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What it takes to own a bed and breakfast

Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce

How 3 families in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley are pursuing the B&B dream.

A stay at a bucolic bed-and-breakfast might lull you into thinking of quitting your day job for life as a full-time innkeeper. How hard can it be, you wonder, to make sure all the rooms are clean and to have breakfast ready for your guests each morning? And you get to meet such interesting people.

In actuality, the list of challenges can be daunting: long hours, few or no weekends off, managing staff (if there is staff), and keeping guests happy while promoting the business.

Yet, in Rockbridge County’s scenic Shenandoah Valley, hardy souls abound who have dived into the inn crowd. Here’s a look at three families and their intimate establishments. 

Brierley Hill Bed and Breakfast

Owners: Dave and Karen Innocent
985 Borden Road, Lexington
Open: year-round
Number of rooms: eight
Rates start at: $149 per night

For husband-and-wife team Dave and Karen Innocent, Brierley Hill Bed and Breakfast meant a new beginning. The parents of three sons, the Pennsylvania couple lost their eldest child in a fatal motorcycle accident in 2008. Two years later, Dave, who’d spent nearly 30 years working his way up the career ladder to a general manager post in automotive sales, got wind that he might be laid off. 

“Life happens. Things change,” Dave, 53, says of the crossroads he and Karen, 54, who owned a cleaning business at the time, reached eight years ago. In the past, while vacationing at B&Bs, the Innocents told themselves that when they retired, perhaps they’d buy one of their own. 

“One day, Karen and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we start a B&B … now?’” Dave recalls. They researched the hospitality business, attended seminars, and consulted real estate brokers. A chance turn off a main road and into Lexington one day, followed by a series of happy coincidences (“divine intervention,” Dave calls it), led the couple to Brierley Hill, which they took over in February 2013.

In purchasing the inn, Dave and Karen couldn’t resist its most obvious charm: sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley—rimmed by the Appalachian, Shenandoah, and Blue Ridge mountains—from most any vantage point. Everyone from Appalachian Trail hikers to U.S. and foreign dignitaries visiting Lexington’s Virginia Military Institute have stayed here. A Canadian couple built the B&B in 1993. They wanted to evoke an English country home on the 8-acre property, an ambience the Innocents maintain via well-tended landscaping, white wicker outdoor furniture, and a warm, unfussy hospitality. A leather-and-wood chair dating back to the 1700s has pride of place in a sunny common area. 

Come June, lush green hostas and hydrangea plants topped by pale pink orbs sway in a warm breeze just beyond the patio of the Shenandoah Suite. A tidy box garden for growing vegetables and cutting flowers is visible from a window in the Garden Room upstairs. “In the fall, you get a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Dave says. 

Their most recent upgrade is the carriage house, rechristened the Blue Ridge Cottage, with sleek new furnishings along with antiques and a private deck and entrance. 

This year is the Innocents’ sixth at the inn. “Being open year-round, time has been our biggest sacrifice,” Dave says. But the ability to provide a place for people to rest and relax and leave the stress of everyday life bolsters their feeling that they made the right choice. 

Fox Hill Bed and Breakfast Suites

Owners: Cathy and Mike Miller
4383 Borden Grant Trail, Fairfield
(540) 377-9922;
Open: year-round
Number of rooms: six
Rates start at: $189 per night

Summer is a gratifying time for Fox Hill B&B’s Cathy Miller and her husband, Mike. That’s when fall bookings start trickling in from people hoping to experience the Shenandoah Valley’s brilliant foliage at this 38-acre retreat. “October is our high season; they come here for the leaves,” Cathy says.

The country inn is a favorite of pet owners, too. Not only do the Millers welcome dogs, but the stable is home to a resident horse and a miniature Sicilian donkey named Love Bug who sometimes sidles up to the fence for a petting. 

Guest rooms feature amenities such as pine plank walls, gas fireplaces, wooden rockers or armchairs, and largely bare floors (the better to mop up paw prints). Two kitchen suites, including one at the stable, accommodate families. 

The couple married eight years ago. In 2015, seeking an opportunity to work for themselves, they posited that inn keeping would be a nice way of life.

“We felt that we were evenly yoked,” says Cathy, 57. “You need excellent time management and sales and marketing experience, and you have to be good at keeping financial records. We had the right combination of skills.”

The couple have run Fox Hill since December 2016. It’s rewarding but hard work, they say. Maintaining a constant stream of guests is a must, but doing so comes at a price.  “One of the challenges we face is no longer being spontaneous,” says Cathy. “We can’t just pick up and get away for a weekend, go to the movies, or accept an invitation without checking our calendars for guest arrivals. Also, we are together 24-7, and sometimes you just need your own space.”

The pleasures outweigh any downsides, however. Each day, Mike, 62, prepares a three-course breakfast that’s served at a large oak table in the inn’s common area. Steps away, cream-and-brown earthenware jugs flank the hearth of a 17-foot-tall stone fireplace.

With his short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, white mustache, and ruddy cheeks, the former IT professional has a grandfatherly, slightly no-nonsense bearing—until you chat him up about the food. “We make our own sausage, we make our own bacon,” says the self-trained chef. “There’s one with a Bourbon-maple cracked-pepper glaze. There’s stuffed French toast with blueberries and raspberries—oh, and a berry parfait with cherries.”

To be an innkeeper, Cathy notes, “you’ve got to have some type of hospitality experience—or it’s got to be in your DNA. We make sure our guests have a good time.”

Sugar Tree Inn

Owners: Kelly and Russ Fox
145 Lodge Trail, Vesuvius
(540) 377-2197;
Open: April 1 through mid-December 
Number of rooms: 10
Rates start at: $148 per night

Nestled in the George Washington National Forest and about 4 miles from Vesuvius proper, the Sugar Tree Inn offers a woodsy break from the madding crowd. 

The main lodge, built in 1984 out of reclaimed 19th-century logs, houses three guest rooms. Each has a large bed topped by a traditionally patterned quilt, along with tall-back rockers, wood-burning fireplaces, and hurricane lamps. Rooms in the tree-shaded buildings nearby (with names like the Log House and Creek House) round out the accommodations. Just outside of each, the forest beckons.

“There’s no street noise, no cars,” says 39-year-old former mining engineer Russ Fox, who owns the place with his wife, Kelly, 36, a former paralegal and social worker. “Once the sun goes down, all you can see are the stars and all you can hear is the wind in the trees.” And on occasion, a little sprite shows guests around.

“This is our dining room,” Freddie Fox, age 5, pleasantly informs a visitor, entering a long, rectangular space in the main lodge. A bank of windows looks out and up a hillside thick with ferns and columbines. 

“Whenever people show up, he shows them where the rooms are,” Russ says of the couple’s son. “Freddie is our goodwill ambassador.”

The purchase of Sugar Tree in December 2016 signified a homecoming for the family of four (they have a 20-month-old daughter, Edy). They were both living in Virginia when they met in 2004 but moved to Alabama after they married. After Freddie’s birth, they realized they wanted to return to Virginia to work and raise their children.

Disappointed with the available mining jobs, Russ looked at other opportunities. He and Kelly took stock of their entrepreneurial skills and began mulling the idea of running an inn, even though, Russ says, “I’d never stayed at a B&B before.”

Kelly, who’d earned an English degree from Radford University and a master’s from the University of Alabama, went into research mode, reading blogs and websites. The Foxes hired a broker to comb the state for a B&B that would fit their growing family. They found it in the woods of Rockbridge County.

Inn keeping isn’t easy, says Russ, who does much of the cooking and handles repairs, “but Kelly and I knew how to cook and clean; we could learn how to host; and I consider myself to be a fairly handy guy.”

These days, when she isn’t hosting, cleaning, cooking, buying supplies, or letting phone calls at 2 a.m. go to voicemail, Kelly meets with local groups, hoping to boost Sugar Tree’s involvement with the community. “We hope to get it right for our family,” she says. “We want to be able to raise our kids here and see them go off to college. We want to be here for a long time.”

Two More Inns

Liberty Rose Bed and Breakfast

Vintage botanical wallpaper, poster beds, velvet chairs, and hand-tufted rugs comprise the decor at this four-room inn helmed by proprietor Sandi Thompson since 1986. “This is no job for the faint of heart,” the recently wed 73-year-old says with a laugh. “Running a B&B is a way of life; you have to love it.” Rates start at $175. 1022/1025 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg. 757-871-3594;

Page House Inn Bed and Breakfast 

Since 2009, Debra Wilborn has hosted visiting college hopefuls, business professionals, and tourists at this seven-room, 119-year-old, AAA Four Diamond B&B in Norfolk’s Ghent Historic District. Guest rooms include the spacious, blue-and-white Miss Diane’s Suite with a king brass bed and two log fireplaces. “I practically begged the previous owners to let me buy this place,” she says. “The people you meet, the friendships you make—there’s nothing more satisfying.” Rates start at $160. 323 Fairfax Avenue, Norfolk. 757-625-5033;

Lorna Corpus Sullivan is the managing editor of Tidewater Traveler.

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