Nancy Aiken's workday was already four hours old when the clock struck 10 a.m. - the beginning of the all-important two-hour window between check-outs and check-ins at the Ocean City Mansion, when the entire inn is practically turned upside-down to get it ready for guests.

"So many people think, ‘I'd always love to run a bed-and-breakfast,'" said Aiken, 46, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast. "But behind the scenes, you're folding laundry, preparing dishes and fixing broken toilets - all in time for a noon check-in with a smile on your face."

After that, of course, she had 10 more hours of duties to look forward to before it was time to turn in - and even at that hour, she is on her computer sending confirmations and checking feedback, setting her alarm for 5:30 a.m. and keeping a phone nearby in case of any early morning emergency calls.

Such is the routine for owners and innkeepers at the area's bed and breakfasts - where everything may seem peaceful and relaxing on the surface, but is anything but for those who must work around the clock to keep up the illusion of tranquility.

Running a B&B is work, in every sense of the word - a challenging, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week responsibility in which every aspect of a guest's stay must be perfect, every section of a room clean and spotless, and every need met and question immediately answered. It's much more than many innkeepers ever imagined - but in the end, they wouldn't want to do anything else.

"I definitely love the business," Aiken said. "I've been doing it eight years, and it's a great way of making a living. I guess I just thought it would be easier. But it's tough."

A love for the job

Bed-and-breakfasts make up a small slice of tourist accommodations in the region: Cape May County's 79 B&Bs account for a fraction of the county's total 18,749 accommodation units, the county Planning Department says.

State hotel/motel taxes as a whole usually make up about 30 percent to 33 percent of a vacationer's expenses, the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism says. In Cape May County, that translated to about $170 million in 2010. And at rates that sometimes double those of motel rooms, bed-and-breakfasts certainly contribute their share. There's even a special bed-and-breakfast provision in the state hotel-motel tax levy to include the amount to be charged for breakfast, as well as for the room.

But beyond the expenses and margins, if you talk to enough B&B owners and operators, the enthusiasm still shines through as they talk about why they got involved in the business. Maybe it was a longtime goal, maybe it was a late opportunity they couldn't pass up, but most say they love their jobs.

"It truly was a dream of mine to do this," said Patti Goyette, 37, the innkeeper at the Mason Cottage in Cape May. "I had a background in the hospitality industry, but I always felt too disconnected from my clients. Here, you're a lot more personable, and you get to cook and bake and even do gardening. It really is like a dream."

Bill and Nancy Moncrief's jobs had them tied to Washington, D.C., and traveling the country, respectively - "It seemed like it was running you to death," said Bill Moncrief, 64. "It was a high-stress environment" - so the idea of pemanently returning to the shore, where Bill grew up, had its appeal.

But first they did their homework, attending a seminar on purchasing a B&B before buying the Candlelight Inn in North Wildwood.

"And anybody not doing something like that before (buying a B&B) is making a big mistake," Moncrief said.

For Karen Morella, 59, the idea materialized out of nowhere.

"I had been working in IT and was laid off," Morella said. "I was sitting at home, out of work for a couple of months, thinking, ‘I'd love to have a job where I could work at home.' And it just popped into my head: a bed-and-breakfast!"

Morella moved from Bridgewater in Somerset County to Ocean City, where she owns and operates the Serendipity Bed and Breakfast - which, just like she planned, is also her home.

"I always tell people it's an awful lot of work," Morella said. "But after six years, I still love it."

Backup plans

On the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, the two-hour window had come around again - so Aiken and housekeeper Leanna Sem climbed up and down stairs and into and out of the inn's seven guest rooms to make sure everything was perfect.

Aiken and Sem washed the sheets, cleaned out the refrigerators, mopped the floors, dusted the furniture, scrubbed the bathrooms, straightened the towels and emptied the trash cans, even making sure to take care of the little things, such as making sure the remote controls work.

Too often, Aiken said, people will leave more than memories behind.

"A lot of times, people leave things under the bed," Aiken said, checking under the mattress in the Cabin Room. "You find all sorts of surprises under here."

After that, they set up the front porch, watered the plants, put out cookies, answered the phone to take future reservations and sent in the payroll.

Then there's one last task that ends up being more time-consuming than one might think - laundry. Aiken, who carried yet another load to the washers as she talked about her day, said she and her staff go through about 100 loads of laundry a week.

"You have to have about eight pairs of hands to handle all of it," Goyette said of the daily routin.

Then there's the matter of maintenance.

"Most of us weren't really prepared to have backups in place for when something doesn't go right," Moncrief said, "like when a TV breaks or when the air conditioning system breaks, which always seems to happen on weekends. One of the things I learned is that for almost everything in a room, except maybe the mattress, you should have a backup."

In addition, "Now I'm experienced on anything to do with bathrooms," Moncrief said. "Spigots, faucets, any part in the toilet, whenever I buy one, I always buy two or three. ... And I always make sure the boilers and hot-water heaters are in the best shape possible - so on Fourth of July weekend, someone's air conditioning doesn't die."

Little downtime

With all that has to be done, one thing that's clear is that B&B innkeeping is a 24-hour, seven-day-a week operation.

Tracy Walsh, 42, the innkeeper at the Colonial Inn in the Smithville section of Galloway Township, does not live at the property she manages - she lives several miles down the road in Absecon - but she is still on call.

"I do get phone calls in the middle of the night," Walsh said. "Someone will set off the fire alarm at ten o'clock at night, (for example). Things like that happen, and you'll think, ‘Oh my gosh! I just got home!'"

Even when innkeepers live at their properties, it is often hard to find time away. Weekends are when parties are happening, when people go out at night and to the beach during the day - and it's also the peak time for B&Bs.

"One of the things you don't realize is how much you're tied down," Morella said. "When I worked in corporate America, I had weekends off. Plus, if you don't come in one day, someone else will take your place. If you have a bed-and-breakfast, if you don't show up, nothing gets done."

As for when innkeepers can schedule vacations, "You have to make your downtime," said Aiken. "Believe it or not, sometimes (the best time) is the week before Father's Day. That last week is a little slow. ... It's like the calm before the storm."

The "shoulder season" before Memorial Day is always a slower time - especially midweek. But Aiken has been able to increase her midweek bookings using marketing many may not associate with B&Bs.

"Thank God for Groupon," said Aiken, referring to the marketing website. "I sold 250 rooms, and they all had to use them before June 1. Midweek has been wonderful."

Marketing is definitely made easier, however, when you're the only B&B in town.

"We do have a search engine (advantage)," said Walsh of the Colonial Inn. "When you look online for a B&B in Smithville, we're definitely the only one that comes up. But without Historic Smithville, it would be quite a challenge. But we already have a lovely built-in business with the Smithville Inn. And once you drive here, you don't have to get back in your car."

Said Moncrief, "The trick, we believe, is that the B&B business is a relationship business. The easiest marketing you can do is to get repeat customers - it costs you nothing (besides) making sure they have a good time here."

Expert on everything

Of course, in this business, everything revolves around the guests and their needs.

"You have to be a concierge and know everything that goes on in the area," Moncrief said. His inn always recommended restaurants, but now it provides maps - plus, if necessary, written directions and even a picture with a phone number on it.

Plus, he added, "Things like church schedules, different types of boat tours. ... You have to know to be able to provide these answers."

In North Wildwood, Moncrief also has to pivot between people who have never been to the Wildwoods before and Wildwoods veterans who may be staying someplace other than a motel for the first time.

"You have to introduce them to the B&B paradigm," he said.

Besides becoming experts in the surrounding area, innkeepers also have to become experts at what their guests would like.

"It's also about reading people as well," Goyette said. "With the numerous amounts of restaurants, you have to know where to send them. One couple may enjoy a certain restaurant, and another one may not."

How guests spend time at the inn also varies, Moncrief said.

"Some guests will come here and not want to be bothered, and spend time alone and out on a rocking chair," he said. "Some guests like to talk to you the whole afternoon."

"One of the amazing things is the diversity of the people," Goyette said. "You're always learning new things from people you might not otherwise be exposed to on a regular basis, coming in and out of your life."

And, of course, there's the cooking.

"I love to cook, I love to bake," Morella said. When it comes to compliments, "It makes you feel good to hear that. I hear that every day. It never gets old."

At the Ocean City Mansion, breakfast is often served by Aiken's daughters and son - McKenna, 12, Scott, 10, and AliJane, 9. They were all at school as Aiken finished turning everything around before the new guests arrived, but her 1-year-old daughter, Holly, followed her everywhere, from room to room and outside. And that is an advantage that, for Aiken, made working in the B&B business worthwhile.

"I have to do things twice sometimes," Aiken said, referring to Holly's occasional unhelpful, if inadvertent, contributions. "But I wouldn't want it any other way. I get to be with her."

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