Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An interview with Kate and Phil, Innkeepers of Henniker House B&B

When asking what their favorite thing about owning a B&B is, Kate responds, "it’s the people – getting to know them, sharing our corner of NH and just making their days here a little more relaxed than their usual routine." Phil agrees and says he especially enjoys suggesting activities and sites to get the most from the area. Kate and Phil have owned the B&B since May of 2005

Kate had a 27-year career in the financial services industry prior to owning the B&B.  She says, "With what has happened in the last couple of years in that field, I feel really lucky to have gotten out when I did.  I traveled a lot – both in the US and Internationally, worked on interesting projects and made some good friends.  I had the good fortune of being based in London England for 2 years and Sydney Australia for one.  I was able to travel extensively from both locations and stayed in B&B’s whenever I could.  I really enjoyed the insiders’ insight on walks along Hadrian’s Wall or the best vineyard in the Hunter Valley."

Before becoming an innkeeper, Phil reflects, "I really have had 4 different careers that prepared me for innkeeping.  First I was a shop teacher, able to make or fix just about anything you put in front of me.  Next I was a power delivery engineer, dealing with the “why” of large systems and “crisis response” to power outages.  Third stop on my career path was as a customer service rep for at a 401K center and most recently (& continuing) a ski instructor at Pats Peak.  So you can imagine the hands on fix it, crisis management and service ethic all serve me well here at Henniker House.  The ski instructor gig is pretty helpful too because, as the sign in our breakfast room says, “it’s all about the skiing”."

Kate muses that she wanted to become an innkeeper after the sort of traveling she did in Europe, innkeeping looked like away to live in a nice place, meet fascinating people and still have enough time for her own interests.  She says, "At this point I’d say 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.  I’ve discovered I’m a bit of an overachiever so my interests aren’t weaving, photography and sewing as I once thought they were.  It seems that I’m destined to take my corporate skills and apply them to founding a chamber of commerce in Henniker or establishing an inn-to-inn bike tour business with my spare time."

Phil says, "The idea of innkeeping never occurred to me till I fell for this red-headed woman who had a dream but didn’t want to face plumbing emergencies alone.  Now my most important job is making sure Kate stops to smell the roses (we don’t have that many plumbing emergencies)." Kate chimes in, "This sort of relates to the next question about most challenging, on an ongoing basis – when it’s my own business, in the place I live – I can spend every waking minute on the business of the B&B and forget to smell the roses."

When asked "What do you find most challenging about running a B&B?" Kate answers, 'this is mostly about the dream vs the reality of it – not so much about current challenges…) - Henniker House was a distressed property when we took it over.  My real estate agent saw it before we did and said “it’s dirty” and I said, “I can clean”, to which she said, “you didn’t hear me, it’s dirty”.  It was full of stuff that had nothing to do with the B&B business.  I’d say it took us a good 18 months to get ahead of the junk – the guys at the transfer station are my best buddies!  We then took another year or so to plan a major renovation that created the Balcony & Pear rooms as well as a very pleasant apartment for us on “the river level” (we don’t say basement).  In the last 2 years we’ve been able to enjoy the fruits of those labors and especially love to host folks who saw the “before” and appreciate the “after”.

Phil comments, "I’ve become “so Henniker”, I operate at a slower pace, inhale the beauty of our surroundings and treasure the small town lifestyle.  Sometimes a guest arrives hyped up with all the energy of today’s “New York minute” pace just looking for a place to sleep.  The challenge for me is to not preach the Henniker Gospel and just let them race through, missing out on the full B&B experience Henniker House has to offer.  The flip side of that challenge is when I do find a convert, they become an evangelist and spread the Henniker word."

Kate says in her occasional time to catch a breather from innkeeping, "I really enjoy a good wander.  I’ll take a hike or navigate from the back of Phil’s old BMW motorcycle or just go for a ride in the car.  Since I’m still pretty new to New Hampshire, there are many things on my must see list – guests add more all the time!  When I don’t have time to wander far, I find a quick ride on my bicycle to the post office or hardware store clears my head." Phil adds, "My time away from the B&B varies by season.  Chasing turtles around the boulders in Pleasant Pond gives me exercise from May to October.  In the winter, teaching skiing at Pats Peak fills my days with smiling kids and relieved adults."

Most mornings you will find Kate in the kitchen & Phil in the breakfast room.  Phil gets the credit for the good-looking lawn and Kate for the decorating inside.  It’s surprising how things just even out; they both can be busy all day in their own corners of this big house & then come back together for meals.

Kate says, "There’s something for everyone & every season.  Did we already say ski at Pats Peak?  Swim at Pleasant Pond, kayak on the Contoocook River, hike, bike or just drive along country roads and enjoy the views.  Plays or poetry readings at New England College.  Art at Mill Brook Gallery. Ice cream at Beech Hill Ice Cream Barn.  Maple sugaring, shopping and spoon carving workshops.  And of course there’s skiing at Pats Peak because “it’s all about the skiing”

Some of the many reasons guests come to stay at Henniker House is that New England College is here in Henniker and families checking come here to check it out, parents come to visit students or alumni returning to town make up about a quarter of the inn's business.  The B&B is also well positioned for travelers crossing New England, or exploring New Hampshire radiating out of our central location.  Henniker has a fabulous destination for quilters Quilted Threads (http://www.quiltedthreads.com/).  They have hosted folks from as far as Norway and Australia who came to visit the quilt shop.  Some of their favorite quilters take over the whole house for a weekend of sewing, visiting and hops across the street to Quilted Threads.  And of course there’s skiing at Pats Peak because “it’s all about the skiing”

Kate says, "Going back to the best part of innkeeping is the people; we truly believe that being present with the guests will make their stay special."  She & Phil try to tune into what the guest wants in their experience – quiet time alone on the deck by the river, to linger in the breakfast room with new friends or recommendations of where to eat or tour.  When it’s not apparent, Kate & Phil ask and listen – She comments, "It’s amazing how much people appreciate just being heard."

When asked if are there particular kinds of people that the B&B seems to appeal to. Kate responds, "More of our guests wear Birkenstocks, hiking boots or flip-flops than Manolo Blahniks.  Seriously we get all ages and stages of life but the common thread is that they are themselves interesting and interested in the world around them."

Kate comments, "If we have people who have never staying in a B&B before, we tell them, "We promise we’ll be gentle"– it’s good for a laugh and then we say “relax, you’re staying with family you didn’t know you had”.
She says, :Here at Henniker House you are greeted and served by the owners so we have a personal investment in the guest’s experience.  There is no one between the guest and the person who cares the most about the guests business. We’ve had several guests who on their visits back to Henniker stop into visit us – even when they didn’t stay here because we were full.  The smaller size of a B&B gives you get a chance to make a personal relationship that transcends the product of a place to stay."

When Kate and Phil first came to Henniker House they learned there was a write up in a European guidebook that described Henniker House as unpretentious.  They really take that to heart and strive to be a comfortable place with an unbeatable view of the Contoocook River. Phil comments, "Because we’re in town (small that it is!) we get good cell service for those who want to stay in touch and there are several good restaurants within walking distance."

Kates adds in closing, "Henniker House was a birthing hospital in the 1920’s & 30’s.  When I went to get apples from a local orchard I learned the owner was born here at what is now the inn.  The unique tie between the apple orchard tender and Henniker House makes our “Dutch Babies” the signature dish.  Even without the tie, puffy apple pancakes with New Hampshire maple syrup are a real treat.

Corner of Main Street & Ramsdell Road, Henniker NH
Classic in-town Victorian overlooking Contoocook River. Minutes away from Pats Peak Ski Area and New England College.