1990’s Hospitality: An Insight to the Dynamic of Family-run Business

Wednesday, June 05, 2024. 10:23pm
1990's Hospitality: An Insight to the Dynamic of Family-run Business
The Inn at Olde New Berlin

An Insight to the Dynamic of Family-run Business

Computers and Canopy Beds: American Reflections on 1990s Hospitality

Walking in Dublin recently, I overheard a tourist holding a phone conversation with the manager of a local hotel. He was complaining about the hotel’s poor service.

I hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but the man’s voice had been loud enough to reach any angels who might have been circling around the belltower of nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I also hadn’t intended to take sides, but I couldn’t help feeling compassion for the manager on the other end of the line.

It wasn’t surprising really, considering my background.

I’d grown up in an American family that loved to travel. My mother and stepfather had loved it so much that eventually they’d gotten into the business themselves. I was fourteen when they purchased the Victorian house across the alley from our family’s home and turned it into a five-bedroom country inn and a fifty-seat fine dining restaurant. Acquiring the house next door, they transformed it into offices and a gift shop. A third house was renovated to accommodate six additional bedrooms.

In the end, the operation encompassed a full-service restaurant and eleven lodging rooms. My parents joined the Independent Innkeepers’ Association and Select Registry, an organisation dedicated to verifying the high standards of ‘craft lodging’ properties.

The inn’s opening was a huge endeavour in our rural Pennsylvania town of eight hundred people. Friends and community members pitched in to help strip wallpaper and assemble canopy beds. Surrounded by undulating farmland, we were only a four-hour drive from New York City. Many of our guests were drawn to our neck of the woods by several nearby universities and by the enduring romantic allure of a visit to Amish and Mennonite country. One guest came to us from New York City every Thursday simply for our duck entrée. Our waitstaff quickly learned to serve his coffee from the lefthand side. It was the man’s preference, a city-dweller’s trick he’d learned to help him avoid drinking from the side of the cup that might have lipstick stains.

My parents had a knack for making people feel at home, and it wasn’t unusual to see them holding unhurried conversations with their guests even while their mental to-do lists grew longer by the minute. ‘We called it doing the duck,’ said my mother when I asked my parents to share some of their memories recently. ‘We tried to stay cool and calm on the surface while paddling like hell underneath.’

1990's Hospitality: An Insight to the Dynamic of Family-run Business

There were always reservations to take, restaurant checks to tally, and food orders to place. There were employees to schedule, newspaper advertisements to submit, and rooms to clean.

At the time, my parents had little administrative support from technology. They opened the inn in 1992, the decade before the internet became indispensable and mobile phones became ubiquitous. The bulk of their business was conducted by telephone. To keep track of lodging and dining reservations, my mother established a system of hefty three-ring binders that contained handwritten forms she inserted into plastic sleeves.

It wasn’t until my parents attended an innkeeping convention in Texas a few years later that they became aware of the internet’s potential for helping them streamline their operations.

‘We got up and running with email pretty quickly after that,’ says my stepfather. ‘It made a world of difference, because we were really struggling to figure out how to attract visitors from more urban places like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Prior to that, we’d been advertising in the travel pages of their newspapers. Now we could spend less on advertising but become more targeted in our approach. We began responding to guests’ enquiries via email. All these online booking companies began to appear.’

As they started incorporating the internet into their operations, my parents’ marketing strategy became more visual. They invested in high-quality photography, not just of the lodging rooms but also of our restaurant’s food and wine. They connected with a cookbook writer. When her next publication appeared online, it featured several of the inn’s signature recipes and garnered attention from a more ‘foodie’ crowd.

These technological changes brought a welcome increase in profitability. They also brought new expectations on the part of the guests. Originally devoid of phones and televisions, the inn’s lodging rooms were eventually outfitted with both. In keeping with non-technology trends, my parents upped their linen game and increased the thread count on the bedsheets. They developed allergen-free recipes and began offering spa services in the old carriage house behind the inn.

In the meantime, human nature remained essentially the same. Even as more people wound their way through Pennsylvania Dutch country to find us, my parents persisted in their initial impulse to seek genuine connection with each guest who walked through their doors. Looking back, they still maintain that that was the joy of it as well as the way through it whenever they encountered a challenging situation or guest. Which was how, when a reservation for a party of ten failed to be recorded on the restaurant’s books, those guests ended up being served not in the inn’s restaurant but across the alley instead, around the dining room table of my own childhood home. My mother and several servers ferried their food across the backyard.

‘We had to be honest with them about our mistake,’ said my mother. ‘In the end, they enjoyed it so much that they said they hoped we’d lose their reservation the next time, too.’

1990's Hospitality: An Insight to the Dynamic of Family-run Business

It’s also how resentment was erased one Christmas Day when a young couple who’d stayed overnight were late—by a lot, not a little—for breakfast. Our own family Christmas was on hold until they could be served. When the guests finally appeared, my parents learned that the young man was in the military. He only had thirty-six hours of leave. As a teenager, I was a little slower than my parents to forgive their delay, but even I could acknowledge the compliment the couple had paid us in their choice to spend those short, sacred hours at our inn.

My parents sold the inn in 2006. Eighteen years later, they’re still in touch with former guests and staff members.

‘It’s a different world now,’ says my stepfather. ‘Back in the 90s there were all these innkeepers buying old houses and filling them with antiques. They were creating unique destinations. They had a good time, and the tourists had a good time. Then a new breed of innkeeper came along, and they thought it was all about the computer. They thought you didn’t have to have a connection with the guests if you had a connection with the computer.’

That was when the bed-and-breakfast and innkeeping craze started to lose its romance, he says. But my parents agree that it’s been coming back. They’ve been doing their own travelling again in recent years, including to niche hotels in Ireland. They’ve become repeat guests at a few favourite properties.

It’s the ones that have learned how to balance technology with true hospitality that repeatedly attract them, the ones where computers run usefully in the background and stay there. Where it’s people who still stand out in front, guardians at the door of a warm welcome.

By Elizabeth Oxley | American journalist living in Ireland

Share this:

Explore topics: