Interview with Kendra Reed
March 23, 2018
In February I talked with Kendra Reed, the owner of two historic hospitality properties in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Below is the substance of our conversation, which covers topics of interest to current and prospective Hospitality Management students.
Dr. Travers: Hello, Kendra, and welcome to our Blog! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions today. To start out please tell us—what are the hospitality businesses you own in Vicksburg and how long have you owned them?
Kendra: My husband and I own two businesses in Vicksburg—McRaven Tour Home and a bed and breakfast called “Belle of the Bends.” We purchased McRaven in 2015 and Belle in 2017.
Dr. Travers: Briefly, what is the history of Vicksburg, and how do your businesses tie in with history, travel, and tourism in the area?
Kendra: Vicksburg is on the Mississippi River and that river was, and still is, the lifeblood for commerce. Goods such as cotton and sugar were shipped from St. Louis to New Orleans by the river. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg the “key to the South,” as it strategically gave the South a stronghold for everything from supplies to communications. McRaven was built in 1797 and was used as a Confederate field camp and hospital during the seven-week siege of Vicksburg. Belle of the Bends was built in 1876 after the war. Both mansions were there when the river diverted itself away from Vicksburg, which nearly ruined the town. The paddleboat that led the celebration of the new Yazoo Diversion Canal, bringing access to the river back to Vicksburg, was “Belle of the Bends.”
Both houses have an interesting story to tell. They are destination locations and attract visitors to Vicksburg. We work well with the Visitors Centers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Vicksburg museums, as well as other B&B to offer a wonderful weekend package.
Dr. Travers: What prompted you to buy a bed and breakfast? What prompted you to own and operate a haunted house?
Kendra: My husband and I would travel around Mississippi and see historic places like Windsor Ruins, the Rodney church, Prospect Hill and other mansions that have been lost to man, nature or time. We bought McRaven to save it. It was my husband’s favorite tour home years ago and it had been sitting vacant for 8 years. If we didn’t save it, we feared no one else would. McRaven has a fascinating history, but it’s the haunting of it that has recently made national exposure.
Belle of the Bends was already a working bed and breakfast. We stayed there last Valentine’s Day and fell in love with its story, too. It provides us a place to stay when we’re working on McRaven, but it also allows us to share our passion for Vicksburg and its history.
Dr. Travers: To what extent are you involved in the day-to-day management of these businesses?
Kendra: We are blessed to have two very knowledgeable people who run the day-to-day operations of both businesses. Jessie is a wonderful innkeeper and cook. She brings a lot of hotel experience to Belle. Jai is a wonderful manager and helps hire and train staff to our high standards. We talk frequently and visit as often as we can.
Dr. Travers: For Belle of the Bends, what size facility is it, and how many guests are you able to accommodate?
Kendra: Belle of the Bends is a 6500 square foot house with 4 guest rooms. We can accommodate up to ten guests.
Dr. Travers: What can you tell us about the layout of Belle of the Bends—the décor, furnishings, or ambiance? Your website mentions a very old Crape Myrtle in the garden.
Kendra: Belle of the Bends is a three-story, Italianate mansion with many antiques original to the home. We are currently refreshing the décor to add a little more steamboat nautical to the house and stay true to the house’s namesake. The columns out front mimic a paddleboat and we want to give people a very Southern elegant experience that’s uniquely Vicksburg. The gardens are beautiful and add to the ambiance. As you mentioned, there is a 160-plus-year-old Crape Myrtle on the grounds that dates back to the days of the Cedar Grove gardens. Guests love to sit on our porch swings, look at the garden and watch the river. It’s very peaceful.
Dr. Travers: Can you describe the layout, décor, furnishings, or ambiance of the McRaven House? Is McRaven in its original condition or did you need to renovate? It has been said that McRaven is the most haunted house in Mississippi and the third most haunted house in the United States!
Kendra: McRaven is the oldest standing structure in Warren County and is unlike any other mansion you’ll see. To offer perspective, McRaven was built before Mississippi was a state and while George Washington was still president. The first part of the house was built in 1797 in a rustic frontier style. When I say rustic—the plaster is made of horsehair, buttermilk and blueberries. The next section of the house was built in the Empire style in 1836. The last section was built in 1849 in Greek Revival. The grandeur of the 1849 parlor is amazing and is known as the best example of Greek Revival architecture in Vicksburg. We are thankful no one remodeled the older sections when they built on. National Geographic once called it the “Time Capsule of the South” and it really is a time capsule.
McRaven has survived its share of tragedy, murder and death. At night, we offer Haunted Tours to share with our guests the stories of the people who died there and how they haunt the house. We have so many stories related to the house that I think that’s why television personality Walt Grayson calls it “Mississippi’s most haunted house.” Almost every book about hauntings in Mississippi includes a story about McRaven.
We bought it in very good condition. We had to repair a few leaks and do some restoration, but we wanted to keep it true to its story. All the museum quality antiques, many original to the home, were left untouched. Although the house had been vacant for nearly a decade, no one stole the silver or valuable antiques because of the long history of hauntings of the house. The first written story about the haunting of McRaven is from 1869. Many things since then have led to its reputation.
Dr. Travers: What is the most unusual occurrence you or your guests have experienced at McRaven? You had some paranormal researchers who visited the property. What did they find out
Kendra: There are so many unusual things that have happened at McRaven that it’s hard to pick just one occurrence. Doors lock, furniture and items are moved or disappear, disembodied voices are heard and people are touched. Our guests often have a very personal connection with a particular spirit or area of McRaven. One of the most unusual occurrences was a two-year old who walked holding the hand of one of our ghosts, and even played peek-a-boo with her behind her mother’s back. Everyone else on tour watched the little girl in amazement as she interacted with no one.
We have had many paranormal researchers investigate the property. McRaven’s spirits have always lived up to their reputation with our visiting investigators. Thankfully, no one has claimed to come in contact with demons or demonic activity.
Dr. Travers: I know you serve breakfast at Belle of the Bends. What are some of the important considerations when serving food and beverages to your guests?
Kendra: Clean and fresh. Our reputation is everything. We want people to create a memory, not just eat another meal. Presentation is important, too. Breakfast has to look good, as well as taste good. For example, we’ve maintained the tradition of using the owner’s wedding china to make guests feel special.
Dr. Travers: What are some of your menu items? Does the menu vary or does it stay the same? How do you handle guest dietary restrictions or food allergies?
Kendra: Jessie makes a wonderful home-style country breakfast. Eggs and breakfast meat are always on the menu, but what accompanies it can vary. When guests arrive she chats with them to understand their likes/dislikes and food allergies. We’ve noticed that European guests don’t care for grits, but American’s expect it in Vicksburg.
Dr. Travers: How many people do you employ at each property? What are their positions?
Kendra: Jessie is our sole innkeeper at Belle of the Bends. She books the reservations, cleans the house, shops for groceries, cooks breakfast and greets our guests. She may get help with laundry when the house is full.
McRaven has one general manager, Jai, and about 9 part-time tour guides. Jai hires, trains, and schedules the staff. She promotes McRaven in the community, and recruits school and group visits. She manages overall maintenance and coordinates special events. The tour guides greet guests, process payments, guide the tour, answer questions, and clean the house when not on tour.
Dr. Travers: What technology do you use? For instance, you might discuss your point of sale or property management system, reservations, customer relationship management, audio and visual, security, or inventory control, if applicable.
Kendra: Both properties accept credit cards. McRaven uses Square, which is wonderful for creating reports and communicating daily transactions. Both properties use online booking, although Belle of the Bends has a more robust reservation system called Rezovations, which includes Trip Advisor, BedandBreakfast.com, Expedia and a few others. These days an iPad or notebook work well, as guests want a quick, easy transaction and our staff need a simple, easy-to-use system. Both houses use security systems, although the ghosts often drain the batteries at McRaven.
Dr. Travers: To what extent do you use social media to market these businesses?
Kendra: We primarily use Facebook and Twitter to market McRaven. We just bought Belle of the Bends, so we are working on that now, but we plan to market it in a similar fashion. Recently, a virtual reality VR film was made on McRaven so we are looking forward to using it in the near future.
Dr. Travers: What does quality customer service mean to you?
Kendra: Quality customer service comes from consistency. No matter when you visit us or which tour guide you get, you feel as though you received a great value for the price.
Dr. Travers: How do you handle negative customer reviews?
Kendra: We review every one and see it as a learning experience. Our guests help keep us honest. We certainly can and do make mistakes, and we hope people give us the chance to make it right before posting online. We’ve learned to accept the feedback, thank the writer for the perspective, and do what we can to correct our shortcomings.
Dr. Travers: What is the most rewarding aspect for you as the owner of these two businesses?
Kendra: Giving people a memorable experience. We hope our edutainment inspires people to learn more, come back, or share their experience.
Dr. Travers: What is the most challenging aspect for you as the owner of these two businesses?
Kendra: Time management. If you hire the right people and let them do their job, you save yourself a lot of trouble, but it can still be a challenge to get everything done.
Dr. Travers: What advice do you have for students who want to own or operate an historic bed and breakfast?
Kendra: Owning a bed and breakfast is a 24 hour/7 days a week business. Every time the phone rings it is potential business and you should answer it. If you love people, love cooking for them, and love cleaning up after them it will hardly seem like work at all. Choose a property that has a good location with activities for your guests to enjoy. If it’s historic, then learn its history and make it fun.
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Vicksburg National Cemetery History
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