Sunday, February 3, 2013

If You Build It They Will Come, But How Much Should You Charge?

I’m changing sheets and towels, dusting, putting away dishes, and vacuuming in my writer’s retreat, and in my mind hear James Earl Jones straight out of Field Of Dreams: “If you build it they will come…. They most certainly will come, Ray.”

I substitute Cathy for Ray, and look at this beautiful studio, this vision realized. I’m blessed to have had writing guests three weekends in a row, and two-thirds of them I’d never met before, thanks to listing on

Field of Dreams ends with a steady stream of cars lining the back-roads of Iowa. Here’s what we don’t see: neighbors complaining, traffic congestion, parking shortages, zoning regulations. Ray will plow up more corn to add parking, wondering how much must remain for Shoeless Joe to appear. He’ll rent port-a-potties and more bleachers, build a ticket booth and concession stand, keeps records on Quicken, and fork over taxes to the municipality, state, and feds because he was listening, living out his call.

I believe in the transformative power of both retreat and writing. In my own life, leaving home and responsibilities (particularly for the Mercy Center in Burlingame California, where I spent forty days over two years in Spiritual Formation) released my creativity to flow uninterrupted by routines and chores.
The labyrinth at the Mercy Center, Burlingame

I was inspired by the opportunity to explore a place that wasn’t mine and find its gifts. This is my vision for the writer’s retreat I now host: to provide space that is welcoming, comfortable, yet challenges and encourages the creative genius in each guest to come forth, to delight in self-expression, and to be inspired to continue the good work they began here.

It’s a lofty goal, but with each guest who writes, there is more creative energy and intention gifted into this room. I contribute to it when I’m cleaning, wishing well the guests who have left, readying for the ones to come in the tasks of emptying trashcans, snapping sheets, hanging towels, lifting up my guests' creative endeavors, breathing a generative spirit of peace and well-being into this room.

The dining nook in the retreat studio

How can I put a price on this? I would love to invite everyone without charge because I believe we should all have the opportunity to leave home, squirrel away with a pen and paper, and discover.

That said, my husband and I have invested thousands of dollars in transforming this room from a freezing pale-green non-descript room with rusted plumbing and a metal shower stall, into a sanctuary of wood, color, warmth, and views. It’s an investment we won’t recoup until we sell this house, which we hope won’t be for a very long time.

The room before we bought the house. Only the desk remains.

Now I’m a business owner, and the state and city want their excise and lodging taxes, and my guests cost money: taxes, water, electricity, toilet paper, dish soap. And there is my time, which as a writer (and former lay minister and classroom volunteer) I am used to giving away, to be paid in copies and compliments.

My husband, in his professional life, has been responsible for million dollar programs and budgets. He is the one reading the tax codes, installing electric sub-meters, coding expenses, and separating out capital improvements.

I explain to him that webreserv calculates some taxes, airbnb none, that webreserv charges no fees, airbnb some, and he explains the discrepencies in tax liabilities for me. He doesn’t tell me how much to charge, only that my rates should differ on each site.

My mother-in-law, at the age I am now, opened a bed and breakfast inn in San Francisco. My husband and I helped restore the mansion on weekends, and helped market it too, buying our first computer and performing mail merges, sending out hundreds of invitations and announcements. Getting the word out was difficult and costly. I’m fortunate to launch my small business in these days of free social networking, but there are still many expenses.  

The former Warner Embassy in San Francisco

I’ve checked what other island B&Bs charge, and how much folks charge to rent the cottages in their backyards, and it’s not cheap. Unlike large hotels and chains, we have no economies of scale. Like Ray in Field of Dreams, we built it and they have come. They have come in large part I think, because of the introductory rate I’ve offered this first month of my business.

Unfortunately, that rate is not sustainable: we’re paying to have guests. My rates must rise and I know that means some writers who’d love to stay here won’t be able to. As one used to offering my skills and talents as a ministry—at no cost and open to anyone—it’s difficult to think like a businesswoman.  Do most business owners wonder how little they can charge to break even? I do.

Several times in California, when my husband was employed and we didn’t do everything ourselves, we hired a contractor. His bids and invoices always had a line item for “overhead and profit” calculated at fifteen percent. He was a great builder, honest, ethical, and recognized that he deserved to make a profit to stay in business. He wasn’t the cheapest contractor around, but he was the most conscientious and we were happy to pay his fifteen percent.

Now that our retreat is built (we’re still busy remodeling the rest of the house) and our focus shifts from construction to hospitality, I will continue listening for leading—even if it’s not God or James Earl Jones speaking—consulting my conscience, and attending to my guests and their needs, giving my attention, and living out my intention to provide a meaningful retreat.

All this at a rate I hope my guests are happy to pay.


1 comment:

  1. I've heard it said that an artist should price a piece of artwork based on the love put into it and the meaning it has for them. How much would you be willing to let a painting go for, the point at which the idea of living without it becomes bearable? It seems to me that you have a different dilemma; this retreat is your work of art, but you do not want to part with it. You want people to come to it and enjoy it but you do not want to let it go. I wonder what questions you could ask yourself around this?