Friday, June 18, 2010

More Mornington Crescent

So, the interview went well but from 25 applicants there is a shortlist of four for one driving post. This really shows what a hit the road haulage industry must have taken last year, since all us truckerly grads had jobs before the ink was dry on our licences the first time around. Leaving Challenger when I did was clearly a big mistake, but I didn't have a lot of choice at the time. I am taking my mind off worrying about it by continuing the tale of the B&B years. Those of you who held my hand through it all will know a lot of this and anyone following Birds on the Blog will have read it already...really hoping to have more tales of 18 wheeled mishaps for you soon.

After an initial post about buying the B&B for the Birds (who are, after all, a blog circle for women in business) they were kind enough to ask me 'what happened next?' which led to a spot more writing...

The first thing that happened was that I mentally retraced my steps and re-evaluated every piece of advice I’d been given. Most of Fay’s homilies had been about how important it was to change as little as possible, for sound business reasons natch. She told me that keeping everything the same would ensure that regular customers came back…and that was partly true. For the first year at least. But she would hit the roof and yell at me for changing the slightest little thing, entirely as though it wasn’t my business, bought and paid for, and I could do as I damn well pleased with it. Like move the water cooler and put coffee makers in the rooms. I’d originally concluded that she was slightly nuts; the polite, reserved Brit in me had chosen to smile prettily, let her yell, and carry on regardless. It all fell into place once I’d twigged the plan, but it was so outrageous a thing to think of someone that I still really didn’t want to believe it. I commenced investigative enquiries.

I made friends with the local B&B owners association, wrote them some nifty free web copy, schmoozed the nicer ones and brought up the subject of Fay…
‘Oh yes, she told us you were this mad, rich, stupid English kid who wanted a B&B to hide in because you had to leave England.’ (I quite liked the ‘kid’ part.)
‘She said you’d run it into the ground within a year and then she’d buy it back.’
‘She wanted to stay on the committee here because she’d have her B&B again soon but we were glad to get rid of her.’
‘She was really furious when you changed the name.’

I asked one or two of the neighbours. They told the same story, with wildly inaccurate reportings of how much money I was supposed to have handed over. I asked the plumber, (who, among all the contractors, had taken pity on me and turned out relatively reliable) and he took to mumbling and looking very sheepish. It did appear to be true. And then Fay inadvertently confirmed it for me herself. The lady in the Tourist office had said ‘Fay comes in from time to time, she always tells me that people say you have become very expensive and the place isn’t as good as it was.’ Shortly afterwards on a regular pop-in, my mentor advised me confidentially, ‘I’ve been to the tourist office. They told me people are saying you’ve become very expensive and the place isn’t as good as it was…’ The identical form of words was the last piece of the jigsaw.

I changed as much as I possibly could. Not only did I need to make a success of things to keep Immigration on my side, I was on a mission to make the place unrecognisable out of sheer retaliatory spite. Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I retained the most successful marketing angles, remaining pet- and wheelchair-friendly, but most of Fay’s other trademarks went. The d├ęcor changed, the website changed, our target market changed, local business partnerships changed.

She still dropped by from time to time but I was through with smiling politely. We filtered the calls and locked the doors. I was never home. Lies were told. By then I was building an unlikely but effective relationship with our ‘deputy’ housekeeper. She had been the ‘weekend girl’ under Fay’s regime and as bullied by the full-time housekeeper as I had been by Fay. When I fired the poltergeist, she took over and became marvellous. We made a strong, if unorthodox, team, I respected her opinion and she watched my back. We called each other Pinky and The Brain, after the cartoon mice. We laughed all day and plotted exciting things. I taught her to speak Cockney and she taught me to speak Newfie. After a few drinks, nobody could understand either of us, but we understood each other. We finished each other’s sentences. She built a wall around me with ever more inventive lies when Fay came to call. Pinky could face anyone down with such conviction and cheekiness that you knew she was having you on but you’d be helplessly in her grip anyway. Gradually we heard from Fay less and leaned on each other more. Pinky remains a lifelong pal. I owe her a great deal more than my sanity.

We marketed to families, offered Ye Olde English Christmas Houseparties and served cream teas by the pool in the afternoon. We organised charity fundraisers and small weddings. We printed gift certificates. We ditched the contracts with large businesses and the honeymoons; both brought us people with expectations beyond a humble B&B and hassle beyond the coping ability of two people. We pioneered the ‘Pre-Wedding Pyjama Party’ instead. Easier to deliver, more fun and much more effective for viral marketing. Do you ever ask a honeymoon couple about their wedding night? Of course you don’t, it would be tacky and impolite. So, where, pray, is the marketing spinoff from all that bloody dipping of strawberries in chocolate and scrubbing of glitter out of the Jacuzzi? Now then, if you have all the girls for a sleepover the night before the wedding, serve them wine in the hottub, bring hairdressers and makeup artists to the house, serve fancy little muffins to them while they are being beautified, make the photographer happy (yes, of course you can take pictures in my gardens) etc, then everyone at that wedding gets to hear about how wonderful your place is.

Things began to turn around but my timing had not been good. You may or may not remember SARS, but it wrecked the entire Canadian Tourist industry in 2003. Tourism is one of those areas that go under first when an economy is crumbling and there was no shortage of follow-up crumblement. Economic retaliation from the US, when Canada refused to join the invasion of Iraq, was crippling industry and layoffs spread across the country. The exchange rate shifted, petrol prices went through the roof…there was always something keeping the punters away.

Many of our woes flowed directly from the Canadian government’s attempts to get Toronto back on its feet after SARS. They partnered with the tourism big hitters to persuade people back, matching marketing dollars and subsidising partnerships. You could go to Toronto for the weekend, see a musical, take in a ball game, eat atop the CN tower, shop til you dropped, and come home with change from a metaphorical fiver. The little people could compete, no-one was subsidising us. Much of small town Ontario went under at that time. From Stratford to Niagara accommodations and festivals closed, as their loyal local customers went to TO for a bargain instead. We did better than most, we were still trading five years down the line, but Fay had already cost me most of my working capital and the cash-flow never recovered. In fact there are people who still maintain that SARS was all my fault. We were still in the poltergeist phase, and having had both a fire and a flood in the same week, I raised my eyes to the river beyond our cedar trees and opined ‘it’ll be pestilence next’. Two days later the WHO slapped that travel advisory on Canada and the phone stopped ringing.

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