If huge sections of the B&B industry survive and thrive on the ability to exert control over editorial – basically, to write their own reviews – how do you separate the cream from the crummy? It’s all a matter of breaking the code. By Peter Robinson

The bed and breakfast industry’s origins are believed to derive from medieval times when castle owners realised perfectly good dungeons were going unoccupied. Didn’t pay your taxes? Be my guest for a few years. Beds were as comfortable as a stone floor can be, and it was full-board basis for meals: mouldy bread once a week but feel free to eat whatever crawls around your bedroom at night.

Supply of dungeons soon ran out due to the peasants who crowded them, or retirements from sieges and various acts of war. In more recent centuries guests embarked for free cruises to the colonies, a fine gesture from the reigning monarch.

Whether or not this raison d’ être is historically correct, our mutation of the bed and breakfast gene kicks off from here. And despite attempts to maintain the immutable standards set in the homeland, B&Bs have been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era – though a few aberrations remain. Guests now pay for the privilege of locking themselves in secret places far, far away, the quieter the better, and firm beds are a battleground of passion.

There are thousands of bed and breakfast places across Australia, ranging in style from traditional in-houses to cottages, grand mansions and boutique hotels. Throw in a few outback farm stays, fishing lodges and opal mines and there’s a bed for all seasons.

But how to choose one? Start at the newsstand and pick up one of the mags or books that boast places for couples to stay, or the best or most beautiful, or whatever. At the time of writing this article, all the bed and breakfast properties pay big dollars for inclusion and have at least some editorial control over the screed in each publication available (though a soon-to-be launched B&B book by The Age in Melbourne may alter this). Even the free brochures from tourism authorities are funded by payment from individual B&Bs, and some rely totally on material supplied by the properties.

Bed and breakfast websites are pretty much the same – pay up and they’re in; generally speaking, there’s no formal review system established because it’s not financially viable to send anyone into the field.

In other words, every property advertised can be sensational, spectacular, glorious, amazing, indulgent, perfect, stylish, gorgeous, unique, luxurious or romantic and any combination in between. Cynicism aside, the great majority of properties are very good, particularly with the shiny side polished to a mirror, but the trick is learning how to read between the lines and decipher the superlatives code. Take the superlatives, history and regional info out of each write up and what’s left? Sometimes, not much. This can be a useful clue.

None of the properties want to have their roughcast side revealed. It’s bad for business and they simply won’t pay for the promo. And we’re talking well over a thousand bucks per entry here for some books and magazines. On the flip side, publishers need a heap of properties to pay up, otherwise there’ll be no print run – they can be very expensive to put together, so properties might be included even when they’re of dubious quality. One or two of the better-known publications have allowed themselves to be compromised. In these cases a cursory inspection may be part of the deal – but the reality is that money is too often the crucial factor in whether or not a property gets included.

Of course, the bed and breakfast industry is not alone in presenting substandard wares; anyone who’s well travelled knows brochure photos and info can be way off the mark. If a reader’s expectations aren’t met it has ramifications for the property, the publication or provider’s integrity (if that’s the right word) – and a small disaster for the industry. Put enough small disasters together and what you get is a mass rush back to 1960s motels. As always, bad news travels faster than good.

Despite misgivings, this is a successful industry with enormous further potential. A little candour would go a long way in helping resolve persisting misconceptions. For instance, many travellers still fear sharing a noisy family home with the sole bathroom down the hall, and this is one of the reasons motels and star ratings continue to offer a form of security.

How come I know all this stuff anyway? As former main reviewer for a couple of the big publications, I’ve seen the business side of the story, as well as been an anonymous guest. Friendships were inevitably forged in the process, and by revisiting many of the properties the inside workings of B&Bs have been revealed. Chatting to guests rounded out the process.

When friends find out that I’ve reviewed about 600 bed and breakfast properties over a decade, the first question is usually: “Which one’s the best?”

There isn’t really a “best.” I have many favourites, but it all depends on the type of experience you want. Couples wanting a romantic interlude are probably after seclusion and comfort, and no-one knocking on the door at any time. On a budget? Want to see the sights? Want great food? Like history or bushwalking?

The second question is: “Does it have an ensuite?” Intending guests please note: the vast majority of decent B&Bs have ensuite bathrooms.

Even a private or exclusive-use bathroom is not good enough these days. B&B owners please note: you’re kidding yourselves if you think guests do not expect an ensuite. Next come questions about spa baths, spa centres and massages, what else to do there, breakfast, dinner, and the hosts.

B&Bs have become highly valued and vital players in the national tourism industry. By the same token they’ve grown in topsy-turvy fashion, with no real control over the individual properties other than the hope that below par ones will be weeded out by the process of natural selection. Motoring bodies apply a star rating to those properties willing to participate, and while not a perfect indicator of quality, they’re good as basic guides. Hosts, on the other hand, don’t get a star rating for their talents and B&B guests may be in for quite a surprise. Either way.

I’ll say it again: most properties will be satisfactory, scrupulously clean, well run, and have hosts who are not Basil Fawlty. Repeat guest numbers are perhaps the best indicators of overall guest satisfaction but that doesn’t help the first timer. And to hosts: forget the visitor’s book and glowing comments within – if you could tune in on what guests are saying on the drive home you’d get the real message.

Horror stories abound: grubby rooms, finding someone else’s short and curlies (if you know what I mean) in bed or bathroom, bacon turning green in its cling-wrap, rats and spiders or other creepy-crawlies in bedrooms, sheets that have distinct traces of the previous guests, inadequate soundproofing, trucks using a nearby road through the night, bed bugs and nylon sheets. Hosts have argued violently behind closed doors only to present a tearstained smiling face for guests, candlelit dinners destroyed by the sounds of pan-throwing and swearing in the kitchen, hosts who give their own bedroom to guests while they sleep in the car, and one who grubbily installed video cameras in guest rooms (and was later outed from the industry).

On the other hand there are guests who take every moveable object home with them. Sure, take the little bottles of shampoo, cotton buds and chocolates, but it’s tacky to pack the kettle, bar fridge and even the beds (it happens). Besides, they’ve probably got your credit card details. Some guests have fought, then passionately and audibly made up, others have partied all night leaving a bombsite of damage, some have taken ill, and I’ve even heard of a death in one place.

Thankfully, hosts and guests in these categories are “one percenters.”

Enjoy your stay. And, if you’ve got something nice to say, write it in the visitor’s book.

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