|By Maria Zate, Santa Barbara News-Press, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 22, 2004 - In 1956, Pamela and David Webber and their young daughter, Jeanette, left their home in Plymouth, England, for a new life in the United States. As they crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth II, they had no idea what they would do for work, but they were certain of where they would make their new home: Santa Barbara.
David had fond memories of the city on the Pacific Coast since visiting during World War II, when he worked for the British consulate. He decided that he would return with his family someday to live.
"He thought it was the most beautiful place in the world," his wife recalled.
Upon arriving, Pamela and David quickly found work and a place to stay.
They checked into La Hacienda Motel (now called the Hacienda Motel) on upper State Street, where the owner was looking for a new manager. Pamela was hired, and David found work as the front desk manager at the nearby Mountain View motel.
Their experiences as hotel managers would lead them to lifelong careers and a family business. Over the next 40 years, the Webbers built a hotel of their own and acquired four more properties to establish the Santa Barbara Hotel Group.
Their decades of devotion to the local hotel and tourism industry recently earned them a "Tourism Star" award from the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.
"The reason we got into the hotel business in the first place was so we would have somewhere to stay. We didn't know that we wanted to run a hotel.
But we were prepared to do anything to make a living here," said Pamela, who was 24 when she emigrated.
In the next 40 years, the Webbers not only succeeded in making a living, but they have helped others do the same. Today, the Santa Barbara Hotel Group employs close to 200 people, many of them longtime staff members, at its five properties -- Best Western Pepper Tree Inn, Best Western Encina Lodge & Suites, Brisas del Mar Inn at the Beach (formerly called Tropicana Inn), The Inn by the Harbor and Colonial Beach Inn. Together, the hotels host nearly 290,000 visitors each year. The 367 hotel rooms as a group average about 80 percent occupancy.
Operating a hotel has become much more complicated since the 1950s, Pamela and Jeanette explained.
"When I first came to work at La Hacienda, they didn't even keep any records of who was staying in the rooms," said Pamela. She had no experience working in the lodging industry when she took the job. She didn't even know how to operate the motel's switchboard, which back then only served 12 rooms.
"Things were really different back then," she added. "In the '50s, we used to leave the room keys in an envelope hanging on the door. We never asked for identification because there were no credit cards back then. Everyone paid in cash."
Room rates at La Hacienda were $5 a night. Down the street, a competing motel charged $4.50 a night, Pamela said. Very few people made reservations in advance.
To help La Hacienda stand out from the competition, Pamela came up with some creative marketing.
"We'd put luggage out in front of the motel and turn lights on in all the rooms to make it look like there were lots of guests staying here," she explained.
After six years of working at several motels in town, the Webbers decided it was time to have a business of their own.
In 1963, David formed a partnership with two other investors to build a 68-room hotel, the Pepper Tree, at the far edge of upper State Street. The hotel was named after the pepper trees that flourished in the mostly rural area dominated by orchards and a dairy farm.
Across the street from the hotel, there used to be a lemon grove where the noise of wind machines warming the trees on cold nights often kept the Webber family and their guests awake.
Jeanette recalled another of her mother's creative marketing efforts, one used during the busy Fiesta season.
"She used to put on this Fiesta dress; it had all these sequins sewed onto the skirt," Jeanette said, hardly able to contain her laughter. "Then she would stand out on the corner in front of the hotel and twirl around to draw attention to the hotel."
"It worked," said Pamela, joining her daughter in a good laugh.
Pamela's other ideas served not only the Pepper Tree but Santa Barbara's entire tourism industry. She established Santa Barbara's "Scenic Drive" in the early 1970s.
Pamela and Jeanette have taken leadership roles in helping preserve Santa Barbara's environment. Among their more recent accomplishments, Jeanette spearheaded the Measure B campaign in 2000 to raise the bed tax to create a fund to improve the quality of Santa Barbara's creeks and ocean water.
Pamela established a hotel recycling program that is in effect at 10 properties in Santa Barbara.
Having spent her childhood living in hotels, Jeanette said that pursuing a hotel career was the last thing on her mind when she left Santa Barbara to attend St. Mary's College in Los Angeles.
She came back to go to UCSB, choosing to study veterinary medicine and psychology.
When she returned to town in 1976 at the age of 24, she worked at the Pepper Tree "to help her parents.
"I just ended up staying with it," she added. By 28, she was the hotel manager.
In 1968, the Webbers bought the Best Western Encina Lodge on Bath Street, which originally had 40 units but expanded right along with the neighboring hospital.
By the 1990s, Jeanette and her brother Phillip decided they would form a partnership to start hotel acquisitions of their own. They bought the Tropicana Inn and the Inn by the Harbor in 1993 and the Colonial Beach hotel in 1996.
In 1997, David passed away.
What keeps the Webber family passionate about serving guests, even after more than four decades in the industry?
"Nine out of 10 times, you are working with people who are on vacation. So they are looking to have fun," Jeanette said. "Our job is to help people enjoy their vacations, which tend to be limited to two to three weeks a year. That time is very valuable, and they want to spend it wisely. We love to help them do that."
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