Queen Of British Bed and Breakfasts Holds Court in Coronado : Tourism: Travel guide matriarch barely has time to sleep or eat herself. Her reservation service answers 100,000 calls a year for castles, mansions and estates.
“London Bed and Breakfast, good morning.”
Except this isn’t London. It’s Coronado. At 6 in the morning.
“I’d advise you to stay with Mrs. Lochrie. Page 49 in your book. Yes, it’s at Ascot.”
Joanna Mortimer has been at the phones since 5 a.m., the price of working on England time. She has to get a pile of bookings confirmed by 8 a.m., when phone rates go up. Before the day’s over, she’ll have worked up to 14 hours and filled reservations averaging between 300 and 400 bed nights--"one body, one bed, one night.”
Mortimer, 67, owns World-Wide Bed and Breakfast Assn., a reservation agency with offices in London and Coronado that is riding the wave of the travel industry’s bed-and-breakfast boom. Mortimer set up the association’s U.S. headquarters in Coronado in January, 1989, to feed business to her London-based family operation, and is now filling reservations totaling more than 100,000 bed nights per year.
Mortimer also publishes an annual bed-and-breakfast guide, “The Best Bed-and-Breakfast in the World.” This year, she expects to sell 70,000 of the books at a retail price of $15 each.
“I want to stay at a castle in Scotland,” says the next voice on the phone, one of two 800 telephone lines that ring constantly, one for California callers, the other from the rest of the United States.
Mortimer flips through the guide. “Yes, sir, if you look on Page 353, we have one I think you’ll like, Comlongon castle. It has good fishing, nice bedrooms and beautiful dungeons. Twenty-five pounds a night.”
Mortimer, who could be retired and easing into a life of tea and cucumber sandwiches, turned to the travel business after her husband, a public relations executive, died 20 years ago, leaving her in need of money and something to do with her time. At first she reentered the job market as an office worker, but after seven years became desperate to do something original.
Mortimer and her children hit on the idea of making money on travel, something they all loved to do. Specifically, they wanted to publish a guidebook, so they set about looking for an opening in the market.
Mortimer decided to send out hundreds of letters to newspapers worldwide, asking readers to write back of their experiences and accommodations in Britain, hoping to match the most positive experiences with a gap in the guidebook market.
The responses persuaded Mortimer and her children to compile a guidebook specializing in the stately and historic mansions and castles of the United Kingdom. In 1977, they published the first of three annual guides, achieving a measure of success with press runs of up to 5,000 copies a year.
“At first, we concentrated on stately homes that took paying guests,” Mortimer said. “We had to inspect every one, of course. I spent years with my head down people’s loos. We made all the mistakes you could possibly make. We didn’t even know how to proof-read. The printer used the papers with the grain horizontal instead of vertical. . . . All the pages popped out of the bindings. The cover--we made a mistake any publisher would warn you against--we made it green. Nobody wants to buy a book with a green cover. Green doesn’t sell. It’s apparently legend in the publishing industry.”
But the book worked anyway, partly because it was the first of its kind. The big publishing houses soon saw the market that was being exploited by the Mortimers, however, and within three years squeezed them out by offering lower-priced books and wider distribution. “They had the size to beat us at our own game,” Mortimer said.
In the meantime, Joanna Mortimer had seen a much bigger gap in the accommodation market: the rapidly growing number of B&B; houses in London and elsewhere in the country geared for middle-class travelers.
For decades, B&Bs; in Great Britain had been “cheap and cheerful” and attractive to budget-conscious travelers. But, while researching the stately homes, Mortimer kept seeing more and more owners of townhouses in London’s fashionable Belgravia district and thatched-roofed historic yeoman’s cottages in the country turning to B&B; business to help make ends meet.
But there was no serviceable guide or reservations clearinghouse for travelers interested in the higher-priced B&Bs.; The owners had “no means of attracting business beyond advertising in other guides. The more we saw, the more we realized this was a revolution waiting to happen,” Mortimer said.
Mortimer returned to her database. More letters went out, and she and her offspring spent more time touring the country. In 1980, she published “The Best Bed and Breakfast in the World.” The book was assembled and written by her daughter Jill, business-managed by son, Tim, organized and publicized by daughter Sigourney, and overseen by herself.
At the same time Mortimer started a parallel operation, called the Worldwide Bed and Breakfast Assn., to funnel bookings to the B&Bs; in her book.
Mortimer and family set up an office in London, outgrew that in a year, moved to another with four full-time employees to answer the phones, contracted with 49 part-time inspectors to surprise-visit the listed houses to make sure standards were maintained (if they weren’t, after two warnings, a house would be dropped), and started looking for customers beyond British shores.
Sales started slowly, growing from the first year’s press run of 3,000 to this year’s 70,000. Of about a dozen other guidebooks on British B&Bs;, there seems general agreement that Mortimer’s is the most comprehensive.
Mortimer’s most innovative touch, perhaps, was her formation of the Worldwide Bed and Breakfast Assn. The group has become a kind of trade organization that has brought B&B; owners together in a loose-knit association, established operating standards and helped funnel the business to owners’ doorsteps.
“Sigourney organized annual meetings (of bed-and-breakfast owners) and prize-givings” in London, Mortimer said. “Of course, we made sure they happened at the same time as Harrod’s annual sales.”
Establishing a U.S. branch operation wasn’t something Mortimer planned.
“One of our traveling American customers was so keen, she wrote and asked if she could set up an agency for bookings in L.A.,” Mortimer said. “We said ‘Sure.’ And the business she sent just kept climbing.”
Then in October, 1988, a story in the New York Times travel section gave hers and two other London-based B&B; organizations great reviews. “The Worldwide Bed and Breakfast Assn.” the article said, is “challenging the major hotel chains . . . by providing close on half a million bed-nights a year--all of them offered by solicitous hosts in well-to-do households, often furnished with antiques.”
“That publicity, computerization, the transfer from telex to fax--they all suddenly helped us reach a critical mass,” Mortimer said. “Our agent couldn’t cope any more. She had children. She was going mad.”
So in January last year, Mortimer came to Coronado, attracted by an old friend who lived there, to help find another agent and to publicize her guidebook.
“But, from the moment I arrived, I never got off the phone,” she said. “We had to set up a separate company. We got nearly 5,000 replies from a piece in USA (Today) travel section.” The U.S. market will represent half of all bookings of rooms at World Wide Bed and Breakfast Assn. member houses by the end of this year, she said.
“Perhaps half a percent of our business is sending British tourists to U.S. B&B;'s,” Mortimer said.
The concept is also growing in other countries. Japanese tourist authorities have become fans because B&Bs; provide what is perceived to be safe lodging for Japanese women traveling alone, a growing segment of Japanese travelers.
Mortimer sees the growing popularity of B&Bs; as a reaction of travelers who “object to being organized, stuck in soulless boxes. We are a conspiracy of the small people.”
Price also plays a big part in drawing Americans and other foreign travelers, Mortimer said. B&B; guests might pay $16 to $32 per person per night for country lodging, on up to $65 a night, for example, at a house next to Kensington Palace. Just down the street, at the Kensington Hilton, guests pay at least $120 per night, she said.
The next steps for the never-resting Mortimer are setting up an office in the eastern Unitet States, publishing a coffee table B&B; book on houses in the United States and Canada, and expanding to Europe.
Meanwhile, the work continues, starting at 5 a.m. each morning in Coronado, a city that ironically has banned B&Bs.;