Conducted by Christina Torres, American Studies Major, Dickinson College Class of 2009 On November 9th 2007 at 11:30pm
C: This is an interview with Alan Duxbury owner of he Carlisle House. Good Afternoon. I am here conducting research on lodging in Carlisle, as I told you previously. We are just going to go through the basics. What is your full name for the record please?
A: Alan Duxbury
C: So, how long have you lived in Carlisle, how did you get here?
A: Well, my wife is a native of Carlisle and we were living in Northern Virginia, and one weekend, we took a long weekend and we came up to buy a house as an investment and ended up buying a Bed and Breakfast instead and actually moved here March 17, 2004.
C: So, this was a sporadic buy or…?
A: It was totally an impulse buy. We had no intention of buying a Bed and Breakfast. None at all, and 6 days we had made an offer and in 9 weeks, we had moved.
C: And then you started up the business there after?
A: It was already a Bed and Breakfast for about 2 years before that. The previous owners I don’t think were really interested in it. They were running it at a big loss and we took it over with the intention of turning it around, which we have.
C: How were you able to revitalize the Bed and Breakfast?
A: Oh, several ways. The first way was that as soon as we got here, the first thing we did was introduce ourselves to almost everybody. We went up and down the streets talking to people, talking to other businesses. Making sure our name was out. That certainly helped us. The second thing was we decided very early on that this was going to be the sort of place that we would like to stay in. I have done a lot of traveling for business over the years and I hated being nickeled and dimed for everything, so we determined that every room would have a refrigerator with complimentary sodas, waters, beverages. We decided that every room would have a telephone with voice mail and free local and long distance service. Every room has access to the internet. Most of them are actually wired with gigabit Ethernet, the other 2 run wireless. We couldn’t get cables to two of them because it’s an old building. Obviously, the breakfasts are important, and we worked hard on getting the breakfast. We have monogrammed ropes in every room. All of the televisions have DVD players. We have a free DVD movie library upstairs. We even have a full kitchen for guest use only. It’s not where we cook, it’s just for them.
C: So how are you able to take your travels, you said you travel a lot, and make this the type of place that almost anyone could stay at regardless of, the amenities and the refrigerator and the DVD collection. How were you able to make it home that suits almost anyone?
A: Well, first of all we said every room has its own character. They’re all different. We tried to use the history of the house and the history of Carlisle to name the rooms. A good example of that is the Ewing room, is the first room when you come in the front door. It has a king size bed a double Jacuzzi, all the other things that I already mentioned and it’s named for the Ewing family who owned the building from 1927 through to the turn of the century.
C: Can you tell me anymore about that history. It seems really interesting?
A: Well, actually, it is the Ewing…my wife would be better at this than I am, but essentially the Ewing funeral home further down South Hanover Street use to be in The Carlisle House. The twins Seymour and Bill Ewing are very well known around town actually grew up in this house. They moved here at the age of one and they had their eighty-first birthday two months ago and they’re still very active in town, very active in there business and their friends of ours. So we learned a lot about the house from them, even to the extent that when we bought the second house, which is side by side, they were able to tell us where the door ways had been bricked up in the walls, so that we could re-open them easily.
C: And this particular room, how did you make it so that the character would reflect this particular family?
A: We started off by asking Bill and Seymour for photographs of the family, and we have a photograph of their mother Jessie and their father William on the wall in period frames. It’s a little difficult because it was originally a front parlor, and it’s now a bedroom. The room behind it was the rear parlor when the house was built and that has bookshelves built in on each side of the fire place, which served two purposes actually. First of all, it was somewhere to put the books. Secondly, it meant that the heat was kept in to the room and not disappearing in the corners. We call that room the English Library, primarily because I’m English and it looks like a Library, which is a good enough reason.
C: I read an article in the Washington Post and your wife was asked by the reporter if there are any ghosts here and she said that she thinks that there are ghost, what do you think?
A: [Laughs] Yes, the previous owners used to claim that Jessie was still in her room upstairs. I talk that with a large pinch of salt. One of the things they said was that if you take photographs in that room, there’s usually something a bit funny about it. Sure enough, we took photographs, and there was something funny about it. So, who knows? Some people say I must sleep in Jessie’s room if there’s a ghost, and other people say, “What other rooms have you got available?”
C: Well, that’s a pretty interesting story. I wouldn’t be surprised. It depends how you take ghost stories. It depends how you see it. So, where are you originally from? Are you from England?
Alan: I am personally from England. My wife grew up in Carlisle. She was born here. I am from the North West of England, about probably an hour and twenty minutes south of the original Carlisle, which is right above the Scottish border.
C: Are there any similarities at all? [Laughs]
A: None at all. Carlisle in England is a lot bigger, very industrialized and in common with a lot of towns in England, the houses are so much smaller than they are here. I’ll give you an example, which doesn’t actually relate to Carlisle, but when I was married first of all to my ex-wife in England, we and my daughter had a house that was around 950 square feet and that was a three bedroom house with two bathrooms. You could imagine how small the rooms were. Here, even in Carlisle, about the smallest house you could find is probably 1,111 sq feet, and The Carlisle House, actually between the two buildings, we have 9,500 square feet.
C: How big is a typical room here?
A: Oh, they vary. Our biggest is a full suite, and it has a bedroom a living room and a dining room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The smallest is the Hyrandra room, which has a nice size bathroom and a fairly small bedroom with a full size bed and then you get something like the Edwing room, which is around 20 feet square, about 400 square feet.
C: What I am particularly interested in is about what you said before, about how you revitalized or revamped the Bed and Breakfast and how you did it with your own personal character, both you and your wife, and you made your name known. How difficult, because I’m assuming it was very difficult to start up the business and really get your name out there, especially when it comes to lodging, when people may not know about your establishment, or what to expect, how did you set a standard for this establishment, in which now you see profit and your name is recognized?
A: The lodging industry now today is very, very Internet orientated. You’ll see the large chains advertising in print, but very few Bed and Breakfasts’ like ours would do this. The advertising we do is primarily sponsorship advertising. We will put advertising in the Carlisle Theater and advertising in one or two local charity events in Harrisburg and Carlisle. We really don’t expect to get business from that. Where we get our business from is two ways, or three ways, actually. First of all the best possible way of getting business is word of mouth. If you do a good job for someone they WILL recommend you. The second is the search engines. If you put in Carlisle, PA Bed and Breakfast, then you will find us first or second on Google and I spent a lot of time keeping us that way. The third way is references from other sites. For instance, the Dickinson Website has us listed under lodgings and that brings us a lot of business. It’s worth pointing out that the name of the company has a lot to do with it. We started as ‘The Carlisle House,’ and indeed the website is ‘TheCarlisleHouse.com.’ We actually listed ourselves as Carlisle House and it took us from the T’s to the C’s in the alphabetical listing, and that made a big difference.
C: Oh, really, how so? Did you get more hits on the site?
A: A lot more hits because people that use the Internet tend to be impatient and they’ll go down the first three or four on the list and if they can’t find what they’re looking for there they’ll rarely go further. The first page of Google is by far the most used. If you’re on the second or third page, people just don’t find you, and in the Dickinson case on the lodgings list, taking off the ‘The’ and making us Carlisle House puts us second on this list after Budden Wood Bed and Breakfast. It means that we are more in people’s faces. We get more response.
C: When are you most busy, when is your busiest time of year?
A: That’s an interesting question, and it does vary year upon year. Hold one second I want to be accurate. If I could find my spreadsheet, [Goes over to computer and opens up yearly graph and spreadsheet of bookings] if we look at our bookings the last 2 years, there we go [points at graph on computer screen] last year in 2006, we had a big spike in July and generally, April is always a good month. June, July, August are all good, and October is a good. So those are our peek periods, but we are open 365 days a year and we’re pretty busy all the time. We probably have maybe 10 or 11 nights a year where we don’t actually have a guest on the premises. The rest of the time we always have at least 1 person here, and usually more. In 2006 we averaged 5 rooms every night of the year at a time.
C: That’s a big accomplishment for a Bed and Breakfast.
A: We are very happy about it, yes.
C: How do you think Carlisle has changed? Has it changed for the better since you’ve been here? Have you seen more traffic as far as who comes to stay and who visits Carlisle? Have you seen an increase in tourism?
A: Tourism isn’t a big thing in Carlisle, and I’m speaking for us now, not the other Bed and Breakfast in the area. We are the only Downtown Bed and Breakfast, and our typical guest is coming to Carlisle for a specific reason. We probably have, I will guess less than 5 percent of our guests are here for tourism. Most of them are here for, obviously, Dickinson. The Dickinson parents, junior and senior high school goers looking at Dickinson. Parent’s weekends and graduation, and all of the sports events, we tend to be very busy for, but we’re four blocks away so it’s an easy walk. We have in the summer a huge influx of ballerinas for the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. That is huge, terrific business. Then, of course there are the car shows, which occupy ten weekends a year and although that’s significant in terms of the volume, bear in mind it’s only less than 10 percent of the available days in the year, so when people say ‘Oh, you must do well, look at all the car shows’ We say fine, and we do pretty well the other 90 percent of the year as well.
C: So, what would you say is difficult about running a Bed and Breakfast, whether it’s the day in and day out logistics of the daily routine you have to go through, maybe something is you would like more tourism in Carlisle? What are some of the difficulties that you find in running a Bed and Breakfast?
A: Well, that’s an interesting question. Always, anybody in our business would like to grow. There’s a big misconception that growth means more people staying, that isn’t true. Growth means more revenue. If you can get more revenue for fewer room nights, then it’s more money for less work, which is good growth. It’s easy to cut your prices and be a lot fuller, but then you’re making the same amount of money for a lot more work, which is not good. So, it has to be controlled growth. In fact the hardest thing about running a Bed and Breakfast and I know that my wife agrees with me on this- like any couple you have arguments, not necessarily big ones, just irritations between each other. At breakfast time we have between the kitchen and the dining room thirty feet in which to stop arguing and put a smile on your face and that’s the biggest problem any bed and breakfast owner has because you can’t walk into the dining room looking as though you just had an argument. It kills the conversation, simple as that.
C: The personal interactions that you and your wife might have over making Breakfast or the constant on your toes feeling that you’re being watched is that what is that what makes this business difficult?
A: Yes, and 99 percent of the time it’s not a problem, it’s just that 1 percent when it is. All couples have those arguments we just can’t show it to the guest.
C: It seems as if you have a very successful business. Are there any changes that still need to be made? Are you still revamping and still trying to get your name out there, and if so, are you still going to do it through the same outlets you mentioned, Google or the Internet are there any other ways that you’re looking at to expand?
A: It’s another very good question, and again, there is a preconception that advertising now a days should be television, radio, print, and the difficulty a small business like ours has is that we have a much localized brand. If you talk to people in Carlisle about The Carlisle House they’ll probably say ‘Oh, yeah, the Bed and Breakfast on South Hanover Street. Ask them if they’ve ever stayed there and they look at you as if you’re crazy ‘why would we want to stay there when we have a house three blocks away. That’s not to say that people don’t. We do have one regular guest who comes from three blocks away. But, typically guests are coming from at least three hours drive away, and often a lot further. We get a lot from California, from New England and advertising to all of those people would be cost prohibitive on anything else other than the Internet.
C: So you’re just going to continue doing what you are doing?
A: It’s not that we wouldn’t want to do the other stuff, but really there is no option for us. I mean, if you want to do a radio ad, it costs 3 or 4 thousand dollars, but which radio station are you going to put it on? The one in Boston, the one in New Hampshire, the one in California, the one in Seattle?
C: Right. So obviously the way you advertise, or the way that a company advertises sets them apart or brings about this image of what kind of establishment they are. So the fact that you aren’t on the radio, or you aren’t on T.V., how do you think that creates this image of The Carlisle House that you like to keep?
A: Because we are using the Internet almost solely for the advertising that we do [Proceeds to pull up The Carlisle House Website] if you look at our website you probably won’t notice something that is very important to us, and that is if you look at the room pictures on our website and I’ll bring one up as an example here. This is a picture of the Ewing Room, and it shows the King size bed, it shows the Ben Franklin design stove, which was original to the house, which is really neat. But, what you won’t notice is that it is taken with an absolutely standard camera lens. There is no wide angle; there is no bull’s eye lens involved. What you see is hopefully exactly what you get, and we find that is people who have looked at our website will come here and say, ‘Wow, it looks even better than it does on the web,” and we also get the comments…We we’re at a Bed and Breakfast the other day and the room looked huge on the website, and it was so tiny we could hardly move around in it, and that is the use of a wide angle lens, which I think is pretty. I think that you should give people more than they expect, not less.
C: I think the fact that you are giving your guest exactly what they are seeing, they come with this image in their heads and come here and they see so much more. Don’t you think that that is also what you are trying to sell; you are trying to sell your establishment as a genuine Bed and Breakfast?
A: Absolutely I couldn’t put it much better. When we bought the place, the biggest problem you have with a Bed and Breakfast is how do you price your rooms, how do you know what to charge? All of our rooms are different, some have king beds, some have queen beds, some have Jacuzzis, some have showers. So we price them all differently, and we looked at all of the Bed and Breakfast and Hotels in the area, looked at what we offer, and said we are going to go up market. We are going to be more expensive, and right now, there is only one other Bed and Breakfast in the area the charges anywhere as near as we do, and they are way out in the country. It’s a beautiful place. Their clientele is different. They do get tourists who want to be in the country side. See we don’t.
C: I see this place as very timeless, and you have made this place into something that encompasses history and historical moments and you have made it your own. Because of all of this, how have you been able and do you think you are going to continue to keep this prestigious image of The Carlisle House?
A: What it boils down to is, I think, commitment. We are committed to giving the guest the best possible experience we can. Obviously, there are limits. We can’t run a shuttle to and from the airport, things like that, which the big hotels can. But, once the guest is in Carlisle, we can tell them about the town, we can tell them about the history, we can tell them things to do, we can tell them places to eat, we can advise them on where to eat. It depends on what they like to eat. We have a terrific local knowledge, especially from my wife. The rooms, we try and keep absolutely immaculate, typically in a hotel when one guest leaves and another guest arrives, they take up to fifteen to twenty minutes to clean the room, that’s what they call a flip between one guest and another. That includes cleaning the bath room, changing the bed, vacuuming, and everything fifteen to twenty minutes. We take probably a little over an hour to do the same thing in our rooms and at least, hopefully twice a month apart from the one hour cleaning of each room, we also are doing what we call a detail clean, which involves getting up on the ladder, going around the picture rails, cleaning the top of everything that got a top half. It’s typically everything that you would do in a full spring clean of a house, and we do it twice a month. And we get lots of comments on the consumer websites like tripadvisor which I recommend that you look at which say that the place is spotless, and we try and keep it that way. Not always easy, especially when I’m running new cables through a wall, or something like that, it’s a lot of dust involved there. But, we do try our best to keep it as clean as possible.
C: And this only adds to the timeless image that you are trying to portray here?
A: Sure. One of our favorite guests from Seattle, we love them dearly. They come maybe three or four times a year to see their son at Dickinson and they have the same room every time. My ideal situation is that it looks exactly the same every single time they come, so that they can walk in and reach for the remote and put the television on and know where everything is going to be. They can open the fridge and pull out a Diet Coke because that’s what they drink. They know that when they come to Breakfast in the Morning we make regular coffee for them because neither of them drink De-caf. We know what their favorite breakfast foods are. We have a great computer system that keeps all of this for us. Let me pull it up. [Pulls charts up on Computer]
C: That small motif is kind of interesting, and seeing the smile on your face shows how much you care about your business and how committed you are to the experience of your guest because you are selling and giving your guest a home. What you just said shows what kind of place The Carlisle House is in comparison to just staying at some hotel.
A: I went to the doctor this morning, and we were chatting, and he was asking about my mother in England. As I left the examining room and past by his office I heard him dictating notes, which included how I said my mother was, and I know that he does it because he can’t possibly remember me individually amongst all the people he sees, but he’s got it there so that he can remember to ask the next time I go in how my mother is, and it’s the same with us to a degree. If you take… [Looking online at the Reservation system] this particular guest, who has no particular dietary restrictions, has a son called Andrew who is a 2010 graduate from Dickinson, and we can pull this kind of information on any one of our guests. This other guest is allergic to sea food, and she wasn’t sure if her daughter was going to be here or not. She confirmed the reservation and she was arriving at 4 o’clock.
C: This definitely sets you apart from other hotels, without a doubt; you are almost selling a standard when you come to The Carlisle House, or at least this is what I’m getting from you as far as the guest being able to expect the room to be spotless, you can expect the room to be the way you left it, for those guests who come back, and it’s a standard and experience that you’re selling.
A: And hopefully you’ll get a personal greeting when you arrive at the door. Which is difficult because a guest could have come here for two nights a year ago we know the name, but could I put a face to it? Not in a million years, but we always ask, what time do you expect to arrive, and you can say, ‘Well, hello Rick, it’s nice to see you’
C: It’s apparent that you love the business and that you are very successful in it. You have made this place your own, so are you going to continue the business when you decide to retire, or are you going to pass it on?
A: When we bought the place in 2004 we had an 8-10 year plan. Eight years seems about right, if we can exit from this business in 2012 having built it up to get a good price for it, that’s the strategy. That’s our intention. It’s very easy to get- what’s the saying ‘familiarity breeds content.’ You can look around at your own place and not see things. We are still at a point where we are looking around all the time and seeing things that need doing. Guest don’t see these things, occasionally, when we have good friends as guests I’ll say, just look around this room and tell me what I need to do and they don’t see things but I say, ‘But I’ve got that to do and that to do. I’ve got that to fill and that needs painting. But as long as the guests continue not to see it and we continue to see it then we will be on the right side of the equation.
C: So, you’re planning to sell the business after your 8 to 10 year plan?
A: Yes, maybe some where around 2012 or 2013 that’s the end game.
C: Well thank you for this interview. I’ve learned so much about lodging and more about this business. Thank you very much.
A: You’re very welcome come with me so I can show you the Ewing room.
Photo: Mary and Alan Duxbury in front of their B&B.