Hot on the trail

January 20, 2017

Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer

Barnard House B&B (Image: Cathy Kentzel)

When Cathy and Paul Kentzel lost their jobs and faced a job market teeming with younger, more educated competitors, the Pittsburgh couple struck out on a new path—literally. The Kentzels were familiar with Emlenton, Pennsylvania, one of the towns along the the Erie-to-Pittsburgh (EPT) Trail. That’s where they staked their new claim, opening Barnard House B&B across the street from a 62-mile segment of the EPT. When the trail is complete, Barnard House will offer guests access to the all 270 miles and a connection to the Great Allegheny Passage.

Trails are inspiring small-scale entrepreneurs like the Kentzels to set up shop for good reason: surveys of multi-use trails all over the country show that among all visitors, bike riders are most likely to stay overnight and to stay longer, making them the biggest spenders among trail users. Longer trails attract longer stays.

The Kentzels were convinced of the trail’s value early on, and after talking with other trail town business owners they scraped their original business plan. “I rewrote it to focus totally on the demographic of the trail user,” Cathy Kentzel says. They zeroed in on baby boomers with bicycles. Their research also told the Kentzels that their customers like to go local, so they max out on local sourcing, buying mostly from small businesses in a 25-mile radius. Today, the Kentzels can happily inform their guests, ninety percent of whom are cyclists, which area butcher or farmer’s market their breakfast comes from. “Instead of stagnation, the trail is bringing recreation and tourists,” she says. “I feel confident or I wouldn’t have invested.”

The tuning shed at Cadence Lodge

Even in established tourist destinations, trails are inspiring new operators. Shelley Powers and Don Biggs spent many a weekend mountain biking and skiing the Adirondack recreational hub of Wilmington, New York. So the town was a natural choice when the couple started looking for what Biggs describes as “that Plan B when we were ready to be done with our ‘real jobs’.” The expansion of mountain biking in the area was a key element in their calculation.

In 2015, the couple found a 1950s roadside motel in need of some TLC and today, their Plan B is shaping up. They’ve kept the renovations true to the motel’s original mid-century aesthetic, but with updates that include a new name, Cadence Lodge, and bike-friendly features like a bike washing station. Early returns on their investment are better than anticipated, and Cadence attracts skiers, mountain bikers and leaf-peeping fall hikers alike. “We thought it made good business sense. We wanted to be part of that.”

The walk just across the canal from the brewery. (Image: Barry Cruver)

Established businesses also learn to capture opportunity from trail expansions and improvements. When Frank Potoczak developed an old used auto dealership into a walk-up restaurant that would later become the Red Castle Brewery, the property’s proximity to the 165-mile Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) did not figure much into his plans. But in 2014 a new trailhead went in near the Lehighton, Pennsylvania brewery. “We started to see more traffic: people would park their cars, ride their bikes on the trail, and ride back,” Potoczak says. A few weeks ago a new ramp meant to make an adjacent canal crossing easier on trail visitors opened up, sending riders right through the brewery parking lot. Visitors may well appreciate a local beer and his grandfather’s kielbasa after a long day’s ride on the D&L.

Potoczak sees plenty of opportunity for other small businesses to capitalize on D&L traffic. His as-yet unrealized vision: a series of upcycled shipping containers along the canal that would house seasonal businesses that cater to trail visitors. “I honestly believe anybody who has a little bit of business knowledge should be doing that,” he says. “This is a huge opportunity.”


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