By NEIL ZAWICKI
Deborah Dolby, co-owner of the Sampler House Bed and Breakfast, loves her job.
“I get to visit with people and they pay me,” she says
Sipping her coffee while looking through a hand-written guestbook that dates back to 2004, she talks about the time she hosted the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, and about all the other guests, each with a unique story.
But while she leafs through the guestbook, she also monitors her phone, fielding emails from incoming guests, and potential ones as well. Dolby, and her husband Peter Martin, see an average of 500 guests each year at their B&B, but when they bought it in 1999 they had no plans to get into the hospitality business.
Dolby was working as an administrative assistant and Martin is a C&C machinist. They bought the house once their kids left for college, only because they wanted to move from Burlington to Milton. But the house needed work.
“We couldn’t live in it when we bought it,” she said. “It just needed so much work.”
In the meantime, the couple bought another house on South Hero, and stumbled into trying to make that one a vacation rental. But when other people built near their home, they thought the location might lose its charm, so they listed it, and as luck would have it, sold it two days later for full market value.
From that adventure, the couple found themselves flush with cash, and Dolby had just come out the other side of a fight with breast cancer, so the climate was ideal for new opportunities.
“We decided we would take our Milton house and go B&B,” said Dolby. “And how do you do that? I didn’t know.”
Dolby got books on the subject, and talked to anyone in the industry she could get in front of. Those efforts led her to Linda Hartwell, owner of Hartwell House B&B in Burlington, and before long she was invited to run the Hartwell House while Linda traveled to Europe for five weeks.
“I was thrown into the deep end,” said Dolby of that experience. “And I made two discoveries from that experience. The first is that you do not need a Grand Victorian House to have a B&B, and the second is the B&B trade is comprised of the kindest people you could meet, without exception.”
The next thing Dolby and Martin did was to ramp up the renovation of their house. Then, one afternoon in late 2003, as Dolby tells it, she was out watering her flower boxes when a car pulled up and out came an exhausted man who walked up and asked, “Are you open?”
This was it: Their first customer. Although just inside, Martin was working on plumbing in the living room ceiling, and the entire ceiling was an exposed mess of pipes, beams, straps and wires.
“Hold on a minute,” replied Dolby to the weary traveler, and she trotted inside to ask Martin if it was all clear.
“I went back outside and told the man we were open but were still doing some work, so if his wife was not comfortable, they would understand.
“’Oh, she’ll be fine,’” replied the traveler. And the couple, who were traveling back to San Francisco, had a great stay.
“I even told them they didn’t have to pay, because we weren’t quite ready for them, but he insisted on paying,” she said.
That first year, Sampler House saw 13 guests. The next year, it jumped to around 129, and from there it has held steady at around 500.
The house has four bedrooms, with two configured for extended stays. The rooms carry unique features, such as a raised ceiling with windows in one shower, and a large bath house in another room, complete with a skylight and foliage.
When it came to the breakfast part of the business, Dolby said she was conflicted about whether to offer a continental breakfast or actual cooked meals. But it was her friend, Michele Bessette, former owner of Jeff’s Maine Seafood in St. Albans, who told her, “For me, it’s all about the food.”
“So I told Peter, ‘well, it looks like we’re serving breakfast,’” she said.
Guests each morning enjoy a farm to table style breakfast, and Dolby uses the breakfasts to showcase her homemade jams.
“We also serve Peter’s ‘world famous’ secret recipe waffles, and he also makes his crustless crepes on Sundays. We put stuff in them from the garden, so we have spinach and cheeses in them.”
While some might look at a B&B and wonder how it competes in the era of online bookings to Airbnb, Dolby is not concerned. In fact, she also operates as an Airbnb.
“I didn’t fight them, I joined them,” she said. Two of her rooms are offered through the Airbnb site, which she said has worked out quite well. Importantly, though, Dolby has to make sure there are no double bookings as a result.
“If I talk to someone on the phone and book a room, and then Air B&B sets up another guest for the same time, that’s bad, bad, bad,” she said.
To solve that, Dolby has a calendar on her Airbnb app, where she can cross off the dates the rooms aren’t available.
Dolby believes hers and other B&Bs like Sampler House are uniquely positioned to benefit from Airbnb traffic because they are not considered a “destination B&B.”
“We’re the place people stay when they’re here for some reason,” she explained. “There are some B&Bs that are on a lake or sit on a few acres, but we’re more a B&B for travelers.”
Dolby said the passing through of so many guests is “quite enriching.”
“There’s a magical intimacy that’s created,” she said. “It’s quite a dynamic.”