|By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 26, 2007 - Buying a quaint little hotel is a dream for many people, especially in Florida where mild winters seem to guarantee guests.
The reality can be long hours and precarious profits, similar to any small business. Small hotels can't afford much in the way of marketing and have to constantly put money into their rooms simply to maintain them.
Bigger hotels can be formidable competitors if they choose to be. Getting time away from the business is especially hard. The slow season may bring few guests, but the innkeeper has to be available to those who do come. The high season can be grindingly busy.
"The tricky part is, as the months go by, you find yourself really getting tired," said Pam Horovitz, president of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.
Yet hundreds of people in South Florida are living the innkeeper's life. One of them is Mick Ball, whose Tropi Rock Resort is a popular tourist choice on Fort Lauderdale beach. Here's a look at one day in the life of an innkeeper during the busy season.
6:45 a.m. Hotel owner Mick Ball rolls out of bed. His commute is a short one. He lives at the 31-room hotel he bought in 2002 with most of his life's savings. His first task is to make coffee for guests and greet the first of his three housekeepers. Mick's wife, Patty, makes breakfast for the couple's two sons and drives them to school.
7:30 a.m. Mick opens the office, a sunny room in the morning. The hotel is a three-story 1960s-era property that was remodeled by an artist a dozen years ago, giving it a whimsical look and a Mexican flavor. Broken crockery, glass bits, smiling figures of the moon and sun and shards of mirror decorate murals that appear around the entrance and the front desk.
Ball notes with dismay that 10 orange keys hang from hooks behind the desk, a sign the rooms went empty. This time of year only one or two keys should be there. Business is soft so far this season and Ball doesn't know why. "I'm very worried about March and April," he said.
9:05 a.m. The day gets off to a good start. A walk-in customer from Quebec rents a room for six nights. It will be the first of several walk-ins for the day. Ball gives him a slight discount for booking more than a couple nights.
10:05 a.m. A couple shows up early for their room. Ball stashes their luggage in a back room while they run to the airport to pick up another couple. Many guests this time of year know each other and stay for a month or more.
10:15 a.m. A guest wants directions. Ball shows him how to get to a shopping center by taking the "40" bus and advises him to bring exact change. Ball, 57, prefers guests who are older or have families and discourages ones he thinks will be rowdy.
In January, Ball resumed marketing rooms through the Internet travel site Expedia because he had too many vacancies. But he put a five-night minimum stay requirement in place. "Party people want two or three nights," he said.
Ball isn't happy to have to use Expedia to market rooms in the high season because fees can cost him up to 25 percent of the room price. Most rooms rent for less than $120 a night. "All of a sudden, we make almost nothing on that room," he said.
10:55 a.m. A passer-by from Chicago trips on the sidewalk outside and cuts her foot. She limps into the lobby where Ball gives her Band-Aid to stop the bleeding. He has seen more blood than he cares to recently.
Two weeks earlier, Ball was awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of crashing glass. A guest from Russia had fallen through a 10-foot-by-6-foot plate-glass window in his room, slicing open his arm. There was blood everywhere. The window will cost $1,000 to replace, plus the bed linens are ruined. But in the morning, Ball draws up a document absolving the guest of all cost. In return, the guest agrees not to bring any sort of lawsuit against the hotel.
Ball says the guest's story about how he fell through the window is improbable. Ball will likely never know the truth. But the bottom line is that Ball can't afford to defend a suit over the matter. "We ate that cost," he says.
11 a.m. The mail arrives. "Hi, Al!" Ball shouts to the mailman. "Grab some coffee." Ball's outgoing personality and gentle demeanor are well-suited to the hospitality business.
The mail brings a thank-you note and a key to Room 306, returned by a guest from Alberta. The guest had booked a week and badly needed it, in Ball's estimation. Two days into his stay, he left for a work emergency in Atlanta.
Except for a one-day deposit, Ball said he doesn't charge when guests back out of reserved rooms. But it can be hard. Last year, a 39-night stay canceled one day before arrival. "I had turned away 100 people for those nights. Poof! They're gone," he said.
11:30 a.m. Ball greets his handyman, Marc Pierre, a trim young worker with a broad smile. Pierre almost quit last month, even though Ball had given him a raise at the start of the year. Pierre had been socked with a $4,000 increase in the cost of his homeowner insurance and was close to accepting another job. So Ball agreed to a second raise, to cover the insurance. "That only compounds all the other increases we're seeing," he said.
Of those, the biggest is the $4,000-a-month jump in Ball's mortgage, which has a variable interest rate. It was all he could get as a first-time hotel owner. The increase piles $48,000 onto annual expenses. "This hotel doesn't make that much in [annual] profit," Ball said.
12:45 p.m. A guest asks to use the barbecue grill. Ball explains he's getting away from propane, back to charcoal. The reason: guests would extinguish the grill but not completely close the valve, venting a $20 tank of propane into the air.
2:20 p.m. Ball leaves to pick up his sons from school. Last year the Balls and their sons took a vacation, their first as an entire family in five years. Ball left his 19-year-old daughter in charge of the hotel and rented a satellite phone so she could reach them night or day in the Idaho wilderness if any problems arose. Before that Mick and Patty took separate vacations, with one staying behind to run the hotel.
3:10 p.m. A guest stops in to buy a Journal de Montreal, one of two French-Canadian papers Ball sells. He also offers free Internet service.
Ball keeps a separate computer for the hotel's reservations. In late January, the computer died and even an emergency team from Sony was having trouble reviving it by day's end. "We were dead in the water," Ball said.
Ball hadn't backed up the data for five days. By chance, the designer of Tropi Rock's Web site dropped by. He swapped out the hard drive and installed it on a new computer, which restored the reservations system to life.
5 p.m. Ball attends a meeting of small hotel owners called by City Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom, who wants input on a new zoning initiative. She gets it. The owners are deeply afraid it will limit building heights, cutting the development value of their land. "We're already screwed," mutters one of Ball's embittered colleagues.
For the meeting, Ball dons a black pinstripe suit from his days as a corporate executive. Not wearing it is one of the best parts of life as a hotel owner, he says. Ball tells Rodstrom the only way he will make real money from Tropi Rock is by selling it: "If our reward is going to come at the end of the process and now you're going to take that away, then I will have spent the last five years working 16- to 18-hour days for nothing," he says.
9 p.m. This is quiet time. The front door is locked, and Ball does the paperwork. He calls up and answers 40 e-mails. In early December as the high season approaches, he has had 300 e-mail inquiries in the queue. Ball checks the late-arrival log. Tonight he has two, including an Austrian guest who speaks no English. He checks in around 11 p.m.
After that, Ball follows his routine. He deletes any information left on the guest computer in the lobby, makes sure there's coffee for the morning, straightens out the pool furniture and walks the property to spot any burned-out lights.
11:37 p.m. Ball calls it a day. A window on the family minivan is stuck in the down position and tomorrow it goes to the shop. He'll need some sleep.
Tom Stieghorst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5008
Copyright (c) 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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