A recent disappointing experience at an inn that shall remain shameless has stirred longstanding thoughts about an article designed to avoid pitfalls regarding B&Bs and other small properties. Thoughts regarding how to present this led to fond memories of the (reviewed) Rabbit Hill Inn in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The busy bunnies there do it right; the contrast in accolades and associations between that terrific place and the more recent destination demonstrates the difference that this makes.
A brief background that helps explain the love for the Rabbit Hill Inn is that the first stay predates Unreal TV 1.0 and 2.0. The then significant other of your future not-so-humble reviewer was looking for a place to celebrate a milestone birthday of the latter. Knowing that I love animals prompted paying particular attention to the Rabbit Hill. The sharing of that find prompting an exclamation of "BUNNY!" sealed the deal.
The Rabbit Hill remained a fond memory until history repeated itself in the form of the current more highly significant other of your not-so-humble reviewer looking for a place for a do-over celebration of an even bigger milestone birthday at an even larger train wreck of an inn than the recent lodging establishment. As the aforementioned article discusses, resident innkeepers Brian and Leslie Mulchay more than made up for the epic fail at the aforementioned clip joint.
The most important aspect of picking an inn relates to the primary rule when literally or figuratively playing the home version of the game show "Jeopardy!." Always trust your first instinct.
When first contacting an inn, either not hearing back for several days and/or reaching an unfriendly person is a very bad sign that typically warrants looking elsewhere. This is even more true if the representative does not answer questions about the inn, the room. or the general area. However, the demanding nature of the industry makes a polite request to hold or to otherwise wait very valid.
Similarly, having your spidey sense tingle at any preliminary stage of a stay calls for taking all practical steps to find alternative lodging. It seems that just as many negative Trip Advisor reviews include the phrase "we decided to stay anyway" as do letters in another publication begin with "I never thought that this would happen to me ..."
Speaking of Trip Advisor ...
Trip Advisor and similar review sites have value but should not be taken as the gospel truth. In fairness to inns, some guests use these forums to grind unwarranted axes.
In fairness to guests, many inns manipulate these reviews. This requires taking positive and negative reviews alike with a grain of salt. However, properties such as the Rabbit Hill Inn that have more than 1,000 glowing reviews and very few even neutral ones usually are a safe bet.
The biggest problem is that less reputable inns coerce guests into removing negative reviews. The corporate owner (more on this below) of the train wreck whose name I dare not speak actually sent lengthy correspondence via certified mail thinly threatening legal action and more dire consequences regarding a subsequently deleted review, which was honest and provided specific examples. A bizarre aspect of this was wrath related to the review noting that this establishment (with meeting rooms and a business center) that advertised itself as a historic property seemed more like a conference hotel than a cozy retreat.
Trip Advisor will respond to reports of such coercion, but that sadly can enhance the claim of a property owner that negative comments are actionable.
On the other side of the coin, properties can unduly encourage positive reviews. The Rabbit Hill Inn and other gems invite guests to write online reviews; lesser places such as the recent not-so-grand hotel reward guests for these postings.
I confess that an offer of points in a loyalty program for the recent property prompted a pre-trip Trip Advisor review that reflected then-positive thoughts but that I slightly embellished to maintain a good relationship with that inn.
On a more general level, it is advised (pun intended) to look for patterns Most negative reviews mentioning the same flaws likely have credibility but should be weighed against your own priorities and travel experiences. Many B&Bs get slammed online for not having televisions and coffee makers in the rooms. Folks seeking such amenities likely will prefer a more cookie-cutter hotel.
At the same time, positive reviews that are posted soon after a negative one and mirror the criticism in the prior post have little credibility.
A personal anecdote regarding mirroring relates to staying at a place that was much more boarding house than upscale inn. I gave the property a negative review based on specified flaws; a five-star review praised the EXACT same elements. For example, my commenting about the only hanging space being two 50s-era cloakroom style hooks on the wall was praised as providing a historic touch.
An innkeeper responding to negative reviews is another good sign; such replies being personalized and appropriately apologetic is another good sign. Clearly rote language such as merely stating "we are disappointed that you did not enjoy your stay; please give us another try" is not a terrific sign.
The WORST response is attacking the guest. Even being the most obnoxious individual alive, requesting the impossible, and leaving the room in a state that looks as if a heavy metal band spent a week there does not warrant expressing that in a reply to a review.
The same humor related to a Fortune 100 corporation owning a subsidiary that makes what are marketed as home-style baked goods applies in a less amusing manner to the very personal art of running an inn.
On a positive note, the Mulchays do it right by living on the property and being available from before sunup to well after sundown. They further have an always well-qualified assistant innkeeper, chef, and copious support staff to free them up to be charming and to step in the very rare case in which something goes awry and the even more unlikely situation in which a staff member cannot handle it.
On a negative note, corporate ownership of an inn has rarely worked in my experience; even an absentee owner often does not make for a good stay. An owner typically is the only one with a strong interest in the property and the authority to make a necessary change. The exception is having an onsite manager who either grows up in a hotel-management environment or has a natural talent for his or her job.
The personal account this time relates to carefully selecting a room at a B & B but being assigned less desirable lodgings. Trying to be a good sport resulted in a sleepless first night and a request to move the second night; this also showed the benefit of bringing a printed copy of a reservation when booking an individualized room at an inn.
The resident owner initially denied the request to move but apologized and allowed it after his own records confirmed the error. It almost is certain that a manager would have denied the request and that even a non-resident owner (who almost always is in the game solely for the profit and refuses to take a role in running the place) would have ignored feedback regarding the matter.
The aforementioned individualized nature of rooms at most inns makes selecting the room that suits your needs very important. Having been in every room at the Rabbit Hill allows qualifying this statement with the comment that there is not a bad one in the hutch.
A related aspect of this is conducting a cost-benefit analysis; a no-brainer is spending another $25/night to avoid sharing a bathroom with one or more complete strangers. More thought is required regarding paying a slight premium if it makes a difference between spending your special weekend away in a shabby broom closet and having a better experience in a cozy but well-appointed room.
A related hint is that a great bargain through an online site is very risky. This increases the odds of getting the worst room in the joint. The anecdote this time is literally needing to hop on the bed at the aforementioned train wreck to allow the other person to get out the door.
Another aspect of this is that size hugely matters when the inn tries to rob Peter to pay Paul. One negative aspect of the recent stay was the bait-and-switch related to the inn keeping the door open to a gorgeous well-decorated room with a spacious and gleaming bathroom and our room likely being less nice than it was when the inn was a boarding house.
Conversely, a stay in what probably once was a broom closet at the Washington-Jefferson Hotel in Hell's Kitchen still was great. The single bed was very comfortable and had indescribably good linens and pillows; further the bathroom (which was larger than the bedroom) was just as luxurious as the facilities in many visited five-star hotels. I knew that I was getting a cozy accommodation, but the otherwise wow factor of the room more than compensated for the only drawer space being under the bed and having to store my suitcase on top of the smallish armoire.
Most of the above brings us to an aptly "TV Land" analogy regarding the ideal inn. The '90s sitcom "Newhart" about transplanted New Yorkers Dick and Joanna Louden moving to a beautiful but quirky Vermont town to run a B & B provides an idealized image of such establishments sans the lazy maid and scary woodsman brothers who drop by every day. The Rabbit Hill and its ilk greatly outshine this "How-to" author and his sweater-loving trophy wife.