The bed-and-breakfast has its roots in a European tradition of letting a room in a private residence. A few things are virtually guaranteed with a B&B today: good company, quiet, and, of course, a comfy bed and fabulous breakfast. B&Bs in the Chippewa Valley continue that tradition while facing a growing threat from online, unregulated rentals in private homes.
Opening the Country Comfort Bed and Breakfast along the Red Cedar River was supposed to allow owners Loren and Judy Gifford a more relaxed daily pace. After running a hardware business in Colorado for several years, the Giffords moved back to Menomonie, where Loren grew up on a dairy farm, to be closer to family and try something new.
“But shortly after we moved, Judy was recruited by the university and I was recruited by a fellow I used to work for, so we both work full-time as well as run this place,” says Loren Gifford. Judy is Director of the Child and Family Study Center at UW-Stout and Loren is in the design department at American Structures.
Despite their hectic schedule, the Giffords managed to transform a private residence (purchased in 2006 along Rustic Road 89) into a country-modern bed and breakfast. Its four rooms feature a bright, clean design with luxurious beds and Turkish towels. Guests can kick back on decks in both front and back of the home, with the back one overlooking the river.
As required by state law to qualify as a bed and breakfast, the Giffords live on-premise. With both Judy and Loren working, they consider life in a B&B as more of lifestyle choice.
“Since we don’t have to rely on it as our sole source of income, we don’t put as much into promotions as others,” says Gifford. “We just enjoy doing this. It’s fun. We love meeting the people that come here. There’s always a story with every guest.”
It also helps that Loren loves to cook. “My specialty is wild rice pancakes. ‘Menomonie’ in Ojibwe means ‘wild rice,’ so I make a wild rice pancake that is very popular.”
The typical B&B guests are couples seeking a weekend getaway that is quieter than a hotel stay. Local events, such as shows at the Mabel Tainter Theater, are responsible for many of Country Comfort’s bookings. Other B&B clients in the Menomonie market are most likely parents of a UW-Stout student visiting for the weekend, business people, and outdoor enthusiasts.
“We’re right off the Red Cedar State Trail, so guests can float the river and bike and hike the trail,” says Gifford. “We’re finding more and more young people are seeking the B and B experience, whereas it was more older people when we first started.”
Loren says their place is busy “from the time the leaves are on the trees to when they fall off” with fall colors one of their busiest times. As with many B&Bs, Country Comfort’s guest list includes many repeat clients. Nearing retirement, the Giffords hope to find new owners in the coming years who will continue to operate the property as a B&B.
There are not as many B&Bs in the Chippewa Valley as 15-20 years ago. The Otter Creek Inn was the first B&B to open in Eau Claire 25 years ago, and today, it is the last one left. Since its start, a number of others have opened and closed.
“We gave some of them their first guests,” says Shelley Hansen, who owns the Otter Creek Inn with her husband Randy. “If we were full, we’d send people to their place.”
Shelley says the B&B owners were a tight group, but the others retired or moved away, leaving the closest B&Bs to the Otter Creek Inn now in Chippewa Falls.
When the inn first opened, it was during the height of the B&B “honeymoon era.” “The late eighties was definitely the beginning of that fad when everyone honeymooned at a B and B,” says Shelley. “It lasted about 12 years, but its end didn’t hurt our business. We experienced growth every year until 2008.”
The Great Recession hit many tourism-related businesses as people scaled back on entertainment and vacation spending. “People who would come twice a year, started coming just once, or who came every year scaled it back to every other,” says Shelley.
The Hansens say business has not quite returned to pre-recession levels, but has recovered considerably. They see the typical get-away seekers (honeymooners, anniversary celebrants, we-need-a-break-from-the-kids couples), but they also offer business people a quiet, private respite. “We often get a doctor who is on-call at one of the local hospitals,” says Shelley.
The area’s largest events, such as Country Fest, do not bring guests to Otter Creek Inn. The Hansens have, however, hosted a few headline acts over the years. “Just recently Alicia Keyes stayed here,” says Randy. “Her whole entourage booked the place.”
With Bon Iver’s studio just up the road from the inn, they have welcomed several recording artists. “Once I was booking a reservation and realized it was Kayne West’s credit card paying for everybody,” recalls Shelley.
The Otter Creek Inn’s décor is Country-Victorian with much of the days-gone-by design made possible by the Hansens’ handiwork. “We have remodeled five times expanding the number of rooms to six over the years and built five fireplaces,” says Shelley.
The main floor’s fireplace is an incredibly unique work-of-art featuring 28,000 pennies, placed one-by-one by Randy. “I’d been collecting them since we were first married,” says Randy. “It took about two months to finish.”
From rappers to wedding parties, the Hansens think there will always be people who want to stay in a B&B. “We do not actively promote ourselves or feel it’s our job to convince people to stay in a B and B,” says Shelley. “We let the state association do that for us.”
Although Eau Claire does not have other B&Bs, the burgeoning Airbnb industry is a threat to traditional B&Bs, says Shelley. “Unlike us, they do not have to pay the state room tax, local taxes, insurance or income tax. The state taxes are used to pay for inspections which we are required to have every year. Airbnb’s do not.”
She adds that the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association is pushing for legislation to require oversight of these “completely under the radar” rentals. The association estimates more than $1 million in room taxes alone could have been collected from Airbnb in 2016.
North of Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls, the Glen Loch Inn initially appears more like a motel. Up until 2010, it had been one for sixty years. With the motel’s finest days long gone, new owner Marilyn Murphy not only transformed the property, but earned it the recognition as one of Tripadvisor’s “2017 Top 25 Bargain Hotels” in the country.
The Glen Loch Inn was built by Oscar and Regina Nelson, who started the business later in life and ran it until their eighties. Oscar milled all the woodwork himself and used a team of horses to care for the property, says Marilyn. After a series of other owners over the decades, the property was neglected and on the market again when she purchased it.
Marilyn has a lifetime of experience in the hospitality industry, and wanted a place to call her own. Relocating from Hudson, she embarked on a mission to transform the run-down motel into a cozy, 20-room bed and breakfast, now known as the Glen Loch Inn.
“I wanted to show respect for the people who built this place with the remodel,” says Marilyn. “The original millwork is still visible, especially at the front desk.”
Marilyn’s own family plays a role in the inn’s new look with artwork from each of her children featured in the new, bright breakfast room, along with her collection of antique musical instruments. “My grandfather and great grandfather played in the Minneapolis Orchestra, so this is my way of honoring them,” she says.
The result of the remodel is a refurbished lobby, living quarters transformed into the breakfast room, completely remodeled rooms, installation of a commercial kitchen, and carloads of happy, new guests.
Tripadvisor honors are built on word-of-mouth, and Glen Loch Inn’s guests are giving it rave reviews for its breakfasts — all prepared by Marilyn — comfortable rooms, and, most importantly, affordability. Every room at Glen Loch Inn runs below $100.
The inn does not resemble the Victorian stereotype of a B&B, and Marilyn says that has its advantages. “People like that there’s a price point for everybody, the fact they can drive up to their rooms, and still get the service I give them with a home-cooked breakfast,” she says.
Marilyn says business has grown steadily since 2010 as word has spread, especially among travelers on their way farther north for vacations, Chippewa River State Trail bicyclists, and people attending area events such as the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, Leinenkugel’s Brewery tours or Oktoberfest, all located just one mile from the inn.
The inn also hosts and offers catering services to family gatherings and private events, and Marilyn says that business will likely increase if proposed changes to Irvine Park manifest. A $1.7 million proposed project would connect Irvine Park & Zoo with Erickson Park and the Glen Loch Dam, near Marilyn’s inn.
“The project would create more picnic areas, basically expanding the overall footprint of Irvine Park, so I think we would see more guests who are coming here to use the project’s new event and fishing facilities.”
B&B’s are like the poster child for the small-business, “mom and pop” sector that politicians like to say are crucial to a healthy economy. Which is why the Wisconsin State Bed and Breakfast Association says Madison needs to enact measures to protect B&Bs. “Wisconsin has hundreds of B&Bs important to our communities,” says Kerri Thiel, Executive Director. “A true B&B enhances a community with its charm, as well as its financial contributions. We’re not saying we don’t want competition, but there needs to be level playing field for our members.”