- Associated Press - Thursday, September 30, 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. | A West Virginia innkeeper who started letting military families stay free for Veterans Day in 2008 has recruited 400 inns across the U.S. and Canada as part of an initiative to offer free rooms this fall.

B&Bs for Vets is a way to thank active and retired military members for their service and to raise awareness of the bed-and-breakfast industry, said Kathleen Panek, who runs the Gillum House in Shinnston.

“People don’t understand that a bed-and-breakfast is about the warm and fuzzy feeling the innkeeper gets and a good experience for the guests,” she said. “Because we sure aren’t in it for the money.”

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 400 independently owned inns, including five in Canada, had signed on to offer free rooms Nov. 10, the night before Veterans Day. Most of the establishments are small: The average size of a bed-and-breakfast in the U.S. is five or six rooms, according to an industry group. Some participants can spare just a single room, while the Colonial Inn in Smithville, N.J., is offering 20 of its 24.

A valid military or Veterans Affairs ID is required for each reservation.

“I only ask for one room because, let’s face it: It’s an expense, a loss of revenue, and we’re not looking to bankrupt anybody,” said Mrs. Panek, a 64-year-old Brooke County native who opened the Gillum House in 1996 after leaving a data processing job in Illinois.

Mrs. Panek’s first Veterans Day guest was a young Navy officer visiting in-laws in Fairmont. Last year, she hosted a National Guardsman and his wife, and the West Virginia B&B Association embraced her idea. Ten inns made a total of 23 rooms available.

In January, Mrs. Panek went to a conference of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. A speaker asked the crowd why more people don’t visit B&Bs.

“‘Never thought of it.’ That was the answer,” Mrs. Panek said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to ever have that be said again.’”

Mrs. Panek, whose grandson in the Navy is serving in Afghanistan, decided her personal expression of gratitude also could be good for business.

“But the main object is to say thank you to the veterans,” she said.

Jay Karen, president and chief executive of the New Jersey-based association for independent, mostly small inns, said a 2009 survey with TripAdvisor.com showed that more than 50 percent of travelers said it had never crossed their minds to stay at a B&B, and the industry is now trying a variety of approaches to raise its profile.

But Mrs. Panek’s idea, which predates the survey, came from “the goodness of her heart,” he said.

“The germination of this didn’t come as a way to get more exposure for the industry. That may be a wonderful byproduct, but it wasn’t the reason,” he said.

It’s easy for a chain hotel — where properties often have more than 100 rooms — to offer free accommodations for veterans, Mr. Karen said, but for a tiny inn, “when you’re giving up a room, it’s a huge commitment.”

Some major hotel chains, including Marriott, Choice, Hilton and Best Western, offer discounted rates for military personnel year-round, but the American Hotel & Lodging Association said it doesn’t track discount or free-night programs.

Many of the participating innkeepers are former service members, including 20-year Army veteran Jess Beaty, who is making two rooms available at the 5 Continents Bed and Breakfast in New Orleans.

“I commanded a unit three times, and I just feel very strongly we should take care of the troops,” said Mr. Beaty, who offers discounts to veterans year-round.

Walt and Jean Hylander, who own Rosswood Plantation in Lorman, Miss., have taken Mrs. Panek’s idea a step further, providing free accommodations in their four-room inn to active service members year-round.

Mr. Hylander is a West Point graduate who spent 29 years in the Army and earned a Silver Star for his service during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

“I know about the military life. I appreciate the soldiers, and I also appreciate the military wives and children. They make sacrifices, too,” Mrs. Hylander said.

“I love the Army, and when you’re in the military, they really are like family,” she said.

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