We are having a conversation between Mark Baratto and Carol Wightman
INTRO ~ Welcome to the Backyards of Key West Podcast with your host Mark Baratto.
MARK: So, welcome to the Backyards of Key West Podcast, my name is Mark Baratto, and I have a special guest today. And she is….
CAROL: Carol Wightman.
MARK: Carol Wightman, yes, you may have heard of her if you’ve ever stayed at the Marquesa Hotel, you definitely heard of her. I don’t know, maybe… you gave me a look. Would they not have, are you behind the scenes?
CAROL: Yes, sometimes.
MARK: Okay, so only if you’ve gotten into a lot of trouble, then maybe you would have heard…
CAROL: No, then you’d meet Bob Arman the G.M.
MARK: Ahhhh, then he would show you the door really quickly.
CAROL: Yeah, I don’t think that has happened in a very long time.
MARK: That’s good, yeah. There was a couple of questions I was going to ask, but we can get into that. Any celebrities that have stayed here? Any trouble makers? You can use aliases if you need to about the trouble makers. What’s the wildest thing that has happened at this hotel?
CAROL: Well, let’s see one thing comes to mind. A guy during Fantasy Fest.
MARK: I can imagine, yes.
CAROL: He came in, and he was standing on the corner and had on a G-string that had, um what’s the sticky stuff called?
MARK: Like a double-sided tape? Or like, okay.
CAROL: Yes. And he was standing right on the corner, nothing else except this G-string, he whips it off, standing there totally naked and of course, the police car comes around the corner and there he was. So, you know, like five minutes later his wife comes in, and says, “Can you cash a check?” She had to go bond him out of jail.
MARK: Oh my God. So, he got nude and…
CAROL: And, he got arrested.
MARK: You wouldn’t expect it. His wife was prepared for something like this.
CAROL: No, we’ve had people having an affair and the wife show up. And, stand out by the pool and scream.
MARK: So, are those like locals that are staying here?
CAROL: No. No. They are people, actually it turns out a friend of mine’s husband was here having an affair. I didn’t know it. Because I didn’t know him, I only knew her, but you know.
MARK: That’s like kinda, ballsy.
CAROL: She did a *99 on the phone and it rang back and she was like, “Oh no.”
MARK: How do you think you’re going to get away with that, knowing that you are the one running this hotel and it’s your friend’s husband who’s having an affair.
CAROL: Thankfully, I had no knowledge of it. Not until many, many years later did she tell me.
MARK: All right, and celebrities staying here?
CAROL: We’ve had a lot.
MARK: Yeah, I’ve seen the pictures on the wall as I was walking in.
CAROL: Actually, those aren’t people who have stayed here.
MARK: Oh, okay.
CAROL: That’s a friend named Brian Smith and his wife, Fazia Ali and they are photographers and they do, they did a book about what art means to the individual artist. And they wrote, and Brian being the photographer, he photographed all of their portraits.
MARK: Wow, wonderful. So, then you’re displaying that as art. That’s great.
MARK: And that’s great, and can patrons purchase them?
CAROL: Yeah. You can buy it on the internet.
MARK: But not the ones hanging there, though.
CAROL: No, that’s actually Brian and Fazia’s
MARK: Like original stuff, wow. So cool. I’m walking in and I’m like wow, did all these celebrities stay here? I’m going to get a lot of juicy information, but I’m sure others have right?
CAROL: They have, probably our best, really bit of luck, was the very first summer we opened, somebody like a scout came in and said, “they are filming a Bond movie and we need a place for some people to stay.” And being the first summer, we had opened in February, and this was in August. We said, okay, we’ll walk ‘em through some rooms and the next thing we know it was James Bond himself.
MARK: Roger Moore?
CAROL: No. It was actually…
MARK: The third one?
CAROL: It was License to Kill.
MARK: Yeah, sorry whatever your name is.
CAROL: Roger Dalton?
MARK: There’s Roger Moore, there’s Sean Connery, and then there’s that other guy.
CAROL: Tim Dalton.
MARK: No. I think that’s another director, but it’s okay. We are not, and I’m sure he’s not listening.
CAROL: And, the Bond girl, and a lot of the character actors.
CAROL: And they stayed here for a month, which was lovely.
CAROL: So, I think that was one of the things that put us on the map.
MARK: What year was that? Now that you said the first year that you opened?
CAROL: Yes, that was in 1988.
MARK: 1988. Can you give me some history on the hotel? Is it the same owners, or what’s?
CAROL: No, we bought it in 1987, and it was owned at that time by the Archdiocese of New York. And it was really being run as a flop house. One of the neighbors, the Haskins family, they left this to the one remaining daughter and she became a nun.
CAROL: And so, she left it to the Archdiocese, so when we purchased it, the Mother Superior, actually signed the Deed.
CAROL: Yeah, and that was in May of 1987. So, we had a very large crew here and you know we had to go through the architecture and all that, so it opened in February of 1988. But it was, it’s been a lot of different things. It started out as a family home, the Haskins family home, and then in about 1900 and I don’t know if times got tough, but they ended up renting out rooms on the different floors and made it into a boarding house.
CAROL: So, we’ve had a lot of people actually come in to say that they remember growing up here.
MARK: Really? Wow.
CAROL: And some locals even. Those families lived here for a time. So, it was run as a boarding house probably until about, I don’t know the 1990s – no, maybe 1970s. And then it really fell into disrepair. So, it was a big job, big job. You know, the kind of a job that you hire people in the morning and they quit mid-day.
MARK: And then you have to go look and hire new people.
CAROL: Yeah, and then hire new people
MARK: And the colors of the main house, was that from the beginning? When you?
CAROL: No. Actually, the architect, Tom Pope chose that color.
MARK: I love those colors, they are just, they pop blue.
CAROL: Yeah, there have been some copy cats since then.
CAROL: Yeah, but I think he did a nice job with it. It kind of set it apart from the others.
MARK: Like I mentioned when we first met, I mean, I posted this picture of this hotel on Instagram all the time and people just love it. I mean, it’s probably my highest-ranking picture on all of my posts because the colors are just the quintessential Key West pop color, Bahamian feel, it’s just beautiful.
CAROL: Uh, huh, thank you.
MARK: And recently, well not too recently, but recently done some add-ons to, right?
CAROL: We did, we bought about three or four years ago we bought the Pilot House. Which was a local guest house from Lynn Kephart and used those licenses and did a complete gut-job. We took out their old pool and put in a new pool, tore down their back building and then put in a new building, hurricane proof. And then renovated the front historic buildings, so that took about, God it seemed like forever, two years?
MARK: Yeah, I can imagine. Just putting in the pool could take two years over there.
CAROL: In Key West, yes sometimes. So, we opened two years ago and it has been, it really has been very well received. It’s a little bit different because it’s got things like microwaves and you can maybe stay a little longer. A lot of the guests do. But you know it’s got a little bit different feel. Craig Reynolds of the landscape architecture, so the backyard is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
MARK: Right. Yeah, he does amazing work.
CAROL: Yeah, he is, he’s great. You know it’s funny because we have people who come and they’ve stayed at the original Marquesa and they don’t want to switch. But now we have new guests and somebody just came back the other day and said, “No, no, we want to be across the street.”
CAROL: So, I’m not sure what the chemistry is? Cause I haven’t really stayed over there yet. To see how it feels different, but people say they really love it and they always want to be there.
MARK: Yeah, some people have that feeling of, you know, this is the most important experience for a lot of people is going on vacation. Like when I mentioned to Craig on our last podcast, is he’s not in the business of doing design work outside, he’s in the business of creating lasting memories. Especially when you go on vacation, sometimes it is the only one you do a year, sometimes it’s once a decade. But people like to spend money on their vacation because the memories last forever over a watch, or a car, or clothing, so if they had an incredible experience staying in the main house as opposed to over there, they want to do it again. Because they don’t want to mess with something that works, I guess.
CAROL: Yeah, I do. And I think when you create, and particularly with Craig, the way they create environments.
CAROL: And the environment is so important, it’s not just the room, it’s the pool area, it’s the plantings, the smells, and the lighting, those are all so key.
MARK: Those senses get invigorated so that you just have that memory ingrained. I remember amazing vacations with my family and they’ll never go away because of that. And then, a lot of times it’s that smell, like you said sometimes you smell flowers and it will remind you of that, or I don’t know, breakfast being cooked and it reminds you of certain things. Just like sauce boiling, reminds me of my Grandmothers house, and it always will because that food being made in the morning will always have that memory. When you have all those senses combined, it adds a lot of charm to it.
CAROL: Yeah it does. So…
MARK: I’m going to read something that Travel + Leisure says about the hotel, so let’s see what they have to say. They said:
“Serenity seeking guests will appreciate the old meets new style of the Marquesa Hotel located in Key West Old Town. The hotel is composed of four charming clapboard houses and centered around a lush garden and a pair of swimming pools. Located just a block away from Duval Street, the hotel is set far enough away from the main drag to ensure some quiet for its guests, yet close enough that all of the island city’s main attractions are within walking distance. It’s also home to a wonderful 50-seat restaurant, Café Marquesa, which is housed in its own 19th Century conch house.”
Tell me about the restaurant? I haven’t eaten there yet, and we drive by all the time and my wife and I are like, we got to go there and we looked at the menu and we are like, Oh My God this looks amazing.
CAROL: We have two new chefs along with a great team. They were imported from Charleston.
MARK: Oh, I love Charleston.
CAROL: Their names are Graham Dailey and Jon Mitchell and we have two other really talented guys, Luis and Maurizio. It’s American food but it really has a little bit of a subtle southern flair.
CAROL: I was just looking at a picture that Graham posted the other day and he had some, just these beautiful beautiful peaches that he had incorporated into a dish. So, it’s different all the time, it really is different. But it’s a sweet little space. It only has 50 seats and it’s about a six-person bar and it has stippled yellow walls and banquet seats and it feels like, the kinda place that if you want to dress up you can. But you don’t have to.
MARK: Right, Key West.
CAROL: And I think the service is, super, really a high-level of service, but it’s not stuffy. So, you know that’s important, I think. You don’t want to go to Key West and feel like you have to be in high-pressure situation.
MARK: They have to ask you your size cause they are gonna give you a jacket, as a man walking in there.
CAROL: Yeah, no.
MARK: And that’s another thing that’s great too, a lot of times hotel guests will be the ones mainly going to the hotel restaurant. But not in this case. I mean so many that we’ve talked to are locals and they are like, “Oh my God, when I want to go out and really have an incredible meal or if it’s a special occasion, I’m going there.”
CAROL: Uh, huh.
MARK: That’s a great job that you guys have done to bring in the locals as much as the tourists that want to eat there.
CAROL: The restaurant business is a tough business. We’ve had our ups and downs.
MARK: I bet.
CAROL: But right now, knock on wood, it is going really, really well. I’m very proud of that staff. The wait staff is amazing, very personable people, and really genuinely caring that people have a good meal and a good time.
MARK: Well, that’s what it’s about. You can feel that when you walk into a restaurant. The last thing that I want is to walk into a restaurant and talking to my wife, and someone is hovering over me, and the whole staff, the entire staff makes up the matrix of the restaurant working. And if one is off, it can mess the whole experience up, I mean two different couples have a different experience if it’s not all in unison. So, that’s why it’s such a difficult job. I mean and then the food, and everything.
CAROL: Well, and also just getting things. You know, everything has to be trucked in, which adds time, labor, so you have to really be on the lookout to make sure that things stay fresh, and are fresh when they come in so there’s somebody in the kitchen receiving it and checking it out and making sure that it’s good.
MARK: Yeah, fish is one thing, it’s easier to get, but those Georgia peaches like you’re talking about, there’s a lot easier choices to make.
CAROL: I said to them, “Is that peach dish still on the menu?” He said, “No, we took it off because the batch we got was mealy.” So, you know, it’s a game, I mean you’re having to really be on, every single day.
MARK: Yeah, for sure. Well enough about the hotel. I would like to learn, and my guests would like to learn more about you.
CAROL: Hmmm, okay.
MARK: Okay, so how long have you been in Key West?
CAROL: So, I moved here a couple of months before we opened. I got married to one of the partners and my two partners are really the key people in this equation because they were building contractors. Erik Deboer and Richard Manley, they were building contractors and they were in Key West. They had a construction company and they were the primo builders at the time, they had done a lot of work for Jerry Herman, and he had a lot of really beautiful houses, so they had also started doing some buying and selling on their own. But they also, the key was that they had done some guest houses and decided that, you know? Maybe we could do this?
CAROL: Yeah, so at the time.
MARK: That’s like saying, “Maybe I could get into the restaurant business.” I mean, it’s tough to jump in without…
CAROL: Yeah, and I was living in Miami, and I was working for Knight Ridder, which is a publishing company, but they had started an internet project and so I was working there. But I was also, on the weekends in MBA school, and when it came time to find a thesis, Erik and Richard, it was really Richard’s idea, he said, “Why don’t you ask Carol if she wants to come down and run this, if we decide to do it.” So, I wrote the thesis, got it accepted, the idea accepted by the professor, and ended up.
MARK: It was for the thesis; it was on the hotel business?
CAROL: It was on developing a small hotel in Key West. And really, a boutique hotel, because at that point, there really wasn’t anything with a restaurant, that was small, and really done to a high level. So, you know looking at things like bed tax money, what the room rates were at the time, and doing all the things business wise, we had to use the thesis as the business plan we submitted to the bank.
CAROL: And borrowed the money, and then it got real.
MARK: Yeah, real, real quick!
CAROL: I mean, Erik and Richard were really experts. They had been dealing with high-end clients for a long time.
MARK: But developing is different than running.
CAROL: It was.
MARK: I mean, they can fix something if it breaks, like real quick, but…
CAROL: Right? So, the two things were that I hired a guy who has actually come back to work here, who had worked in the hotel business for a long time. So, he taught us the financial part and the night audit and how to set-up a front office, and then we hired another guy who had just come out of a training program at the Ritz Carlton. And, he came on as a housekeeping manager, and he trained the current housekeeping manager who is still here, Ester. So, John and Ester and all these people along the way were really key. They trained me.
MARK: And then you had baptism by fire. By being here.
CAROL: Oh yes. I mean, I used to go home and fall asleep with my shoes on. I was so tired. But, and you know, I didn’t really know Key West so well, I had just moved here, so I was kinda learning the town at the same time. It worked out. So, we started out and we had 15 rooms. Then one day I’m walking, we had a little parking lot in the back of the property, and I’m walking to the parking lot and there is the guy who runs the guest houses right behind us. And he said, “Hey, did you hear that Walt has put it up for sale?” And I said, “Really? I thought that you guys were gonna come talk to us.” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m just the manager.” And we ended up buying the property a couple of days later and so then started out on an expansion, put up a big wall and did all the construction in the back and did more of an upgrade on the rooms.
CAROL: And it had a pool, so we just renovated that pool. So, we opened that part in 1994. And then decided, you know several years ago, that we were going to go ahead and expand, so now we have 44 rooms.
MARK: So, when Andrew was heading toward Florida, were you guys nervous at all during that time? I mean, it was projected to go north because it was from the north.
CAROL: Yes, well at the time, Erik and I were in New York City and Richard was here, and he called us in the middle of the night and said, “Hey, you better get down here. There’s a huge storm heading here.”
MARK: And you’re like, “That’s why we’re not going down there, what do you mean?”
CAROL: No, we actually got on a plane, changed our flights and got on 95 with people and everyone leaving going north. And we couldn’t get here. We ended up having to stay in Miami for about four or five days. As it turned out, Miami got hit.
MARK: Yeah, that was my first day, because I went to University of Miami, my parents and I flew down, we’re like all right, we gotta get outta here a hurricane is coming tomorrow. And then Hurricane Andrew hit the next day. It was pretty incredible.
MARK: And I was from New York, so I never experienced one. I think I had Hurricane Charlie in New York which was like 30 mph winds and it wasn’t even a hurricane. And then Andrew hit and it was like, whew, I never saw anything. But it was so concentrated, because the University is located in Coral Gables so they didn’t get hit as hard as Homestead did, but it was like a bowling ball just went right through the state so fast, it was incredible.
CAROL: We drove back, we finally did get a rental car and we drove back and one thing that makes me always cry was to see the caravans of power trucks. Because they are coming to the rescue, and they truly were. But to see some of the sights where you see eight to ten story hotels or motels off of 95 and they are just like tic-tac-toe boards. Nothing but drapes, all the furniture has been blown out.
MARK: Yeah, leveled.
CAROL: Yeah. Completely. I ended up spending it in Coral Gables, too. My sister asked me to watch her cat because she was in New York, too. And, I couldn’t find the cat. Well, the cat was the next morning was kinda stuck on the screen. And she used to send me postcards to say that Frederico was still in therapy.
MARK: I was going to say, “Frederico is in therapy, like constantly.”
CAROL: The rest of her life.
MARK: Like a fan blows and Frederico goes, “No!”
CAROL: That was an eye-opening experience. That was the worst. But then in 2005, here with the Hurricane Wilma. We were downtown and very sheltered from what happened to the rest of Key West with all the flooding. I remember calling my best friend and saying, “Are you okay?” And she was sobbing because six feet of water had come into her house.
MARK: Yeah. No.
CAROL: Yeah, and then Irma.
MARK: Yeah Irma scared us because we had not planned on moving down here yet and then we saw it coming and I’m like, oh my God, if this hits direct on Key West, this is not gonna be pretty. And then, I went to Orlando with some relatives and then it was like, well it can come toward Orlando. And I’m like, should we go, which direction should we go to outrun this thing? And there was no running, we are gonna hunker down up there, but then it veered right like it was going to do a direct hit with Miami. And I am like, if this storm does a direct hit with Miami Beach, it will level the whole beach. Because I think it’s like about 14 feet above sea level – the whole island. And it will just be under water with that power coming there. And a lot of those hotels are not built for that, even though they say they are, they are just like the lowest hotel I think would just be leveled. I’ve never seen a hotel go up so fast, so I don’t know what strings they may have pulled, and don’t be getting mad at me Loews. I don’t know it personally; I’m just stating what I saw.
CAROL: I’m staying there next week. So.
MARK: Well, it’s great for kids. If kids are going there too, it’s fun. Okay, so you must have come down to Key West to visit before living in Miami.
CAROL: I had only been here one time. No, twice. I came once with friends; well he had just started flying and I said I’d tag along. Which was kinda crazy, but we came down one day for an afternoon and then I spent two nights at the Casa Marina.
MARK: And then you’re like, okay we are buying this hotel, I am moving to Key West from Miami, were you like… what are we doing? You did the thesis, so you had your juices going there.
CAROL: Yeah, but that is different from really, and it’s a 24-hour business. That’s the thing. And also, doing a restaurant, so I…
MARK: So, there was no restaurant before?
CAROL: No, there was no restaurant, that was a bicycle shop.
MARK: So, you were going to do that too? At the same time?
CAROL: No, what happened is that we ended up hiring, leasing the restaurant out to two people. One who had been working at Louie’s Backyard named Norman Van Aiken and another guy named Pearl Perry. So, they took it over and did a really high-end restaurant called Mira. So, they actually leased the space.
MARK: Got it.
CAROL: But, unfortunately, it didn’t work out. They lasted about a year and a half. They had great reviews, but they couldn’t sustain it. They only had 38 seats, didn’t have a liquor license, they could only do beer and wine.
MARK: That’s tough in Key West.
CAROL: And, plus it was just a little too, a little too, umm, a little too sophisticated for that time.
MARK: I think for any time, because people – wealthy or not – they come down to Key West and they like the fact that they are not going to be judged on their wealth. Or, they have to dress a certain way, they realize, hey I can get rid of my fancy shoes and I can wear flip flops all the time and if I want to have good food and spend money, I can do that too. But it’s not like, wherever they are from, they have that super classy bourgeois restaurant, that they don’t want that same feel down here. They want the relaxed atmosphere if they want it. Right? So, like with your restaurant, you can come in there relaxed, or you can come in there dressed up, and you’re not going to get judged either way.
CAROL: Yeah. So, that was an interesting time in our development. Because we had been open a year and a half, we made it through the first season partly because of the Bond, but we still had some very slow times. Very slow times. Then the second summer, they opened for Memorial Day weekend and then they closed their doors. So, we were sitting with an empty restaurant space. So, we ended up hiring a consultant who came down, he was actually looking to dine again at Mira, and so when he realized it was closed, he sought out Erik. As it turns out, when Erik talked to him, he ended up being a consultant and he said, “You know, if you’re going to do anything, why not just call it Café Marquesa.”
MARK: Right, right.
CAROL: You know, instead of calling it a name or a person’s name.
MARK: Yeah, and that’s easy branding.
CAROL: Yeah. And, chefs do come and go, but hopefully these won’t. The guys that are here now.
MARK: Right, it’s not Jacques and they are like, “Where’s Jacque?” And you’re like, well, there’s no more Jacque.
CAROL: So, it sat empty for almost six months.
MARK: That must have hurt a little bit.
CAROL: It did.
MARK: Because the income from the rent from that, it must have helped.
CAROL: Yeah, and plus its just momentum. Nobody likes to have an empty space, but we did eventually reopen with a guy named Dennis O’Hara. I think we had a female chef and she showed up on the first night and in a tuxedo, prepared to cook, and we were like, “Wait, what are you doing?” Yeah, so she, it was just like…
MARK: I come from Paris, I must wear my suit!
CAROL: Right, and I mean it’s just some crazy stories, but there was a very good group in there that we hired and a lot of them are still really good friends. We have stayed in touch. We are actually going to have a reunion, I think.
MARK: Excellent. That’s awesome.
CAROL: A Café Marquesa reunion next year.
MARK: So, let me ask you a couple of questions, if you can or can’t answer that’s fine. Do you remember how long it took before, when you first started the hotel to become break-even? And then become profitable, like on a month-to-month basis?
CAROL: It took several years. I mean, you know, opening our initial mortgage was a million dollars. So, just to service the mortgage, it took many years, actually.
MARK: And was there other business ventures that the partners were involved in? That they were footing the bill for that? Or, was it more loans?
CAROL: No, Richard Manley and Erik Deboer started a lumber company in 1995, but that was really because the Strunk’s didn’t want to be in the lumber business anymore and Erik and Richard were their, I guess better customers. So, no. They still had their construction company though. Which was good.
MARK: So, that was helping to support. Okay.
CAROL: Yes. And, you know business was still good. And it was good to have them, if things broke?
MARK: For sure, or like when you have the expansion, you’re like, “Oh, we need a new pool.” And they are like, “Well, we can help with that.”
CAROL: Right. And, we did use them as the contractors for both.
MARK: They can also know about getting ripped off. That’s the main thing, they can say, look I know what this really costs and we’re going to do it like this.
CAROL: Yes, so you could say that I guess we did it at cost. Because we did have that inside knowledge, but having those complimentary businesses really did help. There were times when, particularly after a hurricane, when nobody wants to come to Key West. After Irma, the business was off for almost a year.
CAROL: But the lumber yard was really busy.
MARK: Of course, all the building.
CAROL: Yeah, so that was good.
MARK: So, it sounds like if anyone is thinking of getting into the hotel business, which I’m putting my disclaimer in, as difficult enough as it is, not only do you need to have the finances set aside, it’s probably good to have a complimentary business or partners that can help support the downtimes. Or those first couple of growing pain years.
CAROL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you really do have to have some pretty deep pockets for several years because you never know what’s going to happen.
MARK: Exactly. And then have to have reserve, I’m sure, now for what can happen here. You know, occupancy. That’s the thing about hotel and restaurant, it can be like one year later and it’s like what’s going on? What do we need to fix? So, it’s always that thinking ahead, maybe you wake up at 2 in the morning and you’re like, oh no!
CAROL: Well, particularly when you have buildings that were built in 1884. You have to, I mean plumbing, electric, that was all redone. But, air conditioning systems, everything in the kitchen, you know we have probably replaced all the equipment four or five times. Laundry rooms, commercial machines, everything. All that stuff has to continuously be replaced. The pools, like we have three pools, one is being shut down in two weeks and being completely resurfaced.
MARK: Yeah, I mean, I just got a salt chlorinator put in my pool. And that means in five years, this needs to be replaced and then in a couple of years this needs to be replaced and I’m like, “I just bought this and I’m already going to be replacing it?” So, I can imagine that once you have the experience in the hotel business, you’re like, okay look, we just got this new oven so in 10 years, and I’m making this up, we are just going to need to replace it, so we have to make sure we have this money set aside for this. And like you said, the pool repair, and then the this, and then the this. And if it is a home, and I mean I had a 1920s home in Orlando and that thing was falling apart all the time. And that was just my house, that wasn’t a hotel. A multi-million-dollar hotel, so I can imagine the books, right? The accountant must know what they are doing to be able to keep track and plan for the future.
CAROL: We just, you know, and you can’t let things get to a point where they’re obvious. You have to continuously refresh. People notice and they are paying a huge amount of money to stay here, so it has to be fresh.
MARK: Yeah, if you put yourself in the mindset of your customer, the client, this could be that one time of year that they come on vacation and they don’t want to see a stain here or a hole over there, or the room smells, the want to have this fresh relaxing experience because that’s going to make them repeat. And a repeat customer is the one that is going to be there for those times where, if it is slow, you can always reach out to them and they are going to be like, “Oh, we are coming there, because this is a deal that I’m getting to come. I know the value of this hotel.”
CAROL: Yeah, that’s one of the things you have to constantly redo furniture also, and that’s the fun part. That’s what my job is. I get to go and look and go to High Point.
MARK: Right, and pick out those new things. Well, I mean it’s similar to tech, and those businesses because you’re always refreshing whatever the new technology is, always have to upgrade constantly. And there, it’s sometimes monthly, or else your customer lags and goes someplace else. Which is a lot easier than if you’re going on a vacation because you can delete one App and redownload another because it’s the new flavor of the month. So, there’s for any business out there, and I always like to call them clients, over customers, because if you look it up in the dictionary a client is someone that you have a fiduciary responsibility to take care of. And a customer is somebody purchasing something from you. So, if you look at it like that and you want to take care of your client, then you want to be there for them along that entire journey and then it trickles into how you’re going to run your business. You’re not just like, most people when they start a business, they don’t try to attract, they are always trying attract new customers, and that’s the most costly. To get a new customer, that’s new advertising, that’s belief in the system, that’s introduction to the staff, that’s customer service, and then once they’re in, most businesses forget about them. When it is so important to nurture that relationship, that’s like getting married and going, “Ah, I don’t need to talk to you anymore.” You are just starting this relationship now, so you have to put in that time. I’m sure the hotel and restaurant business especially is always about that client experience. Especially if they have come back more than once because that is the nature of that business is getting them to come back. If you can have the hotel filled all the time with the same people all the time, that’s great because they can book a year in advance and you are feeling happy.
CAROL: Which, we have a lot. We have about a two-week period in March that guests that have met each other, have decided that they are going to come back together as a group. There’s like four or five and they are all on the back pool floating around, catching up after, and so it’s good.
MARK: Do you ever have the time or have any moments where you walk by and you’ll see that, and it just makes you like, wow we are putting this together. I mean, I know you are so busy, but the hotel is providing these experiences for these people. Do you ever cherish that?
CAROL: Oh yeah. All the time.
MARK: It’s important that you should.
CAROL: It’s not about really the physical part of it. It’s about really the emotional aspects of people having a good time, making friends, or just you know seeing something new. Nourishing themselves.
MARK: Especially when it’s like the third year in a row and its this group of people that met here and they have come back, and it’s like you’re are helping build those relationships and creating those memories so it has to be a happy thing. What is your business that you do, in particular, at the hotel?
CAROL: Well, I work in the front office. That’s kind of the hub of what’s going on.
MARK: The front lines.
CAROL: I mean, I answer the phone, I do everything. You know, housekeeping is in and out so you get to hear about what’s broken, or needs to be replaced, any of those things. We have a full-time general manager, Bob Arman, who does, well he has an enormous job. Probably way bigger than mine. And he’s overseeing all the financial aspects of the business, so that’s good. So, I can just…
MARK: You’re more behind the scenes, like when we first…
CAROL: I almost know more of the fluff.
MARK: Right. But do you go and schmooze with the guests.
CAROL: All the time.
MARK: Oh, that’s awesome. So, you get to see a lot of that.
CAROL: Yeah, and I do try and make a point to, that’s why I like working in the office, because I like to meet people or also just see the people that come back. We have a guest who is here now, she stayed here for an entire winter. And she lives in California and she comes back, she’s probably been here five or six times this year. So, yesterday I took her her lunch and sat and chatted with her.
MARK: That’s wonderful.
CAROL: You know, I know her family now.
MARK: Of course, of course. Yeah, and you have a connection with her as a person, not just as a guest.
CAROL: Yeah, and a very cool lady, too.
MARK: Incredible. What business would your friends say that you’re in? Like what would they say that you do?
CAROL: Well, they know that there’s a financial aspect to the business. But I think they more see it more as hospitality.
MARK: Right. But when they say you’re like running the hotel? Or would they say you’re always out there schmoozing with the guests? What would they say?
CAROL: I think they mostly see me schmoozing with the guests.
MARK: They don’t know what you’ve done to get to the schmoozing level. You’ve earned it. That’s great.
MARK: Being in the Keys, and being here, have you ever thought of expanding or leaving the Keys, opening up another hotel in another location? Or, are you just like Key West or bust at this point?
CAROL: 20 years ago, we kind of thought about it. And, we actually thought about going to Miami Beach. And did look at some hotels there. But, at that point, Miami Beach wasn’t developed to the point where it is now. So, it was a very risky business. You know, and then we talked about maybe Naples, but I didn’t feel any particular affinity toward Naples. Then when my partners decided to do the lumber business, then it just became and then you know, life interferes. You have a child, you have my partner had two children, you are busier. So, you end up just focusing on the task at hand.
MARK: Which is like we talked about. It’s difficult enough, let alone to add another one.
CAROL: Well, and also just the physical, just getting to places like Miami or Naples, that’s time away and you know that’s a good four or five hours just to get there. And then you start working. And I started factoring that in and though, I don’t know if I want to do that.
MARK: But also, it wasn’t that long ago that you started this, and you still have some scars of the trials and tribulations of starting it. How about starting over again someplace else. You know, it’s not starting over, but you are adding and it really is new to those customers or clients.
CAROL: And the thing is, once you get to know a market, like you know Key West, and you see the potential profitability here. It made much more sense to go ahead and expand here, than it did to go to another location.
MARK: And you can’t use the same recipe here anywhere else because the people are so different. And, the reason why people come here are different. I mean, people that go to Naples on vacation are totally different than the ones that come to Key West. That’s for sure. So, you’d have to change so many things that, I don’t know the people are the reason why the organization strive. Maybe you being in two places may not be the best for the business. So, we are happy you’re here and staying here. That’s extra schmoozing time if you see her, and you’re a great guest, you can get a little schmooze. Or maybe a wink or a wave, you never know. What advice would you give yourself starting out again? Or, someone starting in the hotel business, not necessarily in Key West, just starting into that business? Besides writing a thesis.
CAROL: It’s all about details.
MARK: Like what?
CAROL: Details matter. First of all, you have to have the financial backing.
MARK: Right, putting that aside, yeah.
CAROL: You have to, and I have two and unfortunately my one partner Richard Manley passed away a couple of years ago, but Erik Deboer is a financial genius, so he’s constantly watching. And I’m more of the eyes and ears of watching staff, looking at the physical plant, you know having good partners? That’s key.
MARK: Do you feel that you both do different things?
CAROL: Oh absolutely.
MARK: So, he’s the entrepreneur and you’re more the artist side of it?
CAROL: Yes. Yes.
MARK: Yes, and see that compliments each other so that you both, like you said, you’re cleaning toilets and maybe he is too when need be, but you have that eye for something that he doesn’t. And then he has something that you don’t, and that helps.
CAROL: He has a very developed eye, too. He’s and at this point, half the time is going over a new property and walking through, and it’s very meticulous about the things that he wants to see there, too. But anyway, I’d say make sure you have a good working relationships with the people that you’re doing the blood, sweat, and tears with every day. I couldn’t imagine being in a fractious kind of a relationship with your partners. Or your staff. And we’ve had times where it’s been tough and you haven’t necessarily felt like you’d had the right staff. Then sometimes you just have to cut bait.
MARK: Yeah, you need to have that right team because it’s like too much salt in a soup. It’s not gonna taste right, you have to have it, and I’m sure it’s like a living organism, right? The whole staff and the pulse of that, and keeping an eye on it because life changes with people. People get married, people get divorced, people have kids, some people pass away, some relatives pass away, and then they change. So, you have to always see what’s going on because you can’t have one person tarnishing the relationship of the other coworkers because then that can sink a ship. So, you must have an eye on that all the time, too.
CAROL: You always have to. And you’re always training. You are always training people.
MARK: I think the training is good. When you mentioned the Ritz Carlton, you know they have a great handbook on how things can be done so that was great to be able to pull from some of the parts of that and utilize that because having that manual, your own internal manual that you create is easy to train, easy to staff, easy to work through any issues that are coming and always have something that you can update in them, to grow the business.
MARK: So, being a small island, a small town, not that small but small enough, what do you do to keep yourself sharp or relevant with this type of business so that you’re not doing stuff from the 1980s? You are doing the new things.
CAROL: I think the most important thing is when you travel that you go look at new hotels. That’s always fun. Go to New York, go to Las Vegas, you read hotel journals and they are full of, and I think the hospitality design issue that was just out, had so many beautiful places in China. And go to hotel shows that talk about what the new technology is, just fixtures, updating those looks.
MARK: You know, I can imagine walking around a hotel as a hotel owner and be like, “Oh, look at that, and look at that.” Do you ever pull the owner card and go to a hotel and go, “So listen, so we have this hotel down in Key West, can you give us a tour of this and this and get a little behind the curtain?”
CAROL: Oh absolutely.
MARK: That’s great, because you are building that rapport and that relationship with other hotel owners that you can build that friendship. And then lean on each other during times or questions or stuff like that.
CAROL: Definitely. You can be in associations, but I think it’s just better to go to places. Check out and see what’s new and what’s working and there’s so many interesting trends in hotels. You know pod hotels, low-service, you have to be open to those things. You can’t be stuck in the way you’ve been doing things for a long time.
MARK: Yeah, you need to listen to your clients because they are the ones that are gonna really tell you, we want this, we want that, and if you hear it over and over again, then you know. Okay, maybe we make these kind of adjustments, that’s always fun to do. Well, before when we started, you had mentioned that you love podcasts and books. Are there any in the business, or any that you recommend that you love listening to?
CAROL: You know, I don’t listen to hotel podcasts.
MARK: Yeah, you’re probably like, enough of the hotels.
CAROL: No. No. I like probably similar to ones that you like. The Moth, This American Life, I listen to some financial ones, but yeah.
MARK: Nothing in the hotel podcast. That’s like my escape a little bit, getting outta there. And then, name one thing that people don’t know about your business here at the hotel. Like I didn’t know that you can stay here for a month for example. Or, you had that long-term ability, right? There’s no kitchens in any of the rooms, there’s just a microwave you mentioned, so people just come and they are eating out all the time?
CAROL: Well, some of my staff has been here two years shy of us opening, my housekeeping manager. She’s really key. What else. I don’t know. Coming into a little hotel you wouldn’t expect that you could get room service. At the original Marquesa you can always get room service and that’s great.
MARK: And it’s just food from the menu from the hotel.
MARK: So, it’s not off menu, it’s all.
CAROL: No, no, it’s definitely on the menu. What else? I don’t know.
MARK: Can you get room service at the pool?
CAROL: Uh huh. Sometimes.
MARK: Well, that’s great too. See that.
CAROL: Sometimes, I mean, mostly it’s on your porch. You know, I think most of the stuff that I wouldn’t say there’s any real secrets. And if they are, they are not coming to mind.
MARK: Well, stay here for the winter, that’s a fabulous idea, right? So now we are onto the personal questions. The serious part of this podcast.
CAROL: Oh okay.
MARK: The part that make all the guests sweat, but they are really not that personal, so it’s not that big of a deal.
CAROL: Okay, good.
MARK: What is your favorite event to attend in Key West?
CAROL: The Zombie bike ride.
MARK: That’s like the kick-off.
CAROL: Yeah, I love that.
MARK: Do you stay for the rest of Fantasy Fest? Or, is that like your only Fantasy Fest part, I mean besides being in the hotel.
CAROL: Actually, the other one is the Friday night Masquerade March is always fun because we are always out on the front porch and the whole town comes by. You don’t even have to leave. And we do punch, and literally everybody comes by in costume, so that’s wonderful.
MARK: Yeah, you get like front and center and it’s at work.
CAROL: The other thing that I like is the Key West Literary Seminar. The reason I’m really particularly fond of it is the authors always stay here. We have all the authors, pretty much, staying here, so that is a real privilege because you get to meet all these people whose books you’ve read and that’s in January.
MARK: Do they do any private readings here on the premises?
CAROL: No, but they do them, but the event actually takes place at the San Carlos Theater. And it’s such a small venue, that it really feels private, in that sense. No, I mean one time one of the guests went and cooked breakfast for everybody down at Date & Thyme, before it was Date & Thyme, she did some cooking there. You know, there are fun events associated with the Literary Seminar, but those are probably my favorite.
MARK: Oh, were you going to say something?
MARK: Besides Café Marquesa, favorite restaurant?
CAROL: Hmmm, on the high end I probably have to Azur and I like Antonio’s. And then just sort of comfort food, I love El Siboney. I eat there all the time, their takeout mostly.
MARK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What about hidden local spot that is your go-to? Cause El Siboney used to be a local spot and now it’s not a local spot anymore.
CAROL: I don’t think that there is anything that is a hidden local spot anymore.
MARK: Well, Craig told me and I went there for lunch the other day which was great, was in the Restaurant Store, there’s that little deli that’s in there.
CAROL: Oh yeah, Cole’s Peace, which is wonderful.
MARK: I know, and you’re like, wow I want to buy all the stuff in there and then I can have a nice deli sandwich, it’s like wow.
CAROL: I know, but I mean, I go to the vegetarian café on Southard all the time.
MARK: I love Date & Thyme, too. I mean it’s like a go-to breakfast place for me, I just love going there.
CAROL: And then now there’s a whole bunch of new restaurants on Southard Street, there’s Kojin, well Kojin has been there for a little while, but there’s a couple of new restaurants next to those that are good. Mostly Asian. Those are great.
MARK: Yeah, I’ll have to check them out. I haven’t been there.
CAROL: Oh yeah, those are really good.
MARK: Awesome. And then, what about for live music?
CAROL: Green Parrot.
MARK: Yeah, that’s like everyone’s go-to.
CAROL: Yeah, it’s always fun.
MARK: Yeah, every time I drive by it’s like so loud and being on the corner there, I mean everyone is having fun in there, the musicians, people, everybody. It’s great.
CAROL: It’s a fun place. There’s a couple of bands that I love to go see there and so whenever they are in town, I always try and go.
MARK: Awesome. What about for happy hour? Best spot? It could be here, cause I don’t know.
CAROL: We actually don’t really have a happy hour here. Sometimes we go to Uva. Just up the street. Santiago Bodega at certain times of the year has them, Bagatelle has a great happy hour. I know Commodore, there’s a lot of happy hours here.
MARK: What about your go-to drink?
CAROL: Just a martini.
MARK: What about your go-to-drink after a very long day? A dirty one?
CAROL: Yes, slightly dirty martini, yes.
MARK: Tourist attraction that you take friends or family when they come into town?
CAROL: I like the Butterfly Conservancy.
MARK: Yeah, I love that too. I actually have a friend coming into town this Friday on a cruise and she’s like, how’s that butterfly… and I’m like, we’re going, it’s great, I love going in there. My wife grows Monarchs on our property, and she’s always done that, she gets tons and tons of milkweed and then when the female comes and lays eggs, when they are born, they will come to the same spot for the three generations. Then the fourth is when they go to Mexico. It’s like the whole story is incredible because I learned all this from her. When a butterfly is born, I don’t know the exact life span that they have, it’s either two weeks or a month, it’s not a long period of time, except for that fourth one that’s born and goes and flies to Mexico. There are tens of millions of them that all travel the same place and they hibernate and then they all come back to the U.S. and other parts, and then start the whole process again. It’s incredible.
CAROL: Do they come back necessarily to the place that they were born?
MARK: It’s incredible. So that’s why now our yard is like producing all of these Monarchs again.
CAROL: All of these memories.
MARK: I know, right?
CAROL: Good environmentalist.
MARK: I know, my son loves it. One last question before we go into where they can find the hotel, you or anything like that. Give us a tip of the day. Like this could be a new gadget, a new website, a new book you’re reading, what you’re pondering… anything. It could be like I found this new cheese, it’s amazing, it could be anything.
CAROL: I’m worried about Brexit. No, I was just reading the New York Times and I’m like, Oh God we think our country’s in turmoil, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be in Britain right now.
MARK: Yeah, I know.
CAROL: Now, that’s not exactly what you wanted, but that’s exactly what I was doing. That’s what I was pondering today.
MARK: It’s off the cuff. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
CAROL: And what’s going to happen to the pound? Or, you know?
MARK: Oh well, hopefully it will be a little bit better for us to go there. I remember going when it was two dollars. Every time I go, it seems to be at the peak. Like I go to Spain and it’s $1.50 or Euros and I’m like, and then the pound is like two, or now it’s do-able for us.
CAROL: Now they say it might be one-to-one.
MARK: Well, that’s good. And if you want to go to Canada it’s like you get a good deal there. But unfortunately, there’s only snow most of the time. But that’s it, where could we and I’m going to put all this stuff in the show notes, but where can we find out about you if you have any personal social media? If not, then the hotel?
CAROL: I’m not big on social media.
MARK: Okay, is that cause you’re social everywhere.
CAROL: Well, the hotel, so we are:
Website: http://marquesa.com/Hotel Website: http://marquesa.com
Cafe Marquesa: http://marquesa.com/cafe-marquesa
Facebook: https://facebook.com/marquesaWebsite: http://marquesa.com/
MARK: I definitely recommend everybody checking that out. Look at the pictures, they speak volumes to the hotel, but being here just myself for five minutes is already a world different than seeing those pictures. Come to the restaurant, come stay here for a winter if you can. Say hi, do some schmoozing and that’s it. It was great talking to you. I look forward to coming here and being social and even staying here, doing a little staycation, you never know it would be a fun thing to do. Thanks again, this was great.
CAROL: All right. Thank you.