Wintertime at the North Fork’s B&Bs

Shorecrest Bed and Breakfast owner Marilyn Marks has operated her Southold inn for the past 11 years. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Shorecrest Bed and Breakfast owner Marilyn Marks has operated her Southold inn for the past 11 years. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The holidays are over, the beaches are empty and the pumpkins haven’t even been planted. With roughly three months to go until the North Fork tourist season officially kicks into gear, what are local bed and breakfast owners doing to keep business afloat?

As it turns out, they’re busier than you might expect — but they welcome the relative sense of downtime.

“This is when we do the bulk of our maintenance,” said Sylvia Daley, who opened Quintessentials Bed and Breakfast and Spa in East Marion more than 21 years ago. “Every year you need to touch up this, repaint that, do new pillows, new furniture.”

Last week, for instance, Daley oversaw a repair project on her property.

“A piece of my fence blew down in the [snow] storm, so I was supervising the handyman to get it back up again,” she said.

That’s not to say North Fork inns shut down during the off-season, which typically begins in December and ends in late April. Presidents Week was good for business at Quintessentials. And at Cedar House on Sound Bed and Breakfast in Mattituck, there are no weekend vacancies until this summer.

“Weekends are not really a challenge,” said Cedar House co-owner David Perrin, who opened the five-bedroom establishment with his wife, Donna, in 2010. “The challenge is operating mid-week in the off-season. If we weren’t full weekends year-round, we would not be able to afford to stay operational.”

Throughout January, which Perrin cited as Cedar House’s “slowest month,” the weekday occupancy rate is around 25 percent. Business swells on Valentine’s Day and during Presidents Week but then tapers off again until at least April — depending on the temperature.

“The challenge is the weather, especially for a B&B like mine, with its own beach,” said Marilyn Marks, owner of Shorecrest Bed and Breakfast in Southold. “I’m right across the street from Long Island Sound, so the wind does blow.”

Marks, who has operated Shorecrest for the past 11 years, said she spends winters touching up paint in her 1860s inn and embarking on construction projects.

“Last spring, I totally renovated one of my porches and made it into an all-season room,” she said.

For innkeepers like the Perrins, running a bed and breakfast is busy no matter the season, since they also live at Cedar House with their two young children.

“The biggest obstacle is that we still have to cook dinner,” said Perrin, who added that hosting indoor play dates for his children’s friends is mostly out of the question. “We‘re doing normal family stuff.”

In addition to performing home maintenance, many bed and breakfast owners view the off-season as a chance to update their websites and create new promotions.

“We use the time wisely,” Daley said. “If there are fewer rooms rented, you use that time to do marketing.”

Marketing themselves effectively and offering discounted rates during the off-season is especially important given the popularity of websites like Airbnb and Homeaway, which allow homeowners to rent rooms.

“People have more choices,” Daley said. “I mean, you can rent somebody’s couch for 10 dollars a night, so why not do that as opposed to a B&B?”

Even so, Daley and Perrin said they don’t feel threatened by the idea of short-term rentals — even in the winter.

“We have been around a long time and we have many repeat customers.” Daley said. “In fact, there isn’t a week where there isn’t a repeat guest.”

Perrin agreed that building a good reputation can help counteract any loss in business Cedar House incurs as a result of short-term rentals.

“We’re starting to achieve my ultimate goal, which was to build a lot of repeat business,” he said.

Of course, even bed and breakfast owners sometimes need to “get away from it all.” Luckily for them, there’s no better time than the present.

“I’m not going to fight the inevitability of the fact that there will be fewer [guests],” said Marks, who plans to travel to her native England next month. “So I go on vacation.”