No one could have imagined the far-reaching impact of 9/11 or the stifling affect of Colorado’s wildfires on local tourism in 2002 – especially Kevin and Susan Hunt. As the new owners of a seven-year-old, twelve-unit bed and breakfast at the foot of the Pikes Peak Highway, just 20 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs, the Hunts had just taken over their new enterprise in August 2001.
“I’ll never forget September 11,” Kevin recalls. “We had a full house of retired hospital administrators staying with us. All of us were in shock.” Immediately thereafter, he adds, the majority of the Black Bear’s reservations cancelled. “At first we were just numb, but it didn’t take long for us to realize that we needed to get busy and market ourselves.” Fortunately, boundless energy, promotional savvy and an optimistic outlook combined to provide the Hunts an advantage in an admittedly tough market.
The Black Bear Inn, rated as a AAA 3-Diamond-facility, is also a member of the Bed & Breakfast Innkeepers of Colorado, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and several other hospitality industry associations. Located adjacent to Pike National Forest, the inn offers nine individual guest rooms in the main lodge and another three cottages just a few feet away (each including a fireplace, refrigerator and VCR). One of the inn’s most popular features is a large family gathering room with a stone fireplace that dominates the entry; another is a new hot tub, surrounded by trees and natural beauty. Full breakfast is served daily, including a hot entrée.
The Hunts, both long-time Colorado Springs residents, are hardly newcomers to the world of small business and entrepreneurship. Until 1999, Kevin owned his own successful landscape business that catered to large corporate clients such as MCI, Focus on the Family and many others. When approached to sell to The Beckman Group, a large national landscape services firm, Hunt decided to seize the opportunity. The couple then searched for a new type of business in which they could invest.
“We looked at a number of ranches outside Colorado Springs,” Susie said, “but with young children, we were concerned that the isolation would be tough on them.” As a result, the proximity and good condition of the Black Bear Inn appealed as a family business. “The Inn had a lot of potential, but had not been actively marketed,” she added. “We realized that in this economy, we couldn’t rely strictly on tourism to build our business.”
Through summer wildfires and a drop-off in tourism, the Hunts realized that aggressive marketing tactics and networking would hold the key to survival and success. Their strategy: to promote the property as a multi-use facility available for business meetings, retreats, family reunions and special interest groups.
“Susie has initiated niche-market getaway weekends,” Kevin said, “and so far her creativity is paying off.” This fall, the Black Bear has hosted the first of several anticipated “Spa Weekends” geared to female visitors looking for a way to re-group after stressful weeks. The couple has also tapped into several large family groups that need a place for a holiday or family reunion retreat.
One family of 42, for example, has already reserved the Black Bear for ten days over the holidays. “We’re working with them, in addition to our regular breakfast service, to offer a couple of additional catered meals and extra services,” Susie notes. Mystery dinner theater weekends are also on the agenda for 2003. Another group, sponsored by the local Writer’s Guild, reserved the Black Bear Inn for a weekend writer’s retreat for women who had been through hardship and abuse. “I’m really excited that our property could be used for such a positive, therapeutic cause,” Susie said.
The facility’s success to date is also based on the owners’ attention to detail, Hunt points out. “It is what builds repeat business and makes the customer’s stay more memorable. When we know a couple is coming to stay with us on their anniversary, I like to have a fire going in their fireplace when they arrive – or put a bouquet of flowers on their dresser,” Susie said.
But survival in the hospitality industry is predicated on more than simply opening one’s doors and getting lucky. “We originally set aside a large budget for reserves and emergencies, but frankly, we have had to use those funds to get us through Winter 2001 and into 2002,” Kevin notes. “The Black Bear Inn is one of the Pikes Peak region’s largest westside overnight accommodations, but we were hit hard by the economy, the wildfires and by the Governor’s comments on national television,” he said, referring to Owen’s announcement that “Colorado is on fire” in July. Even the property’s location, adjacent to the entrance to the Pikes Peak Highway toll road, seemed ideal – but as Hunt found, traffic and revenues on the historic highway were off more than 20 percent in 2002 from the previous year.
So what does the future hold for the Black Bear Inn? According to both Kevin and Susie, the coming months are all about getting visitors to stop in and see the property. From there, the couple hopes to expand their database by downloading inquiries from the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau website and by cultivating repeat business. “Eventually, we’d like to see more of a balance between tourism and group business,” Kevin says. “Right now tourism accounts for 90 percent of the total.”
“This work is not too different from the landscaping industry,” he adds. “It’s all about customer service. We strive to give our guests a great experience and will stay in touch with them after they leave.” The tenacious owners also work hard to build relationships with surrounding Cascade and Ute Pass business people in order to establish a strong referral network.
The Hunts have gotten to know the folks at neighboring Wines of Colorado – and down at the Peak Treat Café and Tweeds. “And we refer a lot of guests to the Swiss Chalet or other restaurants in the vicinity,” Susie adds, noting that she has collected a fair number of sample menus from Manitou Springs’ and other area restaurants.
A day in the life of a bed and breakfast operator is hardly leisurely, say the Hunts, who initially made numerous trips to the grocery store and other vendors when they first opened. Today, Kevin purchases the bulk of his breakfast fare through a commercial food supplier. Both proprietors also agree that they prefer to live off-premises, ensuring at least a few hours of family privacy each day.