Business for Kingston’s B&Bs is booming, so much so that innkeepers increasingly found themselves fielding referrals to other properties when their own rooms were full — a time-consuming process. Not to mention paying ever more dollars in commissions to Expedia, Trip Advisor and the other major reservation services. So in July Larry Zalinsky and his wife, BC Gee, owners of the Rondout Inn, debuted BoutiqueInnsofKingstonNY.com, an online travel agency that lists six properties in Kingston: the Rondout Inn, Bel’s Inn, DeMew House, Forsyth Bed & Breakfast, Gallery Inn and Schwartz’s Inn. The properties are a combination of B&Bs, inns and apartment suites, all located in the Rondout waterfront district with the exception of Schwartz’s Inn, which is located in the Stockade District.
Unlike the mainstream booking engines that charge 15 percent commission, “this is commission-free,” Zalinsky said. After copious research, he chose the booking engine Free-to-Book, which is based in Glasgow, Scotland. The cost for each participating property is a one-time $150 set-up fee and $10 a month (Zalinsky pays the service $75 month, which means he is out of pocket $15 a month; ultimately he hopes to sign up more properties, so he could at least break even.) “Now, rather than have us calling around, we send everybody to boutique inns, and whoever has availability will come right up,” he said. The properties are listed at random on the site, which also includes reviews (the booking engine automatically sends the user a request for a review when his or her stay is up).
Zalinsky said he spent months researching various booking engines and reservations systems before selecting Free-to-Book, which was chosen on the basis that “the back end worked better, the check-out process is simple, it’s very user-friendly yet very powerful and integrates with other booking engines, to fill up their calendars as well,” a feature that prevents double booking. The system also allows properties to post special offers and discounts, such as promotional rates for returning guests, he said.
The collective booking service also ensures visitors a high standard of quality, according to Zalinsky. Besides being on the Free-to-Book reservation platform, all listed inns have to be registered with Ulster County, which ensures they’re paying the 2 percent hotel tax (on top of the 8 percent sales tax). Participating properties must charge a nightly room rate of at least $145. Zalinsky and Gee do an inspection of the property, to ensure “the place is clean and it has the carbon monoxide detector and smoke detectors,” he said. The bathroom can’t be shared with the owner (although individual guest rooms can share a bathroom). There is a $25 fee for the inspection, and if the property fails it “we’ll give them a report telling them what they need to do to pass.” Participating properties are also subject to an annual inspection.
Maintaining high standards is important, since “it’s a reflection on all of us,” Zalinsky said. “A bad experience is bad for all of us.”
Zalinsky is working to create links on the site with Ulster County Tourism (which is putting rack cards for boutiqueinnsofkingston.com at the New York State Thruway rest stops), Kingston Happenings, the Bardavon and UPAC, and other key regional attractions.
He said initially there was a bit of work in getting the new booking engine up and running, which involved switching to a new calendar listing the block-out dates for rooms that are booked, but he’s been pleased with how well the service is working — and the savings on not paying a commission. (In comparison, for a $400 weekend booking through Expedia, he has to pay $60 to Expedia.) Rondout Inn remains on Expedia and the other popular reservation services, but Zalinsky and the other participants obviously hope to drive more reservations to boutique inns.
The new regional service is a testament to the dramatic growth of the local lodging industry in the past decade. When Zalinsky and Gee opened the Rondout Inn in 2009, the only other B&B in the waterfront district was Miss Gussie Bug, on Dock Street. (Schwartz’s Inn was also open, in Uptown.) Despite much more competition, “there’s been a steady increase in overall volume, even in the off season,” he said. “We’re just as busy now as we were years ago before the new places opened up. There’s that much more business coming up here and more than enough to go around.”
He said he expects the new booking service “to bring in a totality of more business to everybody, since we’re not relying so much on our individual websites.” Eventually, after the system’s been operating for awhile and any kinks ironed out, he might like to expand Boutique Inns to list properties elsewhere in the county or region. Right now, “it’s among friends and I’m happy to do it for free. I’m helping everybody, but once it’s serving Ulster County, it’s pure business.”