The Historic McGee’s Inn – 2 Couples Come Together to Become Hospitality Entrepreneurs

Judy laughs when she says that the entire Sandy Hill neighbourhood, including the residences at the University of Ottawa, probably feature a lot of their 1980s furnishings and decor. When they took over the B&B, they gave away much of the old furniture to Lazarus House, a homeless shelter in Ottawa, and they put the rest by the curb. Judy said it was funny how they used to watch their discarded items walk away one by one, very quickly, most of them picked up by students from the university which is located just down the road.

At present they are still renovating the basement where Ken and Judy will be living later on. Jason and Sarah are living off premises with their small son and daughter. I asked them how things are going for two generations of Armstrongs working together seven days a week in a demanding hospitality business. Judy said that Sarah is easy to work with and admitted that every once in a while she still treats Jason like her son rather than a business partner.

But all of them say that their joint entrepreneurial adventure has been very rewarding and they really enjoy working together. Most of all they enjoy the lifestyle that it affords them, the fact that they have more time for family. People used to ask them if they were crazy, especially during the first year when they were doing all these renovations. But for the Armstrongs it’s all worth it.

I enquired about how the transition phase went and Judy and Sarah said that it was pretty easy and seemed very natural. They had all read a lot of books on how to run a bed and breakfast and their previous work experience in different fields came in handy. They also did some first hand research and went to Kingston to stay in different B&Bs. Judy said that the key deciding factor is whether you like people or you don’t. She adds that they had always been comfortable hosting guests, they often threw parties for up to 50 people and had a clear idea of what they wanted their bed and breakfast to be like.

The lounge / breakfast room at the McGee’s Inn

She admits that the beginning, their first summer, was hard. At that time their laundry room was downstairs and all their linens and cloths were stored on the lower level. Even if they only needed a facecloth they had to walk up and down several floors to get it. To make things easier they even used walkie-talkies to communicate between different levels of the building. At that time they were running all over the house to get things done. Today they have a second floor storage area for linens which puts a dent in the workload. Sarah adds that their bed and breakfast is a continuous work in progress and the ladies keep redecorating the rooms on a regular basis.

I proceeded to ask them about their daily routine. Judy and Sarah both responded that they get up at about 6 am or earlier. Judy starts getting the food ready, which always includes freshly baked muffins or croissants. Sarah arrives at about 7 am and prepares the juice. They generally set the tables the night before.

Breakfast is held at 7:30 or 8 am on weekdays and a half hour later on weekends. A great addition to their business is a commercial dishwasher which finishes an entire huge load of dishes in 3 minutes. Judy says that this appliance has been one of their best investments. As a result dishes are finished by 10 am.

The team also hired a helper, Jenn, who is a student at the University of Ottawa and comes in from Monday to Friday. The Armstrongs handle all their own laundry onsite. They have two commercial dryers and one commercial and one regular washing machine. Last summer they sent a lot of laundry out to commercial laundry services, but with their new laundry equipment this task is much easier to handle.

Their bed and breakfast is generally open all year round with the exception of one week between Christmas and New Years when they take off some personal time and get the wood floors re-sanded. Earlier this year Ken and Judy went on a vacation to Portugal while Sarah and Jason ran the B&B by themselves. The beauty of having two couples involved in running a B&B is that each of them are actually able to go on vacation every once in a while and are not tied down the whole year round.

The main breakfast room at the McGee’s Inn

I was also curious about their division of labour to see how they divvy up their daily responsibilities. Judy responded that she gets up early to prepare for breakfast and Sarah comes over a bit later. Sometimes it is also Sarah and Jason who prepare the breakfast. With a twinkle in her eye Judy says that Ken “gets in the way more than anything else” during breakfast preparation. He is more active in serving the breakfast and handling the coffee and tea service. Jason, Judy and Sarah do up the rooms and now they also have Jenn who helps them. Ken still spends some time working in real estate and he frequently has clients from out of town who stay at the McGee’s Inn, so this turns out to be a great combination.

Judy and Sarah indicated that someone is always at the house because guests could need something at any given time. However, they take turns being there and occasionally they manage to go to the movies during the day time (Judy was planning to see the DaVinci Code later this afternoon).

When asked about their overall experience as bed and breakfast owners Judy said that they didn’t go into this business to become millionaires. She said if the basics are taken care off (housing, car, food) you are doing pretty well already and personal happiness is a question of priorities. As an example she mentioned a couple, personal acquaintances, who live in a huge house, travel all the time for business, and never have any extra money left over. In addition, this lifestyle puts a huge strain on their relationship and their children. For Judy having time for her family has always been more important.

My favourite spot: the window seat by the big bay window

Of course the Armstrongs also have some interesting guest stories to tell. Judy says that they have had wonderful guests from all over the world. The majority of them come from Quebec, Ontario, and the Eastern United States while some come from California and the West Coast. Travellers from Germany, England and Scotland like to visit particularly during the fall season. They have also had guests from more far-away locations such as Mexico, Argentina and India.

One of their guests from South Africa almost became like a family member. He would sit outside with them and just watch people walking down the street. He could not believe that people would go for a walk through the neighbourhoods because where he came from people have 8 foot fences, security systems and guard dogs, and people are generally scared to walk in public.

Other interesting guests included a couple riding a 3-wheeler motorcycle. They wanted to rent the Egyptian room, the best room at the McGee’s Inn, for one night and came in wearing bandanas, leather suits and chops. In the end they stayed an entire week and were some of the most delightful guests they ever had. Apparently, the male motorcyclist owned a factory that manufactured aircraft parts, he was also a passionate cook and a hobby farmer. He was so stressed out when he arrived since he had not had a vacation in a long time. His wife said she had not seen him this relaxed in a long time. Even though they looked a little intimidating on arrival, they turned out to be some of the best guests they ever had. This experience confirms that you can never judge a book by its cover.

It was obvious that the senior and junior Armstrongs both enjoy being in the bed and breakfast business. It was refreshing to see two generations from one family come together to make a joint life decision to structure their working life around their family priorities. The Armstrongs have obviously succeeded at that.

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