Isabelle's Beach House (a career story)

23 May 2023. Isabelle Morley with Bob Kaplan

I grew up in a small, little town, Jonquière, in the French-speaking part of Québec, where my parents had a restaurant. It was called La Saucisse Garnie. I started working there when I was twelve waiting tables and later made breakfast. Jobs were hard to come by; I was lucky to have one. My older sisters also worked there, and so did my best friend.

Sunday nights were big for me. That is when my family and I, sitting around the kitchen table, counted the cash from the week, and put wrappers around the coins from the jukebox and the pinball machines. I was excited to see all that money. At that young age, counting it was my joy.

I really liked having my own money, and saved up to buy a new car when I turned sixteen. My father cosigned the loan. I remember the monthly payment: $149.  But I got much more than money from working in the restaurant. I learned to be a hard worker, just like my parents. And I got good advice that stuck with me. "Be honest," my father told me. "If you're honest, you can always find a job because people will trust you."

By the time I graduated high school, in 1989, I knew I wanted to work in the tourist industry.  I enrolled at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, in Montreal. It was a three-year program that included an internship in the summer. For my third internship, I went to Martha's Vineyard, a place I'd never heard of. I worked for a man named Peter Martell, who owned two hotels there. The Wesley Hotel was the bigger of the two; he told me I couldn't work there because I didn't speak very good English. He had me be a chambermaid at the Pequot Hotel and work at the front desk there, instead. The next summer he made me the manager of the Pequot. I was very fortunate to get that opportunity. To make more money I cleaned houses on the side, for the whole seventeen years I worked at the hotel,  

Along the way, Peter Martell sold the Pequot to Don Glasse. I learned a lot from Don and from his general manager, who became a mentor. He had some excellent marketing ideas that I copied later.

The new owner lived in Miami and didn't come to the Pequot often. One day he just showed up. I didn't happen to have a chambermaid that day, so I was cleaning the rooms myself, with my three-month-old son strapped to me. "What's that?" Don Glasse asked.

He was a big businessman who owned seven other hotels, from Miami to Newport, but he was also very nice. He had an apartment built in the Pequot for me and my family. We lived there for four years until we had saved enough to build our own house. After five years of living in that house together, my husband and I went our separate ways. 

The next man in my life, Dominicq, was a lovely person. He had money and when another hotel in the same town came up for sale, I told him about it. He said, do you want to go in on it together? I told him I certainly do. He made me part-owner and lent me the money. Not every man would do that. I made sure to pay off the loan before I took a single dollar in profit. It was a beautiful old hotel with varnished knotty-pine walls everywhere. It was called the Beach House because it was right across the street from the ocean. I was so excited by the whole thing I could hardly stand it. 

During my time there, this is what the inn looked like:

Working with Domincq was just fine, but dealing with his mother was very hard on me. She had no concept of business. She insisted on staying in the hotel's suite for free, even over July 4th weekend when we made the most money. I told her no and she was upset. She didn't understand or wouldn't understand. Also, there were times when it was two against one. But I could handle it.

Then I came down with cancer. It didn't stop me, though. You can cry all day and all night, but I believe things happen for a reason. It was diagnosed in the off season and we were closed anyway. I got the treatment in Boston and it only took three or four months. By the time we opened for the next season, in May, I was ready to go back to work. Getting cancer actually gave me motivation.

When Dominicq and I broke up, that spelled the end of our partnership. On his own he went off and found a buyer, but I knew that person was untrustworthy. I was sure he would run the place into the ground. Besides, I would again be the minority owner and I didn't want that. So I told Dominicq that I would buy the hotel. I could make it stick because Dominicq had given me the right of first refusal. I had asked for that on the advice of my attorney, and Domincq had agreed to it because he knew his mother didn't treat me well. It was his way of protecting me against her.

I was able to secure a loan to buy the hotel but not for the full amount I needed. That meant I had to get a partner for the rest: $600,000. Instead of one partner I decided to have three. The banker told me, "Use your brain: you need to be the majority owner." I followed his advice. Each partner would put $200,000 in return for 15% of the business. I would retain 55% ownership. At one point I thought about refinancing my house but my father, my biggest fan, said, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Lose one, you lose everything."

I only had three months to line up the partners. I approached people in town but they all told me I was crazy, maybe because I was a woman who came up with the idea. I promised myself that I'd prove them all wrong.

I thought to myself, who else could I approach, who else has money. Guests; I could ask guests. George and Purdy Burns happened to be staying at the inn, while their house in Oak Bluffs was being renovated. They said yes right away. "You're a hard worker," they told me. By the way, I approached the wife first. Men were more likely to say no.

One down, two to go. The next partner came easily. A French-Canadian friend of mine suggested I ask her boss, Mr. Jim. He said yes without even looking at an accounting statement.

Two down, one to go. But the last one was very hard to find. It went down to the wire—it was very stressful—but I got lucky. A friend of mind had just come back from doing a program in France. It was sort of a ritual where you spent nine straight days reading a certain religious text and then got to make a request. She wanted a better one, the one she had she didn't like at all, and that is just what happened.

I believe in God, so I read the same religious text for nine days and made my request. And do you know something? Almost magically, a potential partner approached me, a man named George Austin, who called me from Connecticut.

 "I hear you're looking for money," he said.

"It's true but how did you find out?"

"Somebody in Oak Bluffs told me." He told me that he and his wife would be on the Vineyard the coming weekend. "We'll come by," he said, and they did. I made them breakfast and showed them around. They could see I was working like crazy. That very day they told me they'd do it. It was meant to be, I thought, because my son's name is Austin.

The three partners were all very different. Mr. Jim, very smart, was the easiest of the three to deal with. 

George Burns, who was a rich man, told me more than once that he wished he'd bought two shares. I thought to myself, thank God you only bought one. He was tough on me and tried to boss me around. Finally, I told him, "You have the money, but I have the power!"

The other George, George Austin, was also very smart and had a lot of good ideas. But he was a nice person, closer in age to me. I talked to him a lot. He was a big help. My English is not perfect and so I would ask him to write letters for me or call a partners meeting.

I held a meeting with my three partners once a quarter, mainly to talk over money matters—room rates, big purchases, big repairs. I would tell them that we needed a new roof or a new deck, or the exterior needed to be repainted. They never gave me a hard time. They knew I was careful with the money. Sometimes I cleaned the rooms myself. I even made repairs myself. That meant I had to learn how to fix a lot of stuff.

When I bought the Beach House, it was the worst-rated bed and breakfast in Oak Bluffs. I was determined to make it the best. But social-media ratings are very tough. If you're not careful, guests write bad comments, they give you low ratings. You prepare a basic breakfast for maybe twenty-five people, and they say, I wish you had this, I wish you had that; why don't you have Mexican? You have to please everybody all the time, and that's hard to do. They complain but you have to keep smiling.

I put all my energy into the place—at that time I wasn't married and I didn't have a boyfriend. I changed the name to Isabelle's Beach House; that made it even more personal for me. I made sure everything was spotless. Going back to my restaurant days, I saw to it that the food was good. I wanted the hotel to feel like home to my guests. I welcomed them personally when they arrived, and I stayed very close to them during their stay. On Fridays, we served complimentary wine and cheese. People really enjoyed the chance to mix, to meet, to socialize. I was right there with them; I liked it too. Some of them I am still in touch with. I love people. I loved my job.

We got the number one rating, which only took a couple of years. I knew that I had earned it; I knew I had done a good job.

To get that rating, I'd had to be on my toes. To keep that rating, I had to stay on my toes. But I'm driven, like many of the people on Martha's Vineyard who came from a different country. They own a business, they work for themselves. They want better. It's a dream to be on that island, and you want better for yourself.

Guests tell me, "Oh, I'd love to run a B&B," but it's harder than they think. You get up early and you're on the go all day long. And it's a big job that you can't do all by yourself. You need good employees, people who work hard and who like the public, and they're hard to find. I had a gem of an employee, an islander, which means she was born here. She had worked for the local bank for twenty-five years and was good with people. She was very into her job. Her hours were 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. but she was always ready to stay later if need be. She was like my right hand. I didn't realize how valuable she was until she left. I looked back and wished I had shown her more appreciation. 

I knew right away that without her my life was going to be hell. I said to myself, that's it. I knew the real estate market was going up; it was a good time to sell. That meant the end of my eleven-year run with the inn. But no regrets for sure.

Did I use a real estate agent to sell the hotel? No. I was the best one to sell it because I knew the business the best. In 2020 it went for $5,500,000. In 2008 Domincq and I had bought it for $955,000. Many people called to congratulate me, even a few who had told me I was crazy. Back then I knew I wasn't crazy. I knew how much money the place was making.

To run a bed and breakfast well you have to be there, but the new owner isn't. She has a different job. She kept the name, Isabelle's Beach House, but the place is not the same. I hear that from guests who stayed there when I owned it. I can see it myself. The grass out front is dead; there aren't any flowers. When I'm on the island—I moved to Florida—I don't ever drive by the hotel. It's sad.

I could retire but I am too young, and I want more out of life. My son and I formed Morley Capital Group, and we bought two houses. We are going to buy two more. And I would like to buy a gas station, a WAWA, near where I live. I like the idea of a garage. I would run it myself, and I think it would be a good investment.

If you want something and you want it badly enough, nothing stops you. You just have to put your mind to it. A door closes but another door opens. If somebody says no to you, another person walks up and says yes. You just have to keep going.

Getting cancer made me think differently about life. It used to be just one day after another. These days when I get up in the morning, I take a walk on the beach and I thank God for the life I have. Coming from a small out-of-the-way place, I never thought my life would turn out like this. I never thought I would be a millionaire. Coming from such a small place, I think I did very good.