Twenty-five years after the Bed and Breakfast Association was formed in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the town has changed, and so has the accommodation industry, but maybe not as much as residents might think.
The number of visitors coming to NOTL was often quoted in the 1990s as being around the three million mark each season, a number which is still used today.
Minerva Ward, president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, says she has heard that number since she accepted her position with the chamber, but won’t use it, or any number, because there is no scientific basis. Data has never been collected that could accurately state the number of tourists coming to town, she says. One of her goals is to determine an accurate number as a base, to track growth and help make decisions about the tourism industry.
Although B&Bs are still a popular choice for many visitors, there are fewer of them than there were 25 years ago, with more alternatives for visitors, including more hotel rooms, and the growth of other kinds of accommodation rentals.
The NOTL Chamber of Commerce was once a source of B&B reservations, some of them coming from an early website, others from people who walked into the office looking for a place to stay. Likely the biggest change in the industry has come about because of the proliferation of reservation systems, making online bookings easy for visitors before they leave home.
The chamber is not involved in taking reservations, says Ward, but the NOTL B&B Association is a member of the Chamber and is represented on its board. B&Bs are listed on the chamber website, with a link to accommodations.
Lynne LeGallais and Kenn Moody are two former B&B operators involved in the early days of the association, as it broke away from the chamber. Speaking to The Local during a Zoom meeting, Moody explains in the ’90s, not all B&B owners thought they were getting their fair share of reservations through the chamber, and pulled away to create their own official association. They used one of their member’s website to advertise, with captains who would take phone calls, matching visitors’ needs to B&Bs.
The captains, says Moody, also did inspections to ensure B&Bs were up to their standards before they would take bookings.
That system didn’t last long. Operators, says Moody, “tend to be competitive, contentious and curious,” and the association transitioned to a third-party booking website, run by someone wh did not own a B&B.
LeGallais, with a B&B on the Niagara River Parkway, recalls the chamber still had its website and continued to have operators who participated through the chamber website and also became very active members of the B&B Association.
The town licensing process was quite arduous, she says. “Every property was inspected, and it was expected they would give you advice whether you wanted it or not, such as ‘you want to change the colour of this room because people won’t like that.’ We had lots of input from the town.”
John Foreman, a current B&B owner and president of the association, joins in the conversation, saying with a laugh, “I would say they’re still on that path.”
Moody says there were inspections by town bylaw officers, the fire department, and the regional health department.
At that time, there were just over 300 licensed B&Bs, presenting people with a more affordable option than hotel rooms, but also making more rooms available for tourists — before the growth of B&Bs in town, many visitors would stay in Niagara Falls hotels, says Moody. Having rooms in town meant guests would stay longer, and take advantage of local restaurants.
The number of B&Bs is now down to about 150, says Foreman, but including other kinds of vacation rentals, there are about 300, all with inspections by town bylaw officers, and to ensure homes are up to fire and electrical codes. The B&B Association also includes other kinds of rental accommodation, including cottages, country inns, and villas.
Although there has been talk in recent months about harsh penalties for those operating without a licence, or not following other rental protocols, B&Bs of 20 years ago caught breaking rules also faced tough punishments, although there weren’t many, says Moody. As president of the association, he visited two, and those were the only two he knew of during his years with the association. Both were offered an option by the town — a $25,000 fine or a one-year licence suspension, and they both chose to pay the fine, he recalls.
Moody and his wife Peggy ran their B&B on Lakeshore Road, by Bayberry Lane, from 2002 to 2008, selling in 2008 and moving to St. Davids.
“Peggy and I started coming to NOTL in 70s,” he says, usually staying at the Pillar and Post. But by the 1980s, “the Pillar and Post was out of our price range. We called the chamber looking for a B&B, and once we tried one, we never went back to hotel rooms.”
When they decided to retire to NOTL, he and Peggy decided they would run a B&B for five years, and re-evaluate. After their five years was up, Peggy said she wasn’t ready to give it up, but by the end of year six she had had enough.
Running a B&B “isn’t hard work, but it’s long work. You needed to be there, and she found the pressure of changing a room at 11 a.m. to get it ready for someone coming at 12 was starting to get to her, so we said it’s over,” says Moody.
The house was too big for for the two of them, and they decided to sell it. The people who bought it didn’t reopen it as a B&B immediately, but did eventually, he says.
The LeGallais purchased a large property on the Niagara River Parkway, beside the Grand Victorian, in 1998, built the house to run as a B&B, and opened in 1999. They kept it for seven years before also selling, when they received an offer they couldn’t refuse, and moved to St. Davids, and then just up the hill to Niagara Falls.
When she and her husband Randy had retired, they knew the one part they would miss about their careers was meeting people, so the idea of a B&B for them was ideal, she says. She had no plans to give it up when a local real estate agent asked if she could show the house to a couple who had been visiting NOTL for three years, looking at houses. They had their eye on the LeGallais home, and the real estate agent asked if they could see the house, hoping it would persuade them to look more seriously at something else. Instead, the couple made an offer. LeGallais says she couldn’t handle the idea of selling, but when they returned a couple of months later, Randy had convinced her they could do more with their free time if they sold, and that was the end of their seven-year run.
Foreman says five to seven years is about average — he and his wife have had their B&B for five years, and he thinks they will probably give it another two or three, although he expects they will stay in their home.
Most end up selling, finding “they have more house than they need,” he says. And when B&Bs come up for sale these days, there aren’t many takers. He attributes that to the high price of housing. If you have to spend $1.5 million, he says, “It’s kind of hard to make the math work.”
For those who want to run a B&B, the chief attraction is the interaction with people. “The highlight of running a B&B is the conversation around the breakfast table, but maybe younger people aren’t interested in that,” Foreman says.
Moody and LeGallais both agree that although they enjoyed the freedom of having more leisure time once they gave up their B&Bs, they missed the people, and the friendships that developed with return visitors. “People used to talk about the clients from hell,” says Moody, “but we never had one, not even close.”
LeGallais recalls one couple, Shaw patrons, who came to stay at her B&B. When they made arrangements to return a few months later, she asked if they were coming to see another Shaw play, and they said no, they were planning to get married. They asked Lynn and Randy to stand up for them, and arranged for an officiant to marry them in the backyard.
Moody says the town has changed a lot since the early days of the B&B Association, with 75 per cent of the visitors in town to see Shaw Festival plays. When he and his wife left it six years later, it was down to about 40 per cent, and the number of wineries had grown astronomically from what was called the group of seven plus one in the early 90s, and wine wineries and agri-tourism “had pretty much taken over top spot. Shaw still had a hard core group of repeat clients, but the downtown core had changed quite a bit, with a lot of new businesses, he says.
Legallais agrees that the Shaw was the foundation of the tourism industry, but patrons who had stayed in hotels wanted to try the B&B experience. The wine tours were an added experience, particularly among the young people, she says.
Looking back, Moody says he doesn’t think the B&B owners of the early day thought of themselves as a destination, but rather a way to keep tourists in town instead of having them drive to and from a hotel room in Niagara Falls. “The impact was more exposure for attractions and restaurants here, including hotel restaurants. We saw ourselves as providing quality accommodation, good advice about attractions in town, and a local perspective for visitors seeking that type of information.”
“I am proud of the work we did (as an association) and the organizational strength that
we passed on to future boards,” he adds.
LeGallais says running a B&B was like having friends visit, giving the operators an opportunity to recommend local restaurants and shops. “If someone asked where she should go for shoes, I’d get a pair out of my closet and tell her where I bought them. We shopped local as much as we could.”
Guests came to bond with their B&B owner, and trusted their advice, she says, which was good for local businesses. “It’s just not the same as a cottage rental. We would go out of our way to make our guests feel special creating a different environment.”
Foreman describes B&B owners as ambassadors for the town, and agrees that guests often become friends. “When someone stays with you for two or three days, there are hugs all around when they leave, and talk about when they’re coming back. It’s more than a hotel room.”