It’s not every day that someone decides to leave their successful business and follow a risky dream. Doreen Birdsell and Lisa Feistel, a pair of entrepreneurial women with busy careers, decided it was time to slow down and find something more fulfilling. In a serendipitous moment, they found their calling. An unexpected opportunity arose to buy The Inn at Cook Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts—an inn they had previously stayed in as guests and fantasized about owning—and the rest is history.
I interviewed these partners in business and in life to learn about their peaceful inn, their brand new tea room that benefits elephants, and the pleasant surprises they’ve encountered after eight years of running a B&B.
Emily Gerson: What led you to become innkeepers?
Lisa Feistel: It really began as we were in our regular lives in Connecticut; we just always loved to entertain. We loved hosting people at our house for whatever event or dinner. We loved having people stay over, and it was oddly an easy fit for us...We were looking for a change in our life. One day we said, “Geez, what would it be like innkeeping?” There were other things that were precursors. The big thing was that we both have been in professions that were really high-paced, then 9/11 came. It just really changed our thinking. We know at that time that it was a big eye opener, and we were ready for a change.
Doreen Birdsell: We had made our commitment prayer at the end of August right before 9/11. We met [an innkeeper] and said, “Wow, this felt like a good life for us.” A friend had just died. Our businesses were owning us rather than us owning them. Things had become very busy for my photography business, and Lisa was in the car business. They were very high-strung jobs, and innkeeping looked like a way for us to use our entrepreneurial skills and give back to other people while doing what we love to do--to entertain.
EG: How wonderful that you followed your dream! How long did you plan this out before buying your inn?
LF: It was one of those real turning points in life that come, and you just have to recognize it. We went back to Provincetown for a vacation. We weren’t really looking at B&Bs. It was sort of a fantasy and a dream. We weren’t really out actively seeking it out. Doreen decided to write a book, which she has written. I was going to go to seminary school. It’s 2005, and we’re up in Provincetown. We were staying [at a B&B]. We got on our bikes and started looking at real estate as a hobby.
This is the fun part of our story. It’s something I love to share with guests to help them recognize when there’s a vision, and when to take that risk. We’re on a bike ride, we pop in a real estate office, and we see The Inn at Cook Street for sale. Three years prior, we had been guests there. We saw this inn for sale, and it all came flooding back how we fell in love with the building, this beautiful house. It needed a lot of updating and an aesthetic makeover, but we remember being guests and sitting in the living room I now own, and I thought, “Man, what I could do with this place,” never imagining that three years later, it would be for sale.
EG: When did it become real for you?
LF: I thought it was just a dream and vision; I didn’t take it seriously. We walked in the office and saw it was for sale! We might as well do it! And she said it’s sold. It sold the same day it went on the market. We left, but that night we went to dinner with a friend. A woman they had invited, who I’d never met, said she knew who bought it. She said they were going to break it up and sell it as condos. That’s what was happening in Provincetown at the height of the market...We thought how it would be awful to turn that beautiful B&B into condos! She asked us if we wanted their number. Now it’s back in our court again! This dream just keeps coming back at us. We called them, and we realized they’re just in it for the money.
D: If it was an inn, we’d let them pursue their dream. But they just wanted it for a profit.
L: So we took the next step, and that’s when it all began. We had to sell everything we had to make it happen. In one way, the charm is that we saved a beautiful B&B from being broken into a condominium.
D: The neighborhood really appreciated it, too! People have found us online a long time later and said they’re so happy they found it had remained a B&B. It was really gratifying to see people applauding our purpose. Provincetown has lost many of its B&Bs.
EG: What drew you to this B&B in particular?
LF: When I was a guest at the inn, I was so charmed by the beautiful building. When I sat there as a guest, I thought, “Wow, this is such a special place!” There are beautiful gardens. There are many days when I walk through, and I can’t believe we’ve done this! And it’s ours. There’s something very special about it, but I think most people reflect that it’s a beautiful, amazing home that goes back to what we love doing--being entertainers to family and friends. Now we do that with people from around the world. But it still feels like a home, though it’s a B&B—people say they feel like they came home! We make sure it stays that way.
DB: Even though it has the home appeal, for the traveler that wants privacy, five of our accommodations have private entrances, and we have two cottages. People can be anonymous. As an individual innkeeper, you have to know when someone wants to talk versus when someone wants to left alone. I think we’re pretty savvy about how to be intuitive about that.
EG: I saw that you’re adding the Triangle Tea Room to your inn this year! Can you please tell me about it?
DB: Lisa started a loose leaf tea company. Since I’m a professional photographer, I have enlarged many canvases that will go on the wall as we open about a tea room and gallery. We have the go-ahead from town to do that and incorporate that in the inn.
LF: We are doing that, but we’re very aware of our guests and making sure that it maintains itself as traditional B&B...Last year, we began to do tea tastings at the inn. It was only for our guests. It went over so well because it gave people something to look forward to. It was also another opportunity for people at the inn together and to get to know each other. I make sure it’s fun! Where some guesthouses do wine or cheese to bring guests together, I do tea tastings. It’s also something that we feel has become another benefit we offer to help people in general…It’s a quiet place where people can come if they like, and it's separate from the rest of the inn
EG: I saw that part of the proceeds go toward helping elephants. Why did you choose this cause?
LF: There’s a worldwide awareness right now about elephants becoming endangered because of the ivory trade. Both of us are drawn to philanthropy, and it’s a big calling for us. The biggest goal for both of us is to be able to give back. My tea is a product, but we are really very focused on making sure partial proceeds go to organizations we believe in. Right now, elephants really need help. It’s all over the news. There’s a huge demand to stop ivory trade and a huge amount of money is needed. I’m a big animal lover. I was very moved by a woman who her and her husband were pilots. They’re in Africa; they gave up their pilot positions to go open an orphanage for elephants. Because of that connection, they hosted two orphaned elephants.
I became so interested in this, and I started realizing how much they needed. I thought I’d tie the tea in to help them. It’s a win-win. People digesting tea are healthier, and I can do something about tea—something I love—and part of the proceeds are getting sent to elephant orphanages. It’s so beautiful...it’s a greater reward when you can share prosperity where there’s a great need. We’d like to share that…I make sure people get to see how it’s changing the lives of the elephants. And the people who are donating their time tirelessly to help.
EG: That’s incredible. Have there been any surprises about being innkeepers? Are there any aspects of the job that you weren’t expecting?
DB: I had no idea that our outreach would extend around the globe. That today I’m Facebook friends with so many of our guests! We have heard so many incredible stories, met such amazing people.
LH: Yes, amazing stories from people all over the world! The best part of innkeeping is there are people we’ve met that we’ll know for a lifetime. We’ve been invited to stay in our guests' homes; people who have said, “Whenever you’re in Ireland, come on over!” I know there’s a sincerity around that. The other part is that there’s nothing more satisfying as an innkeeper—nothing—than when you have a return guest…when that guest comes back, that says to you that you did a good job. I’m not talking just about things like fine sheets. There’s something about coming back to your home; they feel welcome and cared for. We really work hard to make sure that happens.
EG: When your guests ask you what to do in Provincetown, what are your favorite recommendations?
LF: Whalewatch. You have to do it—the whales are beyond special here. There’s just something magical about it.
DB: The art!
DB: And the ocean. We have the most beautiful National Seashore. Sometimes I stand at the top of a dune and I can’t hear anything but the wind. But I say, “Somewhere in the world, it’s rush hour.” We tell people to take magnificent walk through dunes and forest.
LF: Here’s the other thing--you don’t need a car in Provincetown. Get a bike! When staying where we are in the Gallery District, we tell them park your car. The only thing you’ll need it for to get to the National Seashore if you don’t like to bike.
DB: If they don’t want to go to the ocean, we have a private access to the bay beach for guests right down the block. We give guests beach umbrellas, chairs, and towels. Because we’re in the Gallery District, we have some of the finest Provincetown restaurants like The Mews and Devon’s. There are some great galleries. Walk five minutes in the other direction, and you’ll be at The Provincetown Theater. At the end of the night, you get to return to the neighborhood, not a commercial center.
EG: What else makes your B&B unique?
LF: You get to come home at the end of the day! Also, because Doreen is a professional photographer, guests very often ask her to take them on photo shoots. It’s a really wonderful thing we can offer, since we already have an intimate relationship with guests. I also do video work. It’s just another special thing that happens for us. We also do small weddings and family events at the inn. There’s something really magical about that.
By Emily Starbuck Crone