Welcome, your room awaits you
Ann Smith originally bought Oxford House on Woodbourne Avenue in Hamilton intending to run it as a hotel for two years that was back in 1983.
She is still the owner and operator, despite downturns in the economy and changes in the tourism industry.
“The family bought it, but I was the one who really liked it and stuck with it,” said Mrs Smith. “I have always liked it. I have always enjoyed that sort of thing. It has its headaches, but on the whole running a hotel is a nice business.”
She admitted that there have been many times when she has felt like she was on the set of British comedy television programme ‘Fawlty Towers’.
“I’m sure a lot of hotels and guest houses [are like] that. We have a lot of people come in who are nice, some are nicer than others.”
When Mrs Smith and her husband James, a civil engineer, first bought the guest house tourism in Bermuda was booming. Guests at Oxford House sometimes had to wait their turn to get a seat in the breakfast nook. These days Mrs Smith doesn’t have that problem. The economy has changed, tourism has declined in Bermuda, and the clientele has moved from mostly vacationers to mostly business travellers.
“The hotel industry has changed so much since 1983,” she said.
“I have threatened many times to give up breakfast. It is not a cooked breakfast but it is a good breakfast. We serve boiled eggs, fruit, Danish and muffins and people help themselves. But if we are full of business people, quite often they will come downstairs, grab a yoghurt and off they go.
“I have to encourage people to eat breakfast. But on the whole, tourists like it. They meet people. The character of the business has changed. If it wasn’t for the business people, my business wouldn’t be that good. I think business has declined for most people in the tourist industry in Bermuda.”
One of Oxford House’s advantages is its location, she said.
“[It] is a good plus for us, so our clients can walk to work,” said Mrs Smith. “If we call a taxi, it’s here in two minutes.”
She gets a lot of repeat guests, and they often get attached to a particular room. Mrs Smith tries to accommodate, but repeat guests sometimes get irritated when they find “their” room is already occupied. There are 12 rooms, all with a small fridge and microwave.
“You’d think it would be easy to fill 12 rooms,” said Mrs Smith, “but we work hard to work hard to fill them. At one time we didn’t have to work that hard to fill the rooms. We haven’t put our rates up for three years, and right now everybody is asking for discounts.”
Mrs Smith does the decorating herself, although she does have help. She goes to auctions, and some of the furniture is antique, or from her own home.
“It is a nice business,” she said. “We won a Hotel Merit Award from the Bermuda Department of Tourism eight times in a row as the best guest house in Bermuda, but then they stopped offering the award. It was hard work, but it was worth it.
“The certificates are still framed around the reception desk. They have stopped doing quite a lot of things for tourism.”
She said winning the awards were quite a lot of work, but it kept them on their toes. Three inspectors would check all aspects of the guest house, even checking for dust behind the pictures on the walls, and looking in pillow cases.
“They would pull the house apart looking for things,” Mrs Smith said.
“We worked very hard to win it. Nothing went wrong, because I made sure everything was right. I was a nervous wreck when they were inspecting.
“I still maintain that high standard, even if they are not doing the awards. It is beneficial to me to keep a good place running, otherwise you don’t get any guests. I don’t think Oxford House is as well known as it should be and I don’t know why.”
The house was built around the Second World War by Gisele De Sacy Dickinson, first wife of Bermudian dental surgeon John Bennett Dickinson.
“She designed the guest house to take the overflow from the old Bermudiana Hotel, which was across the road,” said Mrs Smith. “With architect John Vincent, she designed the arches in the dining room, and the beautiful staircase. It is a box of a house, but has a lovely staircase. She built this, but never ran it as a guest house. There is a certificate of appreciation on the wall from Dr Dickinson to the architect, thanking him for his work.”
The house was built with a flat roof with the intention of one day building another floor. That floor has never yet been built.
“I applied to the planning department many years ago to put another floor on,” said Mrs Smith. “They turned me down. They said it wasn’t in keeping with the surrounding houses and buildings. The Bermudiana Hotel was there then. At that time there were lots and lots of beds available. My husband, James, was a civil engineer. He was director of public works for years. He didn’t really want me working all long hours here. He wasn’t all that disappointed when it came through. We could have appealed but we didn’t. But this suits me fine.”
Her daughter, Susan Weare, runs the Royal Palms Hotel, and Mrs Smith hopes that one day the Oxford Guest House will also pass to another generation of the family.
“I want it kept in the family,” she said. “My daughter comes in every day. When I get tired of it, which I hope is not any time soon, my family will have to take it over. I have worked hard on it, and I want it to stay in the family. One day one of the grandchildren might like to take it over.
“It is a nice bed and breakfast but I don’t think it is exploited enough. I think I could do a lot better if I was little younger. It could be fit into a nice boutique hotel. It is easy to run, providing you keep on top of things, and you are here.”
Useful website: www.oxfordhouse.bm.