Regional hotel design builds relationships with guests

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From left: Jim Freeman, FSC Architects; Jose Matheu, Palladium Hotel Group; Neil Kolton, Interval International; Bojan Kumer, Marriott International; and Andres Osorio, OBM International. (Photo: CHICOS)


HAMILTON, Bermuda—Indigenous design is nothing new to the Caribbean, but it has taken on more importance as consumers become more selective about experiencing local culture and communities.

Speakers participating on the “Regional hotel design” panel at last month’s Caribbean Hotel Investment Conference & Operations Summit said the focus on “contemporary regional design” has reached a crescendo. For the Caribbean region, it’s all about “tropicalization.”

“In regional design, you have to be true to your location, like as a stable plan to enhance and preserve your environment and connect to your community,” said Andres Osorio, a designer in OBM International’s design creation studio. “There’s no way to create great experiences without putting it into the community.”

“Every location has its pluses and minuses, so try to address that and know who the demographic is you’re catering to,” said Neil Kolton, director of the Caribbean and Florida resort sales and service for Interval International. The Miami-based vacation ownership company has approximately 180 affiliated resorts located throughout the Caribbean.

“Embrace all the things that your destination has to offer and really incorporate that into the guest experience in any way possible, both when they’re on-site and visiting the nearby attractions,” Kolton said.

A common thread throughout the discussion was that by being appealing to the local community, hotels will also appeal to guests.

“It is important to do a market study to understand the market, understand the local culture, to be able to build a product that is going to be supported by the locals,” said Bojan Kumer, Marriott International’s VP of development for the Caribbean. “We have to be able to build a product that is going to attract the customers to come back.”

Balancing the creation of a well-designed resort and making money on it is the obvious big challenge, said Jim Freeman, founding principal of Honolulu-based FSC Architects.

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“The main thing you don’t want to do is just throw a lot of money at it,” he said. “The focus is on where is the bang for the buck. Understand where you’re going to get the most impact for the money.”

Some of that contemporary regional design should be evident from the moment a guest reaches a property, Freeman said.

“First impressions are very important,” he said. “Are you going to create the Walmart sense of arrival—pulling up in a big parking lot with a blank building—or are you going to create a different sense of arrival with wonderful landscape and porte cochére and people coming out there?”

But the tropicalization of a hotel involves the entire property, speakers said.

Kumer’s “tropicalization” example involves the introduction of the Courtyard by Marriott brand to the region. The brand attracts business travelers and requires certain amenities—but it needed to reflect the Caribbean region. The company has taken the same approach in Asia.

“We’ve studied the market and we’ve said, ‘Look, there is an opportunity in that leisure market for business travelers as well, especially on the islands that has a significant business component,” he said. “When they travel to the Caribbean region, they don’t want to pay $300 to $400 a night—they’re looking for $150 to maybe $200, $210, $220—(so) you also have to bear in mind the budget to build.

“We said, ‘OK, Courtyard would be a perfect fit, and what we can do is tropicalize it’—meaning extend the brand and create a brand extension of Courtyard Resort.”

The company has been actively looking for a project to fit within those parameters, including operating as a select-service brand, Kumer said. The components of such a property would include larger room sizes with more double-doubles to accommodate more families and a resort-style pool.


The use of outdoors is cool in hot climates

Osorio said the firm “tropicalized” the St. Regis in Bermuda by making unique room sizes to reflect the resort environment. In May, the company broke ground on the 122-room hotel, which is expected to open in 2020.

“We’re in a resort environment, so we were able to get the brand to have a smaller room, but a bigger terrace—but overall we have the same footprint,” Osorio said. “You have to accommodate the hotel to its place.”

Freeman agreed that the use of outdoor space is important to provide guests with a sense of place in tropical climates.

“The outside spaces are just as important, if not more important, than the inside spaces, especially with resort hotels,” he said.

Kolton said developing a resort in a tropical location should include some options in case the building’s purpose changes.

“The tourism economy goes through changes, consumers’ interests continue to evolve,” he said. “The purpose of the product might need to evolve over time to change to address changing market conditions. Today I might be an independent, tomorrow, maybe the property’s better-suited with a brand or a management or a franchise agreement or some kind of licensing deal or maybe today it makes as a hotel, but demand is really needed for more vacation ownership or condo hotel product.”

“I love when we can get with a developer early on when they’re in those design and planning stages … we try to encourage them to design a product that is flexible and can evolve,” Kolton said.

The health and safety requirements vary greatly for different lodging products throughout the Caribbean region, which makes it important for developers to ensure they think ahead, Kolton said.

“I’ve seen a lot of deals where developers eventually do want to franchise or go with a brand or convert to vacation ownership or maybe sell the asset to a timeshare developer or a mixed-use developer,” he said, “and if that property wasn’t built to the health and safety requirements of a U.S. based hospitality brand, it’s extremely expensive and sometimes impossible to retrofit it.”


Hurricane aftermath

The spate of hurricanes that battered the region during past six months will most likely lead to building code changes, the speakers said.

Freeman recalled the effects of Hurricane Iniki and Hurricane Andrew had on the hotel industry after they struck Hawaii and Florida, respectively, in 1992, as examples of how storms can change things.

“The codes, because of those two hurricanes that were within a couple weeks apart, changed very quickly,” he said. “Dade County (Florida) adopted a new code, and quickly around the country (areas) that were prone to hurricanes adopted the Dade County code. It quickly became universal. Now it’s become integrated into the international code. It’s quite standard now.”

Osorio agreed.

“This type of catastrophe brings code enforcements,” Osorio said. “I lived through Hurricane Ida in the Cayman. And after that, you can see it now, you have a strong enforcement of the code. So I think that in this particular region the codes will get enforced.”