How a former Fannie Mae VP Avoids Burnout at Her B&B

The Hive
Collective wisdom.
May 22 2013 7:00 AM

The Inn of the Second-Act Happiness

Operating a bed and breakfast is a common starting-over fantasy.

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A few months after the reopening, Goldberg’s niece suggested that a friend looking for a wedding venue should hold it at the Briar Patch. It was a success, and Goldberg concluded that in addition to hoping for random guests to show up on weekends for quiche, she should make weddings the bread and butter of her bed and breakfast. For the first few years, the celebrations were held on the lawn or in a tent. But making weddings a year-round enterprise required permanent facilities. So she and her husband decided to transform a 19th-century outbuilding with a dirt floor, last used as a tractor shed, into an event space.

All told, the improvements have cost about $1 million. Today the old tractor shed, now known as the Fox Den, can hold 200 guests. Goldberg proudly points out the reclaimed cherry wood floors, the beamed ceiling, and the two giant Swarovski crystal chandeliers. It’s become a destination for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, fundraisers, and business meetings. But the process of renovating the building was one of the few times Goldberg had second thoughts about her decision to embark upon a second career. Getting approval for her plans was a three-year ordeal involving lawsuits, tangles with local government agencies, and oppositional neighbors.

Goldberg persevered, and the Briar Patch now hosts around 50 weddings a year—they are booked through November. Wedding parties take over the entire property for three days, with the Friday through Sunday shift costing about $10,000, while Sunday afternoon through Tuesdays runs about $5,000. Goldberg has concluded that today’s young people, who are often already living together when they tie the knot, frequently do so to get on with starting families. Her proof is the small population explosion following Briar Patch weddings. As if to prove the case, Goldberg’s 29-year-old daughter Tammy, who was married at the Briar Patch, is visiting midweek with her toddler and infant. Many of the couples who exchanged vows at the Briar Patch later return with their offspring, where they romp as Goldberg once did with her young children.

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Goldberg has no plans for retirement and hopes to run the place for the next decade. She says mastering new skills, from coming up with gluten-free and vegan breakfasts, to learning Internet marketing skills (“which is where it’s at for B&Bs,” she says), to hosting big events is keeping her mind supple. She recommends that people seeking a second career find something that combines a chance to learn something new with expertise established over a lifetime.

She says that being an innkeeper has required her to approach her day in a radically different way from her former corporate self. She used to be the kind of person who would focus on a single task and make sure it was done perfectly. That’s not how it goes at a B&B. As we talk, her handyman appears holding a bent piece of circular metal—the lawn mower’s out of commission. This is a problem, since the grounds have to be ready for the weekend nuptials. Goldberg calmly suggests that the manager should contact a neighbor who’s done work at the Briar Patch to see if he can handle the mowing duties. Over the course of our discussion, she breaks away to check in new guests, take a call for reservations, find a three-pronged plug for one guest, attend to the Internet woes of another, and answer questions from her 2-year old granddaughter.

We move to her long front porch, and she shows some of the Civil War artifacts that have been dug up on her property by people who’ve asked permission to explore with metal detectors: bullets, buttons, buckles, coins. She says she’s proud that she has rescued an historic property that once seemed destined to fall into ruin. She recalls that when she told her colleagues at Fannie Mae what she was planning to do, most were surprised. “Some even thought I was crazy. Many of them have now sat many an hour on this porch. They’re still lawyers, they’re still working.” She gestures to the rolling green hills, the grounds she’s planted with 10,000 bulbs, the swimming pool, the hot tub, the horses grazing out back. “Maybe they envy me.”

This month, Slate is sharing stories of people who started over—like budget wonk Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa—in our "Second Acts" Hive. We want to hear your tales, too. Please go here to submit your story about starting over.

Correction, May 22, 2013: This article originally misspelled Virginia's Loudoun County.

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