Doilies are Dead
Shore B&Bs cater to a new market: hipsters
By Diane Stopyra

Kirsten Sebright is a 30-year-old former account executive for Polo Ralph Lauren who runs marathons, works for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and still uses a typewriter. In other words, she’s fashionable, fit, philanthropically minded and inclined to go retro. By Generation Y standards, this long-time Jersey Shore visitor is – without a doubt – cool.

Kirsten Sebright and her husband honeymooned in Cape May

Kirsten Sebright and her husband honeymooned in Cape May

But when Sebright got married in 2012, she didn’t look for the “cool” honeymoon destination – she wasn’t interested in luxury soaps, concierges or personal cabana services. Instead, she checked into a South Jersey bed and breakfast, the type of accommodation that’s long been mocked as old-fogey-friendly, dolled up with doilies and for the quaint-of-heart only. And her choice wasn’t motivated by cost.

“We stayed at the Southern Mansion in Cape May,” she says, “because we wanted to do this more than anything else in the world. It was our speed and more about the experience than anything else. Now it would be hard to travel any other way. For me, it was a no-brainer.”

Sebright is part of a larger trend, says Mary Hughes, editor of Inns magazine and huge fan of North Wildwood’s Candlelight Inn. For the 20- and 30-something crowd, she notes, B&Bs are back.

“I get weekly email reports on new subscribers, and more and more of them are young people,” she says. “The baby boomers catapulted the industry to where it is today, but now members of Generations X and Y have the money, and they’re happy to come. They’re not taking two-week vacations like their parents; they’re looking for weekend getaways, and B&Bs are ideal for that.”

This uptick in popularity among Millennials doesn’t mean the B&Bs of South Jersey and specifically Cape May – considered by many to be the bed and breakfast capital of the world – aren’t facing challenges. In 2003, under Governor Jim McGreevy, the New Jersey legislature approved a 7-percent occupancy tax on hotel, motel, and bed and breakfast rooms. Add this to the 7 percent sales tax already applied to B&B rooms, and proprietors were left shaking their heads and, in some cases, closing their doors.

Take Jay Schatz, former president of the now-dormant Hotel, Motel and Lodging Association of Cape May. He sold The Abbey Bed and Breakfast in 2012, and now it operates as a whole-house rental, becoming one of 14 Cape May B&Bs to succumb to such fate in recent years. “Condominiums, apartments and house rentals aren’t subjected to this 14-percent tax,” he says. “For a while, we had a pretty good fight going against the unfairness of this, with support from Sea Isle, Avalon and Stone Harbor, but we had no support from elected representatives in the state assembly. They picked their winners and losers.”

It’s an inequity that can be chalked up to the power of the real estate lobby in New Jersey, say Tom and Sue Carroll, who were pioneers of America’s B&B industry in the ’70s. When they opened their Mainstay Inn in Cape May, only five other bed and breakfasts existed in the country, sprinkled throughout New England and Sutter Creek, California. By the ’90s, with help from a New York magazine cover story on the Mainstay, close to 80 inns were thriving in Cape May alone. Then came the one-two punch of recession and occupancy tax. The Carrolls sold in 2004, and though it was not a decision motivated by financials but by a desire to retire, they understand the frustrations of today’s B&B owners. “It’s a terrible tax,” Tom says.

“And the industry might have dipped into a downturn for a while. But it’s important to remember that B&Bs are cyclical. Things come back around. Think about it like this: kids generally reject their parents’ tastes, but think grandparents’ tastes were pretty cool.”

Ventnor City’s Carisbrooke Inn has homemade food and Victorian charm

Ventnor City’s Carisbrooke Inn has homemade food and Victorian charm

Cultural attitudes appear to be assigning a new hip factor to South Jersey B&Bs, or at least say the statistics. These days, close to 40 percent of the guests at Cape May’s Albert Stevens Inn – ranked 18th best B&B in the world by TripAdvisor – are under 40. At Ocean City’s Atlantis Inn, the percentage is the same. At The Carisbrooke Inn in Ventnor, it’s 50 percent. At Inn on Main in Manasquan, it’s upward of 80 percent. “Young people are on the Internet,” says owner Val Reyes. “When they see a deal, they go for it.”

Most innkeepers agree the rising popularity can be attributed to technology, which is helping to promote a new image for the industry. In 2012, the Professional Association of Innkeepers International went so far as to launch a Death to Doilies campaign to break down fuddy-duddy stereotypes and get across a message: even inns that have maintained a Victorian aesthetic have rolled with the times. “Some people still think B&Bs don’t offer private baths,” Tom Carroll says. “But these came about back during the AIDS scare, when folks didn’t understand how the disease spread.” Amenities like central air-conditioning followed. Today, 85 percent of B&Bs offer high-speed Wi-Fi.

Cape May’s Mission Inn was styled after the Spanish Missions of California

Cape May’s Mission Inn was styled after the Spanish Missions of California

But the Internet has helped in other ways, too: through social media, members of various generations have found common ground and become better able to connect. “So when guests sit down at a breakfast table with strangers, which is often what happens at a B&B, they’re able to enjoy each other’s stories. With electronic media, the generation gap seems smaller; even my guests in their 70s come with iPads,” says Raymond Roberts, owner of Cape May’s Mission Inn where, legend has it, Errol Flynn once stayed.

It doesn’t hurt that bed and breakfasts tap into a growing desire for authenticity in travel. When it comes to rooms, guests don’t want a Holiday Inn suite that looks like every other Holiday Inn suite, because “it’s a more customized experience to pick your own,” says 36-year-old B&B enthusiast Elliot Mercer of New Hope, Pa. “It’s not cookie-cutter, and it’s a good way to check out the local architecture.”

This desire for authenticity also translates to food. Processed is out, artisanal is in.

“We started growing our own zucchini, onions and tomatoes five years ago,” says Jan Pask, owner of Cape May’s Luther Ogden Inn. “People are more and more excited about it as the trend moves toward slow food and organic eating.”

At Cape May’s Mason Cottage, 40-year-old innkeeper Patti Goyette grows her own herbs and does “as much local farm-stand shopping as I can.” Like a lot of B&Bs, she says, she’s well-equipped to accommodate dietary requests, which appeals to growing numbers of young vegans or Paleo dieters.

But even less healthy offerings have the draw of homemade food. “Believe it or not,” says Don Loper of Ocean City’s Northwood Inn, “the biggest appeal tends to be the chocolate chip cookies. When is the last time one of our younger guests had time to make something like this himself?”

Southern Mansion in Cape May

Southern Mansion in Cape May

For many, the answer to this question is…too long ago to remember. That’s the case for 32-year-old Robert Bowman III, a Brooklyn-based web developer. But don’t think Robert and his wife Heather come to the B&Bs of South Jersey strictly for the treats – or because a stay in a B&B meets some hipster standard of unconventional. “We don’t seek out B&Bs for their irony,” he says. “Escaping from the hectic city life for a long weekend is more relaxing in the personal touch of a B&B. We genuinely enjoy and prefer them.”

June 2014
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