By Nicholas Gill
MEXICO CITY—Many think staying at a 500-room, all-inclusive beach resort sums up the entire hotel experience in Mexico. That is no longer the case. While those types of resorts do exist and probably always will, many hoteliers are trying to diversify as guests are increasingly demanding more than just a clean room and an ocean view.
For those travelers looking for a more authentic, uniquely Mexican experience, they can now find restored colonial haciendas hidden away in the Yucatan jungle and sleek boutique hotels like Puebla’s La Purificadora, which was designed from a historic water purification plant. There are hotels built out of retired bullrings and recycled concrete tubes and cliffside bungalows that sit perched above a remote fishing village. Even the all-inclusive hotels offer up more than jet skis and snorkel trips.
At the 2012 Mexico Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference held Wednesday in Mexico City on behalf of HVS, developers and representatives from major hotel brands discussed ways in which Mexico’s hotel fleet is evolving to keep up with the increasingly diverse consumer demands.
Mexico has long been a home to top luxury hotel brands such as The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis Hotels and Resorts, and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, though these hoteliers said they are learning that luxury travelers are looking for more than just a name.
“The luxury traveler is not only looking for great service, but new experiences and great food,” said Gregory Pitts, a partner at Realty Financial Resources, who was moderating a panel discussion on Mexico’s luxury lodging segment.
“If you look at our website now, it is experience emphasized,” said Alinio Azevedo, the director of development of Four Seasons. “In Punta Mita, we have cooking classes and other culinary experiences, which have been a tremendous success. It must feel like the destination. Travel is about experience.”
Luxury hotels and resort operators in the region increasingly are opening up to new ideas that extend beyond a beautiful beach and water sports. They are offering tours to indigenous villages, tequila and mescal tastings, Spanish classes, and even offering volunteer opportunities.
“When travelers do pay $1,000 a night, they want the experience,” Azevedo said. “If they don’t get that experience, they’ll remember it. We are now very close to achieving the 2007 and 2008 markets in this side of the world.”
While in the past many hoteliers saw environmental concerns as something they just had deal with, they are now finding ways to embrace it.
“Environment is one of the key drivers in Latin America,” said Bryan Algeo, VP and director of planning at Irvine, California-based WATG. “Guests are looking for ways to celebrate the environment, not just minimize the damage. It gives a project authenticity. Travelers can see through a thin veil. If you don’t take the right steps it could sink a project.”
Hoteliers are discovering they must do more than just a card on the bed or in the bathroom promoting the reuse of towels and sheets. Solar power, wastewater recycling, avoiding plastic bottles and energy-saving building techniques are all on the table, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas, of which Mexico has many.
“Sustainability is pretty common-sense design,” Algeo said. “It’s good design and not always the least expensive.”
Algeo described to the panel how a project in the U.S. that achieved the very rare LEED-platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council had grown a cult following.
“It takes a developer with vision and conviction. It is proof that you can achieve higher room rates at higher levels,” he said.
The success of mixed-use
Mixed-use resort projects are being seen as examples of what is to come. Fonatur, Mexico’s sustainable development institute, has 12 master plan projects in the works, including the $30-million Marina Cozumel that opens next week.
Like Mayakoba on the Riviera Maya—which is the combination of major luxury resorts such as Banyan Tree and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, a Greg Norman-designed golf course, residential units and a mangrove conservation project—the projects are a joint effort of the Mexican government and the private sector. As many of the locations of the new projects are quite remote, such as Playa Espiritu and Costa Capoma, the construction of roads and utilities can take years of planning.
“It is important to inform and work with government to find solutions,” said Astrid Hoffmann, VP of EDSA.
More often than not, developers are discovering ways to work with the terrain, rather than transform it into something it is not.
“For us it is fundamental to know the land, to walk through it, to experience it,” Hoffmann said.