Pam Webber had just begun inspecting the insides of guest rooms at La Hacienda Motel in Santa Barbara when a couple came up the drive, requesting a place to stay.
Webber was young and blonde, mere minutes into her new job as manager of the motel on Upper State Street on that day in 1956, shortly after moving to town from England with her husband, David, and 4-year-old daughter, Jeanette.
She had as much experience managing motels as the new owner (of what is now Rose Garden Inn) had staffing one — that is, zero.
So when the couple asked for a room with a kitchen, Webber said she would check if the motel had one.
When they requested the rate of one week’s stay, she came up with one — $35.
Then there was trying to figure out the complicated telephone switchboard.
“I thought, ‘If it’s anything like this, I’m never going to make it,’” Webber laughed on a recent morning, sitting comfortably in one of five hotels she still manages at age 83.
“I was really lucky,” she continued. “I didn’t know anything about the hotel business.”
Nearly 60 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
She’s also a regional governor for Best Western, overseeing 18 of the company’s hotels.
Her daughter, Jeanette, now 61, oversees management of the three smaller beach hotels she purchased after college, realizing a psychologist career couldn’t properly suit her hospitality genes.
That long legacy began simply enough, when Pam Webber and her husband in 1962 built the Pepper Tree Inn at 3850 State St. They named the hotel after the pepper trees that grew along Highway 101 as it ran through that part of Santa Barbara.
Credit cards, electronic room keys and reservations weren’t yet required, and Webber recalls charging guests $6 to $8 per night.
The Webber family lived in an apartment in the back, and Jeanette traded homework for tips she’d earn carrying guests’ luggage.
Meanwhile, her mother worked as front desk attendant, housekeeper and gardener.
Pepper Tree was considered in “the boonies” back then, so the Webbers employed stunts to attract visitors.
More than once, Pam Webber stood out on State Street in full, colorful dress for Old Spanish Days Fiesta, smiling and twirling in circles.
The Webbers gradually added more hotels, just as safety and other changes slowly crept across the hotel business.
“I think people are more distrusting than they used to be,” Jeanette Webber said.
The elder Webber became the “First Lady” of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, as the first female member, and she made her mark in local tourism by creating the Santa Barbara Scenic Drive, co-founding the Visit Santa Barbara Committee, and founding the citywide waste reduction and cleanup program, “Looking Good Santa Barbara.”
The Webbers now have more than 350 rooms, 225 employees — many who stay with the hotels for decades — and are among a thinning number of local-owner operators.
They’re continuously upgrading facilities, emphasizing hospitable living over bottom line.
“We have always been front-desk people,” Pam Webber said. “I always like to be in the middle of everything.”
In the thick of things is where Webber remains today.
Her hair now a stark white, Webber shows no sign of slowing down, arriving at the Pepper Tree Inn every morning by 7:30 a.m. to oversee a now-familiar venture.