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Last week, Canada celebrated National Tourism Week (June 5-11) and encouraged Canadians to explore their country this summer. As we continue with that theme, one innkeeper candidly takes us behind the scenes of his successful historic inn to reveal why local inns are worth a visit even it you don't get across Canada this year.

"Hospitality, when you break it down, should be basic good product, a clean physical plant in good repair, product at a reasonable price and served with a smile," said John Wiens, Ontario Innkeeper of the family-owned Riverbend Inn and Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, an historic village situated on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River.

Wiens' perceptive analysis of effective customer service explains the Inn's success, but it does not fully describe the elegant comfort of the lovingly-restored Southern inn surrounded by its own 12 acre vineyard, which in turn is at the heart of vineyards operated by two successful neighbouring wineries. Each of the 21 guest rooms and private bath has a distinct theme and decor based on standards Wiens and his partners -- wife Jill and father Henry -- insisted on as they rebuilt the ruined mansion to celebrate its nineteenth-century roots while creating a fully-functional luxury inn.

"We could have made smaller rooms -- 26 or 28 – but the vision was to make rooms larger and wow," said Wiens explaining how the successes gained with his previous Niagara-on-the-lake hotel inspired design, themes and policies for transformation of the 1860s private estate."The property -- from my wife, dad and myself -- had to have larger rooms, larger showers, a nice historic atmosphere with modern amenities. The Georgian-feel that we incorporate into everything, [including] our menus with Southern-twist Niagara cuisine, has put us in a special niche."

Riverbend Inn was off to a running start at its April 2004 opening since 10 key staff members had previously worked together at Wiens' first hotel. Within 6 months of operation, the Inn received the CAA-AAA Four Diamond Award, which it has held since.

Born and raised in the area, Wiens bought the 16-room Prince of Wales Hotel on the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake after graduating from Toronto's Ryerson School of Hospitality. Over the years, he expanded this historic hotel to 106 rooms and added a conference centre. The hotel also served as headquarters for the construction firm his father began. In 1997, Weins beat out a developer who had plans for new home construction on the Riverbend site. The owner preferred Wiens' plan to keep the property intact, even though his offer was lower.

Wiens' decision to offer top-level service at reasonable prices and to concentrate on generating repeat business is paying off. He stresses a management structure that is "an inverted pyramid with guests at the top and the manager at the bottom." The staff in between are vital as they have the direct contact that personalizes the Inn for guests. Wiens is out on the floor, spending time with guests as much as possible. In its third year, Riverbend shows solid occupancy rates, largely based on repeat business, and is on track to return a profit by the end of this year. Since the Vineyard's first vintage will be released in September, 2006 should be a record year all round.

"With 55 to 60 percent [occupancy], we would break even and anything over that is important as it helps with our profit margin," said Wiens, going on to describe business development strategies and future expansion plans. "Weekends are full pretty much all year round. We need to plan for late fall and early spring to turn a profit, with packages and in the pricing, to give clients what they want. Repeat referral is important. If people like this, they will come back. At Prince of Wales, 72 percent of our business was referral."

Independent, privately-owned inns like Riverbend are often members of marketing groups like Resorts Ontario or Ontario's Finest Inns, so search similar provincial and local networks in your area to discover the rich diversity of accommodation close to home and elsewhere.

A well-run operation makes inn keeping look easy, however, Wiens offers strong words of caution for potential buyers: "When you buy an inn and don't have any hospitality background, you must be sure you will like to be in an environment helping people and wanting to help people. Bed and breakfasts have popped up in this area, many [operated by those] looking for early retirement, and then they don't like it as you're on-call 14 to 18 hours -- it's a lifestyle!"

Every inn is a unique reflection of its location, and the experience and interests of its owners, so ask questions about more than room rates to gain a sense of the adventure that lies ahead.

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