She’s been part of Cayman’s tourism industry for longer than most residents have been alive. She’s an entrepreneur, she’s an activist and she’s involved in many charitable and non-governmental organisations. She’s happiest around lots of people. She’s the irrepressible Annie Multon.
There wasn’t much of a tourism industry in the Cayman Islands back in the 1950s, but Grand Cayman did get some tourists in the winter months and it had a couple of small hotels.
It was at one of those hotels, Pageant Beach, that a young Annie Multon got her start in the tourism industry way back in 1957. The Pageant Beach Hotel is long gone having burned down in 1975, but more than 55 years later, at the age of 76, Multon is still involved in Cayman’s tourism industry.
Her services to the tourism industry earned her a Queen’s Honour back in 1999, but Multon was not one to rest on her laurels. Retirement – this time for good – is in the back of her mind, but for now, there’s just no stopping the irrepressible entrepreneur.
Multon progressed her way through Cayman’s tourism industry from the bottom up. She started out at Pageant Beach as a housekeeper, cleaning rooms and making beds.
Born as Annie Dilbert, Multon grew up in the Northwest Point area of West Bay, just south of where the Turtle Farm is today.
“I come from very humble beginnings,” Multon said, adding that once, as a small child, she asked her mother why they were so poor. Her mother’s answer helped guide Multon’s life.
“My mother was a wise woman,” Multon said. “She said, ‘Poverty is a state of mind. You go to school. You get the best education you can get. Get a job. You work hard, you put everything into it and you can work your way out of poverty’. And that has stuck with me: You work hard and you can work your way out of poverty. And she was right.”
Back in the 1950s, the best education poor Caymanians could get was at a government school for all-age children.
“You’re not looking at a college graduate, even though I’ve taken many courses over the years and have done well,” she said. “I pride myself that I’ve achieved more with the education I have than some people I’ve seen with BAs behind their name and MBAs and whatever.”
Multon might have started out in housekeeping, but the nature of the job back then allowed her to learn various aspects of the hotel business.
“Because in those days when you worked in the industry, it was not a situation where you were hired for a specific job,” she said. “We all worked together as a team. It didn’t matter whether you were doing rooms, whether you were waiting on tables, whether you were helping out in the laundry or whatever because everybody was friendly and looking after one another.
“So when you finished your work in the bedrooms and your friends were still working – whether they were still waiting on tables or they were still polishing flatware and glasses – you didn’t pick up and go home. You went in and you chipped in and you worked and you helped and then when you were finished with that, if the lady in the laundry wasn’t finished, we’d go down there and help her fold things and press things to make sure everybody was finished and everybody left at the same time. And it was beautiful because it was teamwork; everybody got on as sisters and brothers, and we depended on each other. It was so different than it is today.”
As Cayman’s tourism industry progressed through the 1960s and 1970s, Multon’s career progressed with it. After she left Pageant Beach, she took a job at the old Beach Club Colony Hotel on Seven Mile Beach. By the mid-1970s, she was working in the front office, but she was lacking in some of the training needed to move up.
In 1977, the late David Foster – who was the Beach Club manager at the time – encouraged Multon to go to Cornell University in New York and take a course in hotel management.
“He said, ‘Annie, you’ve got the potential to go far. You just need some extra training and we’ll give you the time to go and do it’. And that’s what I did,” she said.
But there were come challenges in going off to take the course, particularly since by then she was married to her husband Peter and raising a son and two daughters.
“I’m helping to raise a young family, trying to get our children raised and finances was the big question,” she said.
One of the things that Cornell University required for admission in the course was a letter of reference from the minister of Tourism, who at the time was James M. Bodden. It was while speaking to ‘Mr. Jim’ that something happened that would eventually change her career path. Bodden, knowing that Multon was a working mother, help arrange a government loan for her to attend the course at Cornell so that she didn’t have to use all of the family’s savings.
Multon’s helper and her husband Peter looked after the children while she was away for the eight-week course. When she returned to Cayman, she went back to her job at Beach Club. Not many months later, she got a telephone call from Mr. Jim.
“He said, ‘I need to talk to you. There’s something I want to do here in Cayman where tourism is concerned and I’m going to need your help’. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, you helped me, I’ll help you’.”
At a meeting with two others including Timothy ‘Teacher’ McField, Bodden discussed an idea to start a hotel training school on Grand Cayman. Previously, there had been some one- and two-week tourism training courses in Cayman, but nothing like what Bodden was proposing.
“He said, ‘This is what is needed. Sending our people abroad to get training is costly. It takes them away from their families. If we can do it here, we will save so much money and people can just go to school like any normal school and everybody is home’. And I thought… ‘What a great idea’.”
Bodden wanted Multon to be one of the trainers, but to do so, she had to give up her job at Beach Club, which she enjoyed immensely.
“But then I thought, ‘Well, this is a way for me to give back,” she said. “I went home and I discussed it with Peter and the kids and Peter was very supportive, and he said, ‘Annie, like you said, it’s a chance for you to give back and it is needed.’ And I had always thought when I got back from Cornell, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we had something like this set up here’.”
However, Multon was a little worried because she didn’t have any teaching experience and she told Bodden so.
“I said, ‘Look Mr. Jim; I haven’t taught Sunday school in my life, let alone a hospitality course.’ He said, ‘Annie, all you’re doing is imparting what you have just learned to other people. There’s nothing wrong with your vocabulary; I’m sure you can do it’.”
Multon agreed and in 1978 she helped establish and work at the country’s first hotel training school, which was set up in two small rooms at the International College of the Cayman Islands.
“I am pleased to say we turned out some very good students,” she said. “Some of the people that took those courses with us, they’re still in the hospitality industry today.”
But Multon missed the action of the tourism industry. In early 1980 an opportunity arose to manage Cocoplum, a small 10-unit development on Seven Mile Beach. Multon was about to start a long run of condominium management.
The opportunity arose to manage Cocoplum because Multon had stepped in when the previous manager had gone on vacation for three weeks during the summers of 1978 and 1979. In early 1980 the manager telephoned Multon.
“He said, ‘I got a letter from the Immigration Department saying that my permit will not be renewed and I want to talk to you. The owners of Cocoplum want me to put somebody in place before I leave. I’ve recommended you for the job because I’ve worked with you for the past two years, I know what you’re capable of’.”
Multon met with the manager, discussed the offer and after speaking to her family about it, decided to leave the hotel training school and take the job, which would require moving the family out of their home in Snug Harbour and into the manager’s unit at the complex. But there was one problem.
“By this time we had this beautiful dog and you know, [condominium owners] don’t like dogs,” she said.
Multon told the owners she would agree to take the job on the condition that they allowed her to bring the dog with her. They agreed and Multon became the manager of Cocoplum.
Two years later, Cocoplum was sold to the owner of the larger condominium development right next to it, Grapetree. That development already had a manager in place and since Cocoplum was only 10 units, the new owner decided that person could manage both properties.
Multon was given three months to find a new job. There were two larger condominium complexes coming on line at the time, Treasure Island and Plantation Village, the latter of which was one of developer Brian Butler’s complexes.
“I applied for both, was short-listed for both, had final interviews with both and then I had to make a decision which one I wanted to accept,” she said. “After my second interview with Brian Butler, I decided I was going to go to Plantation Village. [Butler] and I hit it off and I saw that he was a genuine person and I knew that we would have a good working relationship.”
That working relationship would last more than 17 years and also evolve into a good friendship, Multon said, adding that she also became good friends with Butler’s wife at the time, Faye.
The jump from the small 10-unit Cocoplum development to the large 70-unit Plantation Village complex was a challenge for Multon, who by this time was in her mid-40s.
“Of course, I was much younger then, so I had a lot of energy and I didn’t see that as an obstacle,” she said. “I just saw it as a good challenge.”
But after three-and-a-half years, as she was approaching the age of 50, the pace of Plantation Village caught up with her. Multon suffered a blood clot in her leg and ended up in the hospital. Her doctor told her to remove some of the stress in her life and to spend less time on her feet; two things that weren’t really possible while managing Plantation Village.
When she left the hospital, Multon discussed the situation with Butler, who was just finishing up another development on the beach called Casa Caribe.
He said to me, ‘Annie, the tourist industry needs you. Take some time off, get the rest you need, get better. Casa Caribe is only 24 units. It’s much less work; much less stress and I want you to go and open that for me’. That’s how I ended up at Casa Caribe and I was there for almost 11 years.”
By the mid-90s, Multon was close to 60. She was a grandmother by this time and the house mortgage was paid off. The demands of the tourism industry were difficult on her family life and Multon decided she wanted to spend more time with her family. So she retired. She was given a big send off by her employer and the Department of Tourism with presents, newspaper articles and a lot of warm wishes.
“I thought, now I can go home, do gardening, spend more time with my family, go travel when I want to, where ever I want to,” she said.
She went home, rearranged the pictures on the wall, redecorated some of the rooms in the house, had leisurely mornings drinking coffee and had tea time with friends. It didn’t take long for her to became bored… and miserable.
“Peter said to me one day, ‘Annie, something isn’t right with you. Let’s talk about it’. And I said, ‘What do you mean, something isn’t right with me?’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not the same person. Somehow you’ve lost that happy-go-lucky attitude. I see it, and the kids see it, too.’ My eldest daughter [Hilmae], who’s very much like me – very outspoken – she said, ‘Mom, you’re bored to death. What you need to do is get a little part-time job or something because in the last month or so I’ve noticed that you’re not as happy. Now that you’ve done everything that you came home to do, you’re not happy anymore’.”
Multon knew her family was right. Not long afterwards, she ran into Butler in the supermarket. He asked her how she was doing and said he’d heard she was bored and not really liking retirement.
“I said, ‘Well, to tell you the truth, Brian, that is true.’ And he said, ‘You know, we’re just doing the Avalon [condominium development] and we haven’t got a manager yet. Why don’t you think about it’?”
After talking it over with her husband and taking a look at the almost-completed Avalon complex, Multon decided she’d like to end her short retirement. After an interview process, Multon was offered the manager’s job and she and Peter moved back to beach. In 1998, after more than three years on the job, Multon decided she was really ready to retire, at least from condominium management.
Retirement for Annie Multon is not retirement for most people. After returning to her home in Snug Harbour, Multon knew she had to do something. She felt it had to be something tourism related, since that is what she knew, but she didn’t want to be on call 24/7 like she was as a condo manager.
“We had this house, the kids were all gone, and it’s just Peter and me in this big house with all these bedrooms,” she said. “Over the years, people used to ask me, “Is there any bed and breakfast around? Someplace that is nice and clean you can walk to the beach, you can walk to shop’? And I thought, ‘You know what, why don’t I just do that’.”
Multon first had to convince her husband and children that turning their family home into a bed and breakfast accommodation would be a good idea.
“They knew I needed to do something. They didn’t want me to be unhappy,” she said, noting that by this time she already had great grandchildren with whom she needed to spend time.
The family agreed, but with some conditions.
“It was agreed that special holidays was family time,” she said. “If somebody wanted to come for Christmas, they would either have to come before Christmas Day or after Christmas Day. There was nobody going to knock on my door on Christmas Day and say, ‘We’re here’, because during Christmas dinner that wasn’t going to happen. I had missed too many Christmas dinners as a result of my previous jobs.”
It was also agreed that when the Multon planned a vacation away, they would simply block out the dates and tell people it wasn’t available during that time.
“I had to make those concessions and then I could operate my bed and breakfast,” she said.
Annie’s Place opened in December 1998 and has been open ever since.
Multon said Annie’s Place is more like a small boutique hotel than a bed and breakfast. Each room has its own television and guests get a full-cooked breakfast. There’s daily maid service and Annie’s offers laundry and ironing service.
Guests also get house keys.
“At most B&Bs, you don’t get a set of keys,” she said. “You come home when somebody is there to let you in. I tell all of my customers, ‘I did curfews; I ain’t doing it again. You have your keys. You come and go as you like. I’m not waiting up for anybody’. So, that always gets a laugh. And it makes life easy.”
Of course, guests at Annie’s Place get to experience Annie and Peter, and a genuine slice of the Cayman Islands.
“If you go to Trip Adviser and click on to Annie’s, and I’m proud to say this… beautiful comments,” she said. “We spend time with our guests – because we have the time. We tell them about the Island, where they should go and where they shouldn’t go. Some people don’t want to tell them where they shouldn’t go; we do. As I see it, they’re my guests. As long as they’re in my house, they’re my responsibility and I want to know that they’re safe and they they’re happy and that they’ve had a good experience and when they go back they can tell their friends about it and tell them what a great place Cayman is.”
Multon said she tries to make her guests feel at home, giving them freedom to move throughout the living room, kitchen, library and TV room, rather than confining them to their bedrooms. In the end, Multon wants her guests to experience Cayman the way she knows – after so many years in the tourism industry – visitors crave to experience it.
“When I decided to do this, I wanted to do this the Caymanian way,” she said. “Give to the people, speak to the people, talk to the people and make them feel that Caymanian hospitality.”
Multon said it is sad to see that most visitors to the Cayman Islands no longer get to experience Caymanian hospitality.
“That is why I’m encouraging, whatever government gets in, if they want hospitality, if they want to offer the visitor the true flavour of Cayman hospitality, they need to start training our young people – or putting or older people,who already know it and can help train the young ones, back to work – to give the people what they came here for in the first instance.”
Although Multon said Annie’s Place had a very good winter season in 2013, it’s never been about the money for her.
“As Peter said – and he tells everybody – ‘The bed and breakfast is not a money-maker. It’s for Annie’s entertainment [because] she has to have people around her’.”
Multon doesn’t argue the point.
“I enjoy people,” she said. “I just love to have people around.”
Although hotel, condominium and now bed and breakfast management has always been Multon’s main job, she’s had – and still has – her fingers in many business pies over the years.
In the 1980s, she started a company called Tropical Exposure that placed racks with advertising brochures in hotels, condominiums and other areas with high traffic of tourists.
She’s dabbled in real estate for many years, mostly helping out selective clients. After retirement, she amended her business licence to include property management; something she still does on a limited basis.
“I’ve only taken on the number of properties that I can manage, do the books and everything with Peter’s help and the help of a maintenance man and two cleaning people,” she said. “Because a lot of staff can really wear you down and get to you… they call in sick and they do this and they do that. So I made a concerted effort not to… take on any more than [the number of properties where] if I have to jump in there and do something, I can do it myself.”
In 2004, Multon decided she needed to invest in something that could bring in a little more money than her other endeavours.
“That’s when I took my savings and invested in a boat,” she said, adding that she and Peter, with two partners, had the boat ‘Moby Dick’ built in Honduras in the spring of 2004 and launched the business that summer. A couple of months later Hurricane Ivan devastated Grand Cayman.
“We got a message the next morning after Ivan that the boat was totally destroyed,” she said. “So, we thought, ‘Well, well, there goes our retirement fund’. And Peter said, ‘Mark and Richard and I are going out there this afternoon – they’re my other partners – to check out the boat. Don’t get yourself all stressed out’. They were gone a couple of hours and then they came back with big smiles on their face. They said, ‘We don’t know which boat they’re talking about, but it’s not Moby Dick because the only thing that is wrong with Moby Dick is it has a crack on the windscreen.’
The boat was fixed up and once the cruise ships returned to Cayman in late November of that year, the business boomed on Moby Dick and has been booming ever since.
“The boat paid for itself within the first 19 months of operation,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it. So we get our quarterly pay-outs and we keep the boat in good condition and we get repeat customers after repeat customers because we have an excellent crew that knows exactly how to treat people.”
After having some difficulties with transportation to and from Moby Dick, Multon and her husband – on their own – invested in a bus to shuttle the cruise passengers back and forth to the boat. After sorting out an issue with getting insurance for the bus, the Multons had some difficulties with finding reliable bus drivers.
“After having driver issues, Mr. Multon decided he’s going to do this himself,” she said, laughing.
Between all of her various ventures, Multon said she has enough work to keep her occupied.
“It’s enough to keep me busy, but not so busy that I don’t have time for my family, I don’t have time for my friends, I don’t have time for my charities and most of all, that I don’t have time for me.”
The ‘giving back’ Multon wanted to do didn’t end with the hotel training school back in the 1970s, and in fact it was just starting at the time.
She was a founding board member of the Cayman chapter of the Business & Professional Women’s Club in 1976 and she remains a member to this day.
“I’ve been president of the club three times,” she said. “I’m still very active. I’m chairperson of the scholarship committee presently.”
Multon was also a founding board member of Cayman Against Substance Abuse, which eventually became the National Drug Council, a body in which she served as chairman for many years. In addition, she served as the chairperson of the Labour Tribunal – when that body existed – for 13 years.
She’s a board member of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and a regular member of both the National Trust and Cayman Island Cancer Society.
“Those are charities I support, but my passion is the Business & Professional Women’s Club and the work that we do with scholarships that we give,” she said, adding that the first scholarship recipient of the Business & Professional Women’s Club was none other than former Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.
Multon said that giving back to the community is very important to her.
“When I count my blessings, when I look back at the humble childhood I’m coming from, to see where God has blessed me and brought me to, it gives me pleasure to give back,” she said. “Because if somebody along the line hadn’t thought, back those many, many years ago, ‘We should help this young woman by giving her a job, by nurturing her, by mentoring her’, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Now it’s my turn to give back. And I do it with every vein in my heart.”
Over the past year, Multon has become known as one of the activists who strongly opposed the closure of part of West Bay Road as part of the Government’s deal with the Dart Group known as the ForCayman Investment Alliance.
Multon is in fact one of the four petitioners who has sued the Cayman Islands Government in effort to have that aspect of the deal reversed. Despite the fact that the section of road has now been closed, Multon remains steadfast that it should not have been.
“We have used that road for over a hundred years,” she said. “Caymanians take their heritage seriously. We see that road as a part of our heritage that was given to us.”
Multon explains that part of the reason for the objection to closing the road stems from the relationship Caymanians have with the sea.
“Caymanians, from when we are born, we’re taught about the ocean, the benefits of the ocean, that when you get aches and pains, you go to the ocean, soak there for about half and hour, when you come out you dry in the sun and you’re healed,” she said. “So the ocean is important to us. To be able to see the ocean every day is important to us. There’s nothing more beautiful than driving by and seeing the ocean. When we have a government that allows that to be taken from us, that’s upsetting.”
Multon said she and others believe the government betrayed Caymanians for money.
“We as a people cannot help but think that by the way we have been treated and ignored, that the almighty dollar is more important than human beings to some people,” she said.
Although the road closure deal involves the Dart Group, Multon said the objection isn’t with Dart. She pointed out that nowhere in the writ that was filed against the government is the Dart Group even mentioned. She said she’s not one of the people who shuns Dart’s Camana Bay development because of the West Bay Road closure issue.
“I go to Camana Bay. I shop at Camana Bay. Camana Bay, in some instances, it’s nice,” she said, adding that the urban feel of having so many buildings close together isn’t to her tastes. “But then, I’m not a town planner. It’s [just] different than Cayman. We like things more low level, sort of sprawled out. But the kids go there, the grand kids, and they enjoy themselves. We go to the movies we go to the restaurants… oh yeah, we do. But we don’t visit it and do things there to the detriment of the other stores and the other restaurants that have been around for a quarter of a century.”
In the end though, Multon objects to the government that allowed the deal to happen.
“Remember, people can only do what they are allowed to do,” she said. “I can’t come to your country and do as I would like unless you allowed me to do it. That’s the way we look at this.”