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The View from Seven Sea Street

Matt and Mary Parker

Innkeeping has its moments, and Matt Parker '85 has seen his share.

Joan Killough-Miller

In the lull of a Monday afternoon in early April, with tourist season only weeks away, Nantucket is hit with a snow storm. As sleet blankets the slender green shoots that herald the island's annual Daffodil Festival, Matthew Parker is unperturbed. "Daffodils are very hardy," he says reassuringly. In his 16 years as proprietor of the Seven Sea Street Inn, Parker has steered the family enterprise through just about everything nature can dish out--including the so-called perfect storm--and has faced the best and worst of human nature, as well.

The life of an innkeeper is the subject of envy by those who confuse the carefree ambiance enjoyed by guests with the challenging career of managing such a haven. Part of the job is to preserve that illusion. Parker, soft-spoken and genial in wire-rimmed spectacles and a woolen vest, appears as if he has nothing more pressing on his mind than a sunny day at the beach, or where you, his guest, might like to dine this evening. It's your vacation, after all, and it's his responsibility to make it stress-free and special.

"Innkeeping is a lot of hard work, and a lot of hours," he admits. Yet it's clear he wouldn't have it any other way. "A dream come true" is how Matt describes the opportunity to partner with his father, Ken Parker '61, in launching Seven Sea Street. Ken owned the nearby Tuckernuck Inn until he sold it in 2001. (He retired from full-time innkeeping, but has since helped his daughter, Monica, open four bed-and-breakfasts in Providence, R.I.)

It took seven years of round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week, live-in innkeeping before Matt and his wife, Mary, achieved their goal of hiring a resident manager and moving into a home of their own to start a family. They now work alternate days at the inn and share the job of raising three young sons. During the month of January, when Nantucket is cold and gray and empty, they escape for a family vacation to Naples, Fla. "These days, we're able to come in to work on Monday and go home for the weekend on Friday, like regular people," Matt rejoices. But he cautions aspiring innkeepers to think carefully about what it takes to get established in a high-stakes business, where sacrifices and hard work come before glamour.

"We must have made thousands of blueberry muffins," Parker says of the early years, when the young couple would rise at 6:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast and remain on call all night for locked-out guests and false fire alarms. "We had to do all the housekeeping ourselves, we had to clean those toilets ourselves. When a husband and wife are in a business partnership, as well as a marriage partnership, and they're living in the midst of that, the strain on the marriage can be enormous. For many people, it's a recipe for disaster." For the Parkers, maintaining balance between work and home became their mantra, even more so once they had children.

Even with a manager doing the baking, either Matt or Mary will be on hand for breakfast to "pour coffee, catalyze conversation, and let people know that they're catered to and taken care of." Guests who arrived frazzled by the long trip have been transformed by a tranquil night on a premium mattress. It's the innkeeper's skill to sense who wants to chat, who needs help setting up plans for the day, and who--honeymooners, in particular--cherishes privacy. (The inn will serve breakfast in bed on request.)

Beds, Breakfast and Business Acumen

Today's bed-and-breakfast traveler seeks country charm but demands modern amenities. A 1989 article in The New York Times featured Seven Sea Street Inn as an example of the evolution of B&B accommodations from a spare room at Grandma's farm to luxury resort destinations. Seven Sea Street offers in-room refrigerators and TV/VCRs, high-speed Internet access, and a Jacuzzi spa, all artfully couched in Early American Nantucket style, with ample hand-stitched quilts and oaken cabinetry. A ginger cat roams the premises, ready to cozy up with guests who leave their doors ajar.

Matt and Mary Parker

Matt Parker says he sometimes toys with the idea of buying another inn, but "luckily, my wife makes me think twice about that."

Today's innkeeper needs to be an adept Webmaster and a savvy marketer. After the guests head off to the beach, Parker runs housekeeping and check-in reports on his iMac. "Hope-fully, through it all, the phone is ringing," he says. "That's the name of the game here." When prospects call, nine out of 10 have visited the inn's Web site, checked rates and availability, and taken the virtual tour. "You've already got a highly qualified caller," Parker points out. "Which is great--it's easier for me than trying to create a visual picture with words." His advertising budget has shifted from print media to "pay per click" placements on search engines such as Google and Overture. Specialized property management software lets him react swiftly to market shifts by uploading room discounts to global distribution systems, such as Travelocity.com and Trip.com. "From a management point of view, you have so much more control over your seasons and your inventory," he says. "The small inn has never been able to do that before. It levels the playing field for us, and it's great for the consumer, too."

For all the technology, innkeeping is still a people business, and sometimes other people's business can get sticky. One of Parker's most difficult moments came when a wife called, after seeing the credit card charges, to ask who had accompanied her husband at the inn. Another couple, who had enjoyed many wedding anniversaries at Seven Sea Street, couldn't give up the tradition after they had broken up. The woman booked a visit with her new boyfriend, and the man showed up the same weekend. There are sweet memories, too. Once, when a distraught newlywed had lost his wedding ring at the beach, Parker dispatched a retired friend with a metal detector. "It wasn't a happy ending, in the sense that he never did find the ring," he says. But this couple appreciated the extra effort so much that they've been coming back for anniversaries ever since.

Nantucket can be a harsh environment, and there are some things that modern innovations can't change. Rainy weather can breed dissatisfied guests ("You can go to the museums and art galleries only so many times," Parker says sympathetically). The island's isolation, so prized by visitors and residents, can be a nightmare when the inn's water heater bursts on Labor Day weekend. When violent weather hits (such as the late-October "perfect storm" that sank the Andrea Gail in 1991), there's nothing to do but hunker down for three days and feed your anxious guests cornflakes and granola--for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Sea Street was a river," Parker recalls. "We laugh about it now, but the waters were within inches of the door."

Matt Parker says he sometimes toys with the idea of buying another inn, but "luckily, my wife makes me think twice about that." For now, his fantasy is to retire and have time to sit up in his inn's cozy library and read the leather-bound classics there--without anyone interrupting to ask for restaurant recommendations.

He admits that back in the old days of live-in innkeeping, there were times he felt like hiding from the guests. Now, with a normal workday and a private family life, he watches departing guests begrudgingly head back to the daily grind and he knows he's lucky--he's always happy to go in to work on Monday.

Think you have what it takes be an innkeeper? Take the Aspiring Innkeepers quiz from the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. You'll also find signature recipes from all of the alumni-owned B&Bs featured on our pages.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 13:11 EDT
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