As if it were yesterday, Sherri Fickel recalls the conversation she had with her husband Kevin Kraditor as they celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary back in 1998. It’s likely a conversation many people have had while on vacation, away from all the stress, relaxing over a glass of wine. “We had been hiking, which we love to do, and were in this cute little town, discussing how we had always wanted to do something different … we both really loved to entertain, Kevin wanted to garden more, and I wanted to renovate an old house. And then it hit us, why not run a B&B? We were both really excited and it felt right.”
Although the time wasn’t quite ripe for such a move, the hardworking, and risk-averse pair, then in their early thirties, didn’t abandon the idea. When they returned home, Sherri and Kevin agreed to look for a property, renovate it slowly and possibly use it initially as a second home, while continuing to save money. The plan was to work towards establishing a second career as innkeepers, years down the road when they reached their early fifties.
They set their sights on Sperryville, VA, a small town near the Shenandoah National Park, just 75 miles outside of DC, close to the famous Inn at Little Washington. It was an ideal location. After all, they loved to visit Sperryville with its idyllic small town feel and great hiking. And they figured being just down the road from a world famous restaurant would be a good for business.
Following their first anniversary trip, they returned to Sperryville several times over the next couple years and in 2000 they started looking for a home. During their house-hunting trip, the couple stayed at another Sperryville inn. Over breakfast, the owner casually inquired about their plans for the day. Responding sheepishly that they were looking for a property with plans to open a (rival) B&B, they were shocked when she replied, “Nonsense, you wouldn’t be my competition, you would be my colleague.” The genial response dumbfounded the couple who were used to cutthroat DC, and took it as another sign that they were moving in the right direction.
The innkeeper had another surprise in store for them when she suggested they look at a nearby property not yet on the market. With two large wrap around porches and at least seven fireplaces, it was ideal. Built in the 1820s, the building had gone through various identities, and was converted to rental apartments in the 1970s. It took six months for all the apartments to turn over, which gave Sherri and Kevin a chance to check them out before they were rented again. At that time, they were finally able to make an offer on the building, which was once again full of tenants.
For some time after that, the couple continued to live and work in DC but spent their weekends in Sperryville to manage the apartments they had rented. The building was paying for itself and Sherri and Kevin focused on increasing their savings at home, with their sights set on the long-term goal of moving out to the inn eventually on a full-time basis.
But in 2004, they had an epiphany. “Our lives were fine but there was no passion in them. We were both in jobs we had fallen into, paying the bills, making a nice living, and living in a cute house on Capitol Hill. But we thought, ‘What if we spend the next 10-15 years working towards this goal, only to discover we hate being innkeepers? Wouldn’t it be better to find out now?”
Shortly after deciding to “go for it,” they were crushed by the estimates of the cost to convert the property to a B&B, double what they had anticipated. The couple, who had a pact to never get used to a lifestyle that they couldn’t support by waiting tables, paused and agreed not to discuss it for a couple of weeks, both unsure if they were willing to take on a massive amount of debt to fulfill their dream. “When we came back together, we unequivocally agreed, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was the biggest risk we ever took.”
In August of 2004, the couple started a full-scale renovation on the Inn, a move that Sherri recalls required “significant lifestyle changes.” Sherri quit her permanent job at the Red Cross as an IT project manager, instead becoming a consultant where the take home pay was much greater, but the benefits all but gone. They decided to live entirely off Kevin’s salary as a labor economist for the American Academy of Physician Assistant, so they could save all of Sherri’s: “We brought brown bag lunches to work everyday and only allowed ourselves to go out to dinner once a month. We HAD to save money. We had spreadsheet upon spreadsheet upon spreadsheet with different plans for how to make it work. We just hated the idea of being stuck in our jobs to pay off the loans.”
They made further cuts by renting out the top of their house in DC and living in the basement, finally figuring out that if they sold their house in DC, and put all their equity into the Inn, Sherri could quit her job and Kevin could telecommute from the Inn: “At that point, my whole passion was in Sperryville, so we made the jump. It was a crazy time in DC real estate, the house went up in an escalation clause and the winning bidders allowed us to stay in the basement an additional six months for free,” Sherri happily remembers.
They sold their house and opened The Hopkins Ordinary, in June 2005. Sherri remained as a consultant to the Red Cross until August of 2005 and Kevin telecommuted until 2008, when he made the leap to work full time at the Inn.
Nine years on, the Inn is going strong. At two years beyond the typical “inn burnout” of seven years, the couple sees no end in sight. “We were ready for hard work and it was. For a couple years we did all of it and had no time off, but over the years we’ve been able to hire people to do some of the less attractive work like scrubbing toilets and making beds. Now we also allow ourselves two weeks off in January and two weeks in August.”
The payback for all that hard work? “We love what we do. We love making our guests happy, watching as they discover Sperryville. It’s really rewarding. We have many repeat guests and many guests have become very good friends. It’s not just a job. Its our life.”
And while they acknowledge they have foregone higher incomes, making the switch to inn-keeping has clearly given them a higher quality of life than they could have ever achieved in DC: “We love the flexibility and the feeling of freedom that comes from running the show. It may not be an extravagant life, but it’s a secure life.”
And they already have their sights set on career 3.0. The two are preparing to launch a “nano brewery” at the inn this Fall. As Sherri explains, “We love running the Inn but doing it for many years can get stale if you don’t give yourself new challenges.”
Their daily life and interaction on the day we spoke we spoke with Sherri sums it up perfectly. In her words: “Today, we made the guests breakfast, went for an 8.5 mile hike, came home, did the laundry, ironed, prepped for incoming guests, and did some minor work for the brewery renovation. As I prepped for tomorrow’s breakfast, Kevin headed out to mow the lawn and we just smiled tiredly at each other. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘We’re doin’ it.’ The only response is a return of the phrase, and then we get back to work, but with a smile and new energy.”
They are living the dream, and for Sherri and Kevin, doing it together has made all the difference.
Sherri’s Tips for Success:
- If you have to personally make a huge financial investment in your new venture, make a budget, run the numbers and make lifestyle changes. Even huge numbers may be possible with the right lifestyle adjustments.
- Similarly, be willing to make short-term sacrifices on your quality of life to achieve long-term goals.
- Don’t assume your life can’t be like the life you see on vacation. There’s no requirement that you have to live in a city and sit in an office. Think outside the box.
Have you ever fantasized about working in the travel or hospitality industry?