What We’re Doing With This Place

by Rachel Creager Ireland

It’s closing in on a year since we closed the motel. People still ask questions occasionally, so I’ve decided it’s time to speak a few things in public.

Sometimes when people ask me about “what we’re doing with” this place, I get a hint of a sense that we are sitting on a great opportunity, which we’re squandering by not even trying to take advantage of it. Surely if we rented some rooms now and then, we’d have some income we wouldn’t have if we keep them closed up. Why on earth live here and turn down customers who show up at the door?

It turns out that it’s not that simple. If you haven’t operated a small business, you’d be surprised —amazed, really— at how many of the expenses don’t change with the amount of business we have. That means that it’s all or nothing. We operate at full capacity or we lose money. (Which is not to say that operating at full capacity guaranteed us profit; toward the end, we were constantly trying to figure out how to calculate whether we’d lose more money by being open or closed.)

In the beginning, we thought we had a reasonable business plan, and had professionals look at it, but it turned out that we underestimated our basic expenses. We took the difference out of our own pay, and ended up working for nothing, while borrowing money to pay the bills. Then Kevin found other work, and used the pay to float the motel, while I found myself turning down (paying) massage work to try to keep things from falling apart in his absence. Eventually it felt like we were doing someone a huge favor, but we had no idea whom, or why.

I’m sure seasoned businesspeople will see all the above as common mistakes people make when they start a business without knowing what they’re doing. Another mistake is thinking that the visible parts of a business are most of what it entails. We all know that cleaning motel rooms and checking in guests are essential parts of operating a lodging, but the invisible work is actually a bigger job. That includes, but is not limited to, what I call the “businessy tasks:” accounting and bookkeeping (including meetings with accountants); filing taxes and talking to tax collectors, inspectors, and insurance people; managing the bank accounts and payments and payroll (if you have employees —we tried to do as much as we could ourselves, which was probably also a mistake).

Walk down a commercial street and consider that every successful small business you see —the coffee shop, the art gallery, the nail salon— requires many hours of these invisible tasks every day. You may have worked in one of these businesses; you may be excellent at pulling espresso, making customers happy, or purchasing apparel, but you will never have a successful business if you can’t manage the office, or find someone who can. It’s not something you can squeeze in at the end of the day when all the fun work is done. It’s a job, and it has to be done well.

In the end, maybe it comes down to being burnt out. We’re done. We’re doing other things now. We’ve exhausted our resources and we are no longer enthralled by the dream of providing a place for travelers to stay.

Still, it’s true that there is potential here. The location is convenient and visible; the 50s-style motel architecture is appealing to those who enjoy quirky nostalgia; tourism at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, five minutes away, is steadily increasing. The air here is fresh, the prairie is in arm’s reach, the Milky Way is visible on any clear night. If you’ve read this far, and you’re still itching to say, “Why don’t you reopen the motel and hire an office manager/ market to [rail enthusiasts/ astrologers/ birdwatchers], or convert to apartments/ professional offices/ a laundromat?” consider that it may be your job to do that, not ours. Now that you know what mistakes to avoid, maybe you’ll be the one to make that dream blossom. If you think you can do it, make an offer. This place could be yours.