By Alexander Britell
Tim Hoffman is the owner of the historic Montpelier Plantation and Beach in Nevis. Originally a sugar plantation when Nevis’ crop ruled the Caribbean, the property has hosted everyone from Horatio Nelson to Princess Diana. Hoffman, whose family has owned the plantation, a Relais and Chateaux hotel, since 2002, talked about the way Nevis markets itself, the tradition of the property and what the future of Caribbean airlift means for the region’s tourism.
How did you end up at Montpelier?
As a family, we’d looked at purchasing a hotel for a number of years, primarily looking in the Bahamas, for a variety of reasons, but nothing really panned out. Long story short, we utilised some resources beyond our reach, who located Montpelier plantation for sale. We didn’t even know where Nevis was at the time, and looking at the property, it just rang all of our bells as far as what we were looking at as far as what we were going for, it seemed like an up and coming island, and it was very much the right place at the right time.
What do you think is unique about Nevis?
I think what’s unique about Nevis is a couple of things – the simplest way to describe it is as a step back in time. It’s very much like some of the more popular areas in the Caribbean, how they used to be. From my background – I grew up in the Bahamas, and I remember my parents describing what Nassau used to be like in the 1960s. It’s a step back in time, and, from a political point of view, I think the government has been very lucky to observe what’s happened in other Caribbean countries and possibly learn from mistakes that are made by being the first. Nevis was definitely not the first [island] to kick off in tourism, and I think we’ve been very lucky to look at other countries and be very good at being mindful of our heritage, of our history. I think the government’s very respectful of the need for hotels. I think it can be better, but I think they are very supportive of the small hotels as well as the large hotels.
Talk about the hotel’s ties to England.
In terms of hotels, the property’s got a very rich history. The plantation itself was actually owned by the governor of Nevis, dating back to about 1747. It’s where Horatio Nelson ended up meeting his first wife, Fanny Nisbet. He was being held out on a boat offshore, as he was not very welcome on the island because of laws that had been enforced in Britain, and he hadn’t made a lot of friends. Mr Herbert, who owned Montpelier, opened it to him and invited him to the hotel, and that’s where he met Fanny Nisbet. He ended up marrying her just down the road from the hotel, where the great house originally was. The hotel has a strong tie to England, in terms of Princess Diana – when she was divorcing her husband she came here with the boys to get away. So there’s a bit of English history at the hotel.
How would you describe the state of Caribbean airlift? What do these developments mean for Nevis?
Airlift is a double-edged sword. We beg for more airlift and we beg for more airlift, and on the same side, when that all comes in, we sometimes miss how it used to be when it was a little quieter. The reality is that airlift in the region continues to be a major problem. We’re heavily dependent on American Eagle, with their service out of San Juan, but their future is very questionable. I think they’re going through some structural changes, and inter-island travel is very difficult. LIAT’s reputation goes up and down. I think they’ve made a conscious effort to try to be better, but it’s a very difficult situation. The difficulties small islands have is we’re trying to court these airlines to come in and service the island, because we belidve there’s market demand for it, but the airlines will respond – “then why don’t you put in a guarantee and I’m sure you’ll be fine.” [Guarantees are when airlines demand a certain payment in the event that a minimum number of seats are not reached on a given flight]. Guarantees are sometimes very costly. I know both the Nevis government and the federal [St Kitts and Nevis] government have put a lot of money toward guarantees, and I think it’s a very competitive market. It’s a difficult thing. Nevis has gotten significantly better, but it comes at a huge cost.
What does Nevis do to market itself? Can it improve?
I think it’s a difficult question. In a digression – I think Nevis continues to struggle as a destination to be known as a tourist spot – our marketing dollars are far less than St Lucia, Barbados, Bahamas, Jamaica, the list goes on. There are several key hotels that have huge awareness. I think one of the struggles Nevis has is raising awareness about the destination. Clearly, we struggled as a country, specifically Nevis, with the closure of the Four Seasons, which was closed for 791 days [due to Hurricane Omar]. They constitute a major portion of income on the island, particularly in terms of taxation, and I think, therefore, it’s probably become a much more competitive market. I think we’ve probably flipped off the radar a little bit. I think the struggle as a tourism destination, is that we’ve held very true to our values. I don’t think we’ve ever sold our souls for tourism, we’re not bringing in casinos, produts that aren’t a part of what Nevis can be. But creating awareness is particularly a struggle. [Nevis] stays in the shadow of some of the larger Caribbean islands, that have much more awareness and significantly more marketing dollars. Pricing has also changed – everybody’s looking for a deal, and everybody is looking for a Rolls-Royce on a Ford budget. And that’s really a huge challenge that’s affecting all of the hotels.
What is your biggest market?
The United Kingdom. For us, we’re probably a little more unique – but the UK continues to be a really strong market for us, partly because of our English ties. We’re seeing the US market grow over the years, and I’m referencing in particular the years we’ve owned the hotel. Approaching the end of 2011, it was about 50-50. Definitely it’s the East Coast primarily, although we’re seeing some interest in the West Coast a little more because people have done Hawaii and done that so many times – and this is a new market for [them]. But again, it’s a long haul flight for them to get here.
Are you planning any new developments at the hotel?
In terms of the hotel, I think the hotel continues to evolve. Even when the economic climate kicked in, we did not want to stop doing anything, so we continued to market, continued to upgrade the hotel. We’re most excited about our beach project. We just opened our private cabanas at the beach, with six private cabanas and a new pavilion that offers a large couch format and teak tables, with lunches delivered right down from the hotel. The picnic tables have been replaced by nice teak tables. One of the unique features is that we have both the hilltop location and the private beach. We think we offer the best of both worlds.