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B&Bs try to court business travelers

Bed and breakfast inns are becoming more attractive to business men and women - if inn owners supply the right amenities.

By SHARON BOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist for Raymond James Financial, lives in Michigan and travels to company headquarters in St. Petersburg three weeks out of the month. In December he left the world of suites, hotels and motels for a bed-and-breakfast inn.

He's not going back.

"It's like a home away from home," Saut said of the Sunset Bay Inn in downtown St. Petersburg. "You just walk in. Everything in the room is ready to go," he said. "I plug my computer in the modem port and get e-mail."

Saut, who worked for a Michigan company that Raymond James bought, walks to downtown restaurants in the evenings. He has only a 12-minute drive to the Raymond James headquarters in Carillon in the mornings.

Enough business travelers are in step with Saut to add clients to the bed and breakfast inns that have opened in the past few years in South Pinellas. Business travelers are choosing accommodations that might seem too fussy for the rush of the corporate world. Bed and breakfast inns are stereotyped as places only for vacationers or honeymooners.

"They are looking for something different, something like home," said Bob Bruce, who owns the Sunset Bay Inn at 635 Bay St. NE with his wife, Martha. "That is what fills us up during the week. You'd be amazed how many traveling business people there are."

Bruce was one himself and knows the range of comfort available in hotels. "In 35 years, I stayed in everything from five-diamonds to flophouses," he said.

The Sunset has a carriage house that can be used for guest rooms or as space for small business meetings. The inn sets up corporate accounts that offer discounts depending on the number of times a business person stays during the month. Bruce said he had several corporations that sent workers to the Sunset Bay Inn regularly.

The Vinoy House Inn is just across Beach Drive from the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel, which refers guests to many bed and breakfasts in town when its rooms are filled.

"I focus on business customers," said Michael Roberts, owner of Vinoy House, which has six rooms and has been open less than two years. "The corporate guest is very important. They need to get out of the mainstream of day-to-day hotels."

But they also need all the business conveniences as well as personal accoutrements.

Dickens House owner Ed Caldwell opened his five-room bed-and-breakfast in March, catching the tail end of the tourist season. He is seeking business guests.

"A number of guests who stay here have hotel burnout," Caldwell said. "But you have to have amenities, an Internet connection and a desk. It's nice to be able to offer voice mail in each room. Some want what any major hotel has."

Roberts' dining room can be converted quickly to a conference room for business meetings. He has analog and digital phone lines in the rooms at the Vinoy House so guests can be on their computers and talk on the telephone at the same time. He plans to install voice mail also. The area where Roberts serves breakfast can be rearranged to a conference room for meetings.

Each guest room has a color television, iron and ironing board and hair dryers. Some inns include small refrigerators and VCRs in their rooms, also.

Vinoy House Inn rates run from $185-$205 per night. Guests who stay a week or more pay $165 per night. Corporate guests get a break to $105 per night.

"I would love to have more business people," said Patty Burke, owner and co-manager of the Sea Breeze Manor Bed & Breakfast Inn in Gulfport. "They don't want any fuss."

Business clients are easy on the rooms, said Sea Breeze co-manager Karen Kelley.

Pat Bishop, owner of Pasa Tiempo in St. Pete Beach, says her eight suites often are filled with business guests during the week. "They like early, early breakfast," she laughed. She said she has lots of business women staying at the inn. "Somebody knows they are alive," she said of the bed-and-breakfast atmosphere.

Jewly and Dennis Youschak plan to go after more business customers when their Inn at the Bay reopens in five months after a $320,000 renovation. They bought an old hotel last year for $390,000 and are reducing its 19 rooms to 12 bed-and-breakfast suites.

"Anybody can fill a bed-and-breakfast on the weekends. Anybody. It's getting them here on Wednesday nights that's the pickle," Jewly Youschak said.

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