Developing a B&B Within a Volunteer Community

by Leo Passaportis, community member

About The Community

The Vlierhof is an international community run by volunteers from all walks of life, young and old. Founded in 2002 by Anutosh Varik, some residents view themselves as long-term ‘carriers’, others as short-term helpers. Some come and go on a seasonal basis. For others it is their primary place of residence. In short, the Vlierhof wouldn’t function without the volunteers. ‘But what are you about?’ is the question that arises quite naturally. Let me touch on this in order to better contextualise the setting for a profit-generating Bed and Breakfast which we now operate.

The Vlierhof is owned by an organisation, a BVJ, which ensures that we exist as a recognised entity which can operate as a business, conduct for-profit activities and remit taxes. That said, at this point in time, all revenue is reinvested in the community – ‘Vlierhof plc’ – in alignment with our vision and core values. We’ve strived to derive a vision from these core values and after several in-depth discussions on the subject we arrived at a statement:

We envision a space where anyone can: 
learn and grow through experimentation,
connect and create together,
and be empowered to make conscious choices.

There is particular emphasis on sustainable practises, living harmoniously, inner-work and spiritual development,  and a horizontal power structure. We strive, and believe me it is not without difficulties, to adhere to a sociocratic governance model. Everyone has a voice and no-one’s voice is more important than anyone else’s. 

Financial Viability

So how does the Vlierhof Community fund itself? Historically, the Vlierhof has needed between 70 – 75 K  to cover it’s annual liabilities and operating costs. There are some substantial mortgage loans to repay which are our main outgoing expense.

Our principal source of income is through conducting and facilitating workshops on the property, usually centred on the seminar house which has the appropriate facilities and accommodation.

Our principal source of income is through conducting and facilitating workshops on the property, usually centred on the seminar house which has the appropriate facilities and accommodation. In an ‘ideal situation’ our energy would be mainly focused on community practises (as defined on the vision page) and … workshops and seminars facilitated by community members.

There is general agreement amongst community members that in an ‘ideal situation’ our energy would be mainly focused on community practices (as defined on the vision page) and engaging the broader community through relevant workshops and seminars facilitated by community members. Where there are gaps we would invite workshop leaders with appropriate knowledge to facilitate these workshops. As it stands we have successfully conducted one retreat in the last 6 months with both internal and external facilitators. All other workshops were conducted by external individuals or organisations, a few of whom are long-term collaborators.

In the last 6 months… (almost) all workshops were conducted by external individuals or organisations

Whilst several of these collaborators provide a guaranteed income to the community on several occasions during the year, we are disproportiantely reliant on them. Of late we have had trouble ensuring that external facilitators are able to garner enough participants to conduct their workshops and we’ve had a number of last-minute cancellations. In some cases a deposit is forfeit to us in which case some of the loss in income is mitigated but in others a more lenient agreement means that nothing is realised. 

Of late we have had trouble ensuring that external facilitators are able to garner enough participants to conduct their workshops and we’ve had a number of last-minute cancellations.

The B&B Idea

The idea for a B&B has arisen mainly through practical considerations: prior to seriously marketing the venue as a B&B the number of bed-nights for the seminar house was almost entirely reliant on the patronage of workshop participants and facilitators. The seminar house is a 3-tiered building, formerly a barn, renovated extensively and now containing 13 rooms and a dormitory. This is enough for about 30 people. As any hotelier will tell you an occupied bed is better than an empty one. 

The seminar house is a 3-tiered building, formerly a barn, renovated extensively and now containing 13 rooms and a dormitory.

As you will see from the gallery the seminar house has a spacious ground floor and a number of single, double and triple rooms on the first and second floors. The rooms are well-lit by large slanted, double-glazed windows and the sense of space is enhanced by the angled ceilings. Most walls have been cobbed – an environmentally-friendly admixture of clay, lime and straw – and the furnishings are simple. Free WiFi is provided but there are no televisions for example. In this instance their presence would not align with our vision of creating a space for contemplation, silence and meditation.

So several of us identified an unutilised business opportunity  – a largely empty seminar house – and discussed the possibility of better marketing it as a B&B in a community meeting.

The ground floor consists on the one side of an open-plan dining room, lounge and kitchette. Within this space there is also a small gallery promoting the artistic efforts of community members – handcrafts, paintings, preserves and handmade bags as it stands currently. On the other side is a meditation room of similar size with a smooth laminate floor which can alternatively be used for musical events, dance and other workshop activities. This space is also utilised by community members and a Monday-night yoga group from the outlying community.

So several of us identified an unutilised business opportunity  – a largely empty seminar house – and discussed the possibility of better marketing it as a B&B in a community meeting. Concensus was reached therein: we would pursue this objective through delegating tasks to core sub-groups. The marketing and promotions team would looking at booking engines, advertising through our monthly newsletter, email and social media while the seminar house group would evaluate the space and operational aspects of the B&B. 

Incorporating a B&B into the Community 

Co-hosting a B&B alongside seminars, workshops and retreats requires good management skills and this is an area that needs ongoing attention and dedication. The challenges are not only practical but also ideological – what sort of people do we want to entertain? What sort of people do we not want to entertain? Do we offer or extendcommunity engagement? 

The challenges are not only practical but also ideological

Suffice to say not everyone in the community is fully on board but since the beginning of the year the B&B has provided a consistent revenue stream and to paraphrase a well-known saying, the money talks. How has this been attained?

Marketing and Promoting

Over the years the Vlierhof has built up a loyal following of people and organisations that identify with our vision and goals, many of whom have visited and participated in community-hosted events over the years. The community has built up a considerable email database of over 7,000 and reaches out to them every month through a dedicated newsletter advertising upcoming events and workshops as well as giving community updates and items of interest. This has also been a means of advertising and promoting our B&B through the linked blog and offering promotions for low-season visitors.

The community has built up a considerable email database of over 7,000 and reaches out to them every month through a dedicated newsletter

We tapped our database this winter by sending out an email promotion (concurrent with Facebook promo and booking platforms below) offering a whopping 50% discount to community visitors provided they book for a minimum stay of two nights. Almost every weekend since early February has seen couples and friends booking into our seminar house and in most instances eating all meals with us as well. The interaction between the visitors and the community has been, without exception to the best of my knowledge, positive.

Almost every weekend since early February has seen couples and friends booking into our seminar house and in most instances eating all meals with us as well.

I haven’t seen the latest figures but one estimate from a key member is that we have taken in about €1000 from community guests since the beginning of the offer in mid-January. However, this is only one aspect of the B&B. What is also proving an effective means of marketing is through several established booking portals: Booking.com and Expedia principal amongst them. The main question here is whether this clientele aligns with our vision. We are in agreement that our situation as a community and the values we espouse are made crystal clear on the property offering on each of these platforms.

What is also proving an effective means of marketing is through several established booking portals: Booking.com and Expedia principal amongst them

Of course there are a plethora of sites which market hotels, hostels and B&Bs, and some of these may align more directly with our values. Just a few hours earlier a group of us engaged in a monthly Marketing & Promotions meeting. Amongst the items tabled in the agenda was of the performance of our B&B on the booking portals mentioned above. This paved the way for a discussion on mainstream versus niche booking platforms. Let’s just say that the jury is out on this one. Watch this blog space!

(We are engaged in) a discussion on mainstream versus niche booking platforms

Social media is one area where there is much scope for marketing our facilities. Besides Facebook this avenue is largely unutilised.

The B&B / Seminar House Team

Essential to the successful the operation of a profitable B&B is a dedicated core of volunteers operating to a set of standards appropriate to the level of clientele we wish to attract. This is a dynamic area of the business since it incorporates both long and short-term volunteers and will no doubt evolve with time. Until now the team of 4 or 5 has taken on the challenge of refining the existing facilities and procedures without significant monetary input. The experience of catering for workshops has proved useful in the context of the B&B, although we haven’t yet developed a set or a la carte menu. We do provide a basic breakfast with a choice of cereals, bread, porridge, fruit juice, boiled eggs, cheese and fruit. There is the potential to develop our meal options further.

Essential to the successful operation of a profitable B&B is a dedicated core of volunteers operating to a set of standards appropriate to the level of clientele we wish to attract

As regards the B&B facilities the main challenge has been to create procedures around hygiene and sanitation: ensuring rooms are turned around in good time; that linen is laundered, dried and stored in good order; that communal space remains sanitary; toilets and bathrooms are cleaned; etc. If we are to be given a rating then we need to abide by industry standards. These are yet to be defined.

The next challenge is on improving on the facility provision and ongoing maintenance. This will require a budget and investment. This is of itself a challenge because the margin of profitability is, as yet, undefined. In addition the community has been struggling to cover liabilities. However my philosphy is one of nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Looking To the Future

Operating a viable guest house in conjunction with community and externally-facilitated events is the model we have for the forseeable future. Adhering to our commitments as outlined in our vision and core values remains an ongoing consideration and challenge in all spheres of the community, the B&B not withstanding.

Operating a viable guest house in conjunction with community and externally-facilitated events is the model we have for the forseeable future.

Personally speaking, I would like to see the seminar house develop into an eco-conscious B&B attracting like-minded individuals from all walks of life and all nationalities. I would like to see the dormitory upgraded through provision of decent beds, attractive artwork placed in the rooms and essential and cosmetic maintenance jobs being completed within a week or two of prioritising!

I would like to see the seminar house develop into an eco-conscious B&B attracting like-minded individuals from all walks of life and all nationalities.

Much has been said of the virtues of service and dedication. I won’t repeat them here as you can no doubt recall at least one or two without much trouble. I sincerely believe that operating a B&B that aligns with our principals could provide beneficial on a number of levels:generating revenue; facility improvment and refinement; and enhancing the experience of B&B guests, future workshop participants and facilitators.

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