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Hello From Nova Scotia – The Lunenburg Inn – One Couple’s Unique (Pre) Retirement Story
The day had started great: a hearty and healthy breakfast at the Lunenburg Inn was excellent preparation for a full day of discovery. During the bright and sunny morning I headed out and went on a walking tour through Lunenburg, a quaint and scenic town on Nova Scotia’s southern coast whose unique architectural heritage has garnered it the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. I capped off my local explorations with a visit to the famous Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, a renowned museum that celebrates the maritime heritage of Nova Scotia.
I had big plans for today: a scenic drive along the Lighthouse Trail through scenic communities such as Mahone Bay and Peggy’s Cove to my final destination for today: Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital. But before saying goodbye to this charming town I wanted to find out a little bit more about the hospitality entrepreneurs running the Lunenburg Inn. I am always interested in the people behind the destinations, because the people are really the key factor in any hospitality experience.
So with my suitcase packed and stashed safely in the car, I sat down with Don and Gail Wallace, owners of the Lunenburg Inn, to find out more about their personal story. Don started off by telling me that he had spent 33 years with a Toronto-based company in the warehousing and transportation business, holding the title of Vice President towards the end of his tenure. He felt it was time to make a significant change in his life, so he and Gail sat down to discuss what options they might have. They talked about downsizing their house and looking at a second career that they could start together. They also wanted to relocate away from the Toronto area and find a place where they would be able to retire. So they started looking further afield.
One day in February of 1995 they noticed an advertisement in the Financial Post for a place called the “Lunenburg Inn”. This struck a chord because both of them had been dreaming of retiring near the ocean. So Don picked up the phone and got in touch with the real estate broker. On a Sunday morning in February he flew to Halifax and fell in love with Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Don adds that Lunenburg was not as pretty as it is today, but even then he recognized the potential of this town. He really liked the property a lot, although it would need a lot of work. So he phoned Gail to share his positive impressions and suggested that they both travel to Lunenburg the following weekend to see the inn. All the necessary professional contacts were initiated: the mortgage officer at the bank, the building inspector, the real estate agent and the lawyer who would handle the transaction. Don and his wife talked the idea over with their grown-up children. The following Sunday afternoon there was a meeting with the building inspector, after which Don prepared the offer. On Monday morning the mortgage was approved and shortly after lunch Don handed the realtor a cheque as the down payment for their retirement plan: the Lunenburg Inn. Shortly after his arrival back in Toronto he received a call from his realtor that they would now be the proud owners of an inn as of May 1, 1995.
Ironically, the day that this real estate transaction was completed Don had to go on a business trip to Vancouver, and he and his colleague went out after work and celebrated with a bottle of wine. It was not until months later that his coworker found out that Don had a real reason to celebrate on this very day: the beginning of his second career.
Back in Toronto Don wrote a letter of resignation to his company’s president who was very surprised since he and most people in the company had assumed that Don was a “lifer”, i.e. that he would spend the rest of his working life at this company. Don gave 6 months notice and would leave his position as Vice-President by the end of August. This gave the couple sufficient time to organize garage sales to get rid of unwanted furniture in Toronto. On April 28 their van left at 5 am, packed up their goods and arrived in Lunenburg on April 30. Don had booked two weeks of vacation and his son came along to spend his summer in Lunenburg – a perfect arrangement since Don still had to wrap up his last few months with his company in Toronto.
So from May onwards Gail and their son Drew started to operate the bed and breakfast. Their daughter came to join them in July, she had just finished her last year of high school and was starting a degree at Wilfred Laurier University in September. Don was able to leave his position early since by the end of July a replacement had been hired. So on August 1 the entire family was united in Lunenburg.
The Lunenburg Inn was furnished when Don and Gail purchased it but the owners had taken personal pieces that had been used in the inn. The living room was very sparse and some rooms were missing chairs and tables. So for the first few weeks, Gail and her son Drew embarked on a nightly routine of furniture moving: they needed to provide a full compliment to those rooms rented for the night with the remaining furniture decorating the living room for that night. That meant that furniture pieces continuously had to be moved around from one room to another. They had decided to leave their Toronto-area house furnished while Don still lived there and to improve the chances of selling it. It was sold only in late July (with a mid-August closing) and Don had the moving company pack everything up in the last week of July. The furniture arrived in Lunenburg in mid-August and after its arrival they finally had a fully furnished living room without the nightly furniture move.
The Lunenburg Inn had been an abandoned building, so it needed a lot of work. From 1924 to 1979 it had been the “Hillside Hotel”, a 13-room hotel (with one bathroom!) next to the town’s train station. In the meantime the train service to Lunenburg has been discontinued for many years. The property was abandoned for a number of weeks just prior to being purchased by the previous owners in 1988. When Don and Gail purchased the property in 1995 the building was very tired and in need of a complete redecoration and upgrading, including furnishings, to bring it up to a 4 1/2 star property.
During their first winter of 1995 Gail stripped every piece of furniture and diligently refinished it. All the couches and armchairs were re-upholstered. Don himself learned how to fix the plasterwork in this historic building, and in the dining room the couple removed nine layers of wallpaper and four layers of paint, all accumulated over the years since the building’s construction in 1893. Carpets were torn out and replaced, floors were refinished. So far in the last 11 years, all the rooms have been redecorated at least three times. Don feels very strongly that a bed and breakfast should never look tired. His goal was to make the Lunenburg Inn a warm, comfortable place with upscale features.
Now the Lunenburg Inn is in its 12th season and it is still holding up well. Don and Gail meanwhile are ready to start their real retirement. Don informed me that about 40% of bed and breakfast owners do not reopen after their third season, another 40% of B&B owners discontinue their business after 6 years. Only 5% of B&B owners make it to the 10-year mark. Don adds that running the Lunenburg Inn was “his second and final career”, and he and Gail had committed to 10 years. Now 11 years later, they are ready to move on into a well-deserved retirement.
But this industrious couple did not stop at being B&B owners: from 1997 to late 2002 they also owned an M&M Meat Shop franchise which meant that Gail managed the retail operation while Don together with some hired help ran the bed and breakfast. Gail would be at the store every day from 9 am to 6 pm, and Don would handle the ordering and the accounting for the meat shop in addition to his duties at the inn.
Today, the couple is focusing on the Lunenburg Inn only. Their day starts at 6 am when fresh muffins are baked for up to 19 breakfast guests. Guests can come to breakfast whenever it suits their schedule. Don and Gail put a lot of effort into preparing a healthy, filling and attractively prepared breakfast that always includes a lot of fresh fruit. They work with a 7-day rotation for the breakfast so none of the guests will get bored of having the same dishes served twice in a row.
Breakfast takes place form 8 to 9:30 am and a helper in the kitchen handles the plate layout, coffee and toast. Two housekeepers help with the maintenance and cleaning chores, and all the laundry for the inn is handled in-house. The Lunenburg Inn opens from the beginning of May until late October. Don and Gail have made a commitment that one of them will always sleep in the house when the B&B is in operation. The guests may always have potential needs, and it is important to have a competent contact person on site.
Don and Gail are proud of the fact that the Lunenburg Inn was the first 4.5 star property in Lunenburg, a property that combines the “warmth of home” with Victorian charm. 75% of their business stems from repeat customers and referrals, evidence of their commitment to an outstanding hospitality experience.
Personally, they live in a separate private apartment on the lower level of the inn, and during the winter season they like to spend time with their children and go to South Carolina for a couple of weeks. There is always stuff to be done around the inn, and winter is the perfect time for redecorating or upgrades. Don also likes to go curling about four to five mornings in the week during the winter.
The Lunenburg Inn is currently listed for sale. Neither Don nor Gail are in a rush to sell the property, and they realize that it is going to take a special buyer who is going to be interested in running this inn. Sometimes it could take as much as three to five years to sell a property like this. Don and Gail indicated that once the inn sells, they will stay in Lunenburg, and buy a simple family home. They enjoy the weather here: summers are less hot and humid than in Ontario, and there is less snow and rain. Gail adds that during the first four years in Lunenburg she did not even need winter boots. And falls are simply gorgeous in this quaint community.
I realized that here was a couple who had made some very strategic, well thought-out decisions about their retirement. They knew exactly where they were going and what their next step was going to be. Few of us are so lucky as to have such a clear idea of where life is going to take us. With these thoughts in mind I thanked Don and Gail for their warm hospitality, and set off to continue my journey along the Lighthouse Trail to Halifax.
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