SAINT VINCENT—As an investor with no previous hotel experience, starting a hotel chain is a challenge. But Dave Ames, founder of Harlequin Hotels & Resorts, seems to be taking in stride.
After selling his construction business five years ago, the British entrepreneur initially invested in land in the Caribbean to bolster his pension. However, as the owner of “thousands of acres” and a construction-based background, Ames was soon encouraged to build. Harlequin’s first hotel—the Buccament Bay Resort, St. Vincent—opened in April 2011.
Ames did his research before building. “I looked at all the large chains and realized this type of hotel was not what people necessarily want anymore,” he said. “Ninety percent of the hotels in the Caribbean haven’t had any investment into them for years. They are now mostly owned by the banks, and the average hotel quality in the Caribbean is, to be honest, pretty poor.
Dave Ames, founder of Harlequin Hotels & Resorts
“Because of our emphasis on high-quality design, service and facilities, not only are we taking business from the rest of the Caribbean, but we are also drawing people away from places like Dubai and the Far East who enjoy a standard of hotels that is not usually available in the Caribbean,” he added.
Starting off as a self-financed move with no debt tied to the property, Ames had a certain amount of freedom to follow his own plan of action and to build “a completely different concept for the Caribbean.”
His team works closely with the government to ensure strict regulations are adhered to and investment benefits the local community. The luxury of available space allows for grand facilities, such as a recently completed full-sized soccer pitch. Top-tier soccer teams from the United Kingdom have come to play tournaments and teach local children. Former tennis star Pat Cash drops in to coach, and the performing arts calendar is filled with well-known names from international theatre as well as classes for local children. The resort’s Cricket Academy is set to open in April, working in partnership with the West Indies Cricket Board on a community initiative that also will provide residents and guests master class coaching.
Close to vest
Ames emphasized that the management structure has been integral, noting that he’s running it with his management team, which allows him to have control of the product. “ We’re not being told by anyone what we have to do,” he said.
The small team includes Mark Sawkins, VP of operations, who was also GM for Buccament Bay at the time of opening. With more than 25 years of experience in the industry (including Los Angeles-based Viceroy Hotel Group and Southern Sun Hotels of South Africa), Sawkins is perhaps better placed at addressing the practicalities of hotel operation.
Mark Sawkins, VP of operations
“Working in such a small and unique business was a great challenge, and it’s been gratifying to see it so successful so quickly,” he said.
“Occupancies have been between 80% and 85% throughout the last year,” Sawkins added. “Our average room rate varies between the seasons and on how we add more villas to our inventory, but rack rates have been between $650 and $1,800 per night. We have been very fortunate in achieving our set goals and rates we set for the first year.”
Early on, Ames opened investment opportunities for friends and contacts that he said were keen to get a slice of the action. Now, with around 6,000 small to medium investors who each have contributed at least £10,000 ($15,635), Ames said his partners are pleased with good returns.
The successful first year and additional investment encouraged Ames to stay at the helm of the management team and expand with reasonable speed. In late February, Buccament Bay opened 67 additional rooms, adding to the existing 125 villas, and will see 50 more villas open by the end of the year. There is no international airport, so Harlequin will begin flying a private airline to provide easier access to St. Vincent later this month.
In a market usually dominated by arrivals from the U.S., the majority of clientele so far has come from the U.K. Harlequin will begin marketing to that region later this month, Ames said.
Despite running the first property for less than a year, Harlequin already is pushing ahead with building a small chain. This April, a second property—a refurbished 4-star hotel in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, which will be rebranded from Hotel Blu to H St. Lucia—will open. And in the spring of 2013, Harlequin will open H Barbados, a “6-star boutique resort” on the former site of another hotel in Hastings, Barbados. Plans also are underway for two resorts in the Dominican Republic.