Note: This article was written before there were many Ontario bed
and breakfast advertising websites, and long before I developed the one
you're on now. Besides making you a more informed consumer, it can be
read as a description of the extensive research I do to find the top
10% of Ontario bed and breakfasts invited for review on this website.
* * *
The ad reads, 'Elegant Bed & Breakfast accommodations in gracious Victorian home. Gourmet breakfast'. Sounds like a good bet. But you're an experienced traveller and you know that very often the ads overstate the case. So how do you get the straight goods. How do you find out if it's a bed & breakfast you'd really like.
Well, perhaps I can help improve your odds of picking a good one. In researching a book I write on Ontario's best bed and breakfasts I've come up with a number of ways to narrow the field. For each edition I travel incognito to several hundred, pay where I stay overnight and pick the ones I think are in the top 10-15%.
Just like you, I start by reviewing brochures and reading the ads in magazines and bed and breakfast books. One of the few objective indicators in an ad is the number of rooms sharing a bathroom. Even then, watch out for a term like "private-use bathroom." (One time my hosts conveniently forgot to mention the "private-use" bathroom was on another floor.) Another indicator can be the price. I'm often asked, "Doesn't a high price indicate an above-average bed and breakfast?" Only sometimes. I've left some expensive bed and breakfasts out of my book, occasionally because they don't meet my standards, but mostly because I don't believe they offer good value.
Another source of information comes from media reviews. However, just because you've seen a bed and breakfast written up in a newspaper or magazine doesn't mean the story will be as accurate as you'd like. Did you know, for example, that many travel writers announce themselves in advance and take free room nights in return for a write up? Do you think they'll say something negative under those circumstances? Here's an example. One time I was convinced to reserve an Ontario B&B based on its positive review in an internationally-respected U.S. newspaper. When I arrived the house looked fine from the outside, but my suspicions were aroused by a host who answered the door wearing a baggy grey sweat suit. As for our room, it was decorated with a few pieces of old, chipped furniture and window curtains that had been shortened by simply cutting them off. Not.
I've shown up countless times at bed and breakfasts that have misrepresented themselves. Hosts sometimes write a romantic, overblown ad because they think that's the only way they'll get people to come. Or they honestly think they have something special to offer. I remember one bed and breakfast that sounded promising and, though it wasn't up to my standards, it wasn't too bad inside. The husband, however, was into his cups (at noon, yet) and, outside, the yard was full of rusting machinery. Another time, an enticing description, great location and expensive rates encouraged me to reserve in advance of seeing the place. I turned up only to find suspect housekeeping and decor that hadn't changed since the forties, including the shredded green window blinds; though the orange-and-green patterned sheets did seem to come from the flower-power sixties.
It's all in a day's work for me but what can you do to avoid getting burned. Well, you'll pick up some useful information if you phone the B&B host. Here are a few key questions to ask. Do you have any rooms with private bathroom (or shared with one other room only)? Describe the decor of your rooms. Is there a sitting area for guests to gather that's separate from host quarters? What is your typical breakfast? What area of town are you in? Are there any house rules? (You may want to eliminate overly-rigid hosts.) What kind of pets do you have? Are you on a highway? (You may want to avoid traffic noise.) Any good host will willingly answer your questions - watch out for impatience or defensiveness. While you're at it ask the hosts to send you a brochure.
Remember, though, just because someone sounds great on the phone doesn't mean they have good taste or acceptable housekeeping skills. As well, you may be misled in the other direction. For example, I once spoke to a host, whose bed & breakfast sounded wonderful in the ad, but who didn't come across well on the phone. I declined to book an overnight stay but was intrigued enough by the ad to drop by later and check it out. Thrilled with what I found, I reserved for another time and it turned out to be one of my best finds.
Another idea is to check the internet. For the most part it's advertising, but you may have the advantage of viewing photos of the place. Descriptions, though, are often sparse unless hosts have their own web page. Finally, there's one more research tactic you can use from afar. Call the local tourist information, usually found through the Chamber of Commerce. But don't ask them for "the best B&B." They represent all member B&Bs and won't be able to recommend one over another. Fair enough. Rather describe your idea of the perfect bed and breakfast and ask which one best meets your standards. You could also request brochures, including any put out by an association of B&Bs.
If you're on the road, and looking for a bed and breakfast as you go, there are a number of things you can do. First, check out the local tourist information booth. Again, ask staff to recommend a B&B or two that best meet your standards. As well, some places, like Ontario's Stratford, have three-ring binders containing B&B photos - one outside shot and two or three from the inside. Very helpful, even if you only make a point of looking through it for another time.
Next, do some drive-bys - you can often tell from the outside if it's a place you'd like to stay. Then, if the time of day is reasonable, knock on the door and ask to have a look at their rooms. Any good host should be pleased to show you around. If you're in a busy tourist place, and they're booked, some hosts may even have their own photo albums. At the very least you'll meet the hosts, see the common areas and get to ask about breakfast.
By now, you've probably found a bed & breakfast you'll enjoy staying at - but not necessarily. When I do my research I'll often know after meeting the hosts and having a tour whether it's a B&B I'd like to invite into my book. Sometimes, I'm not quite sure and it's not until I've stayed overnight that I can decide. It's not that I expect a bad experience at this stage (and neither should you) but rather whether it merits an invitation.
One final thought. Most hosts enjoy what they do and friendly hosts do make up for other shortfalls. If you're adventurous and somewhat flexible in your expectations, while you may not have a peak experience, you will, in all probability, be exposed to an interesting one. Remember, the truly bad bed and breakfasts are few and far between. And even then you can count it as part of the adventure. After all, it's only one night out of your life.
Copyright 2002 by Janette Higgins
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior written permission of Janette Higgins