy.
Cape May County alone has nearly half the bed-and-breakfasts in the state, and combined with those in Atlantic County, the south shore region has more than half.
Part of their appeal is fairly obvious: B&Bs are like a home, so guests feel more at home.
"The greatest compliment is when guests just throw their keys on the table in the foyer when they come in, or come downstairs in their socks," said Jim Labrusciano, co-owner with wife Lenanne of the Albert Stevens Inn in West Cape May.
Ray Roberts, who manages the Mission Inn in Cape May, owned by wife Susan Dabineau-Roberts, said people look for the feeling of being among friends.
"There's a kind of bonding between the owners, staff and guests," Roberts said. "You don't have to go to a front desk to ask for something. In a hotel, you can go to the bar or lobby to relax, but by and large you don't feel comfortable enough to spend much time there, as you do in a parlor."
No matter how appealing a bed-and-breakfast, it needs strong local attractions to give visitors reasons to stay there.
In Cape May, there are many, including highly rated beaches, a famous selection of restaurants and a renowned collection of lovely Victorian architecture. "Cape May is a culinary capital, and now about 10 restaurants stay open in the wintertime," Labrusciano said.
Roberts said his inn has drawn more people this year from Canada, Washington, D.C., and from England, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
"The Europeans are comfortable with bed-and-breakfasts, which have been there a lot longer than here," he said.
In Ocean City, the big attractions are the beaches and Boardwalk, as well as a downtown that gets more charming each year.
The Bayberry Inn's location on Wesley Avenue is positioned for easy access to all of that.
"We're two blocks to the beach and Boardwalk and two blocks to Asbury Avenue downtown. I guess that's our best draw," said Bonnie Konya, who owns the inn with husband Dave.
The Bayberry has another benefit it offers guests, one that becomes invaluable during the crowded core weeks of summer: off-street parking.
"A lot of times our guests just park their cars and walk to everything while they're here," Konya said.
Bed-and-breakfasts also typically need to provide modern amenities to succeed, even in Cape May, where genuinely quaint but outdated facilities were common for a while.
"In the past, a lot of B&Bs had more of a museum atmosphere, with lots of rules and regulations for guests," Labrusciano said. The new wave of inn owners provides the Wi-Fi, televisions, in-room refrigerators, whirlpool baths and ice machines many guests appreciate.
One measure of combining all of these elements effectively is a high level of repeat business.
Konya said half the Bayberry Inn guests in a given season are repeat customers. Roberts said as many as 70 percent of his Mission Inn guests return.
In this first post-Hurricane Sandy season, there may be a little variation in business as visitors adjust their plans based on their (too often mistaken) notion of the location and extent of storm damage.
Roberts said last year was the couple's best in the decade it has owned the Mission, and this year looks better.
He said the summer is always fully booked, but business in the advance shoulder season was up 10 percent, and bookings in the fall are 15 percent higher - possibly the result of some vacationers booking farther south and away from storm damage along the northern coast.
Konya said business in Ocean City seems to be down a little bit, and "the town is a little quieter," perhaps because of the hurricane's effect on perceptions.
The number of bed-and-breakfasts in New Jersey has fallen some in the past decade, and more so in Cape May County.
Labrusciano and Roberts said some inns in Cape May have changed hands and converted to either whole-house rentals or single-family residences.
Despite the occasional conversion of a landmark, such as the former Abby Bed & Breakfast, "The decline in B&Bs is really among the smaller ones, the three-to-five bedroom ones, the cottages that started the movement locally," Roberts said.
Cape May County had 38 bed-and-breakfast inns in 2002. The number dropped in the severe recession and was 32 last year, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
The loss of six B&Bs in the county almost accounts for the drop statewide, from 84 in 2002 to 76 in 2012.
In Atlantic County, meanwhile, bed-and-breakfasts doubled in the same 10-year period, from four to eight inns.
Statewide, total wages for B&B operations have bounced back from a low of $50.6 million in 2009 to $65 million last year - still well below the pre-recession peak of $73.8 million in 2005.
Roberts, whose Mission Inn has eight rooms, said having 10 to 12 rooms would be ideal, because costs of operation are similar.
The Albert Stevens Inn falls into that sweet spot with 10 rooms and almost 6,000 square feet, spacious for a 115-year-old home originally of a doctor.
The Bayberry Inn has eight rooms. Bonnie Konya said she and her husband have no staff and do all of the work themselves.
"The days are definitely long, but we do enjoy it very much and are still having a good time" after 13 years in the business, she said.
"If it ever looks like we're starting to hate it, then it will be time to give it up."
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