Talking Tourism in the Dominican Republic With Roberto Casoni

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - December 13, 2013

Above: Roberto Cassoni

By Guy Britton

PUERTO PLATA — While the Dominican Republic has become well known for its many all-inclusive resorts, there are pockets of exclusive, small properties across the eastern half of Hispaniola, led by the EP Casa Colonial in the Playa Dorado area of Puerto Plata, considered to be the first true luxury boutique hotel in the area (and also the first Small Luxury Hotel of the World in the country). To learn more about boutique hotels and tourism in Puerto Plata and the Dominican Republic, Caribbean Journal caught up with Roberto Casoni, president of the Playa Dorado Hotel Association, executive vice president at VH Hotels and resorts and princpal at the Casa Colonial boutique hotel.

Why was the Playa Dorada Hotel Association and the Puero Plata Touristic Cluster formed?

The actual structure that we created some years ago was to try to coordinate the destination. Inside of this cluster are the hotel associations, the associations of tour operators, chambers of commerce. So we tried to get all of the private sector involved with the economic activity and tourism. This has helped us to have a good connection with the public authorities. Because our destination is not inside of the hotels, it’s outside. So it’s important to create an infrastructure, a grid outside of the hotel, to create the kind of lobbying to make everything outside better.

Are there any other promotional organizations in the Dominican Republic? And how are they linked to central tourism authority?

The Dominican Republic has ASONAHORES, as well as Playa Dorada and Puerto Plata [associations]. So that is the national hotel association, and we also have OPETUR, the national tour operators’ association and the association of travel agents. So all are involved in tourism.

You established the first and, for a while, the only EP hotel in Playa Dorada.

In Playa Dorada, and also the first in the Dominican Republic — the first luxury boutique. Because in the past, boutiques were small EP hotels, two or three stars. But boutique is not just about size, it’s a kind of service and a small scale, it’s different from a commercial centre. In a boutique, you can buy Vouitton and have people who select and serve you. This is the concept of a boutique. We were the first, because we thought it was something that was missing. We thought that all-inclusives could limit service, and because, we have to be honest, the all-inclusive needs to have a high, guaranteed level of occupancy to maintain the level of service. If you don’t want to lose money, you can’t have few clients. Because you have to guarantee some service, and the costs immediately go up. So with the EPs, and because Puerto Plata has so many things to do outside of the hotels, you can’t trap clients inside your hotel all the time. So it’s better to put a little higher price for the room, for a fantastic level of service and to try to convince the client to remain in your hotel because you are good, not because they’ve already paid.

You are also a director of some all-inclusive resorts. How is managing an all-inclusive different from an all-inclusive?

All-inclusives were born many years ago. The level of costs was low, you had good margins and at that time, medium to low scale. We changed from EP to all-inclusive with a 190-room hotel. But now, to be all-inclusive, you need every year to be bigger and bigger and bigger, because you’re competing against big chains that already have hotels with thousands of rooms. All-inclusives started as normal hotels that offered three meals plus beverages. Today, it’s a commercial centre with rooms. It’s like airports — in the past, airports were just a check-in desk, a security area, a bar and bathrooms. Today, they’re commercial centres with runways. So all-inclusives are this too — they’re commercial centres with rooms. So what happened? We considered the scale of all-inclusives as very big, as going up and up. So we are in a destination where many of the attractions are outside of the hotels. So we try to do our best in the all-inclusives, but the problem is, to be competitive, you have to have very, very high occupancy. In the EP, you can stay with lower occupancy and maintain the level of quality. You don’t have to maintain five restaurants open — the important thing is to have one or two that are very, very good.

How is the business in Puerto Plata changing as a destination?

Many years ago, when it was booming, Puerto Plata was one of the first tourist destinations in the Dominican — one of the first. But we were really not prepared as a destination to receive these clients. So the town was not in good condition, it was not clean. There was not a good power supply. There was not a good water supply. All of these things. And there were not many complementary options in town — you had one or two restaurants, but at what level? So now, it’s completely different. In the last 10 years in Puerto Plata, it has completely changed. So has the level of the economy so there are now more offerings outside, plenty of restaurants you can be on the malecon, the government has invested in the town. It’s one of the cleanest towns in the Dominican Republic. Now it’s a perfect destination for a client that doesn’t want to stay 100 percent of his holidays inside a hotel. There are plenty of options, plenty of excursions — cigar factories, rum factories, kitesurfing, many things to do.

What makes Puerto Plata different from other destinations in the DR and the Caribbean?

The sense of place.

How has the customer changed?

Of course, in the past, it was all one product, the hotels were three or four stars, all-inclusive. Now it’s changed, because in the last few years, we’ve had more clients that select a la carte holidays. But there’s much more of a variety of customers. A lot of the customers enjoy EP because they believe it’s not only about a resort experience. You feel the country here. It’s what I tell travel agents when I visit — if you want to have the resort experience, go somewhere else. If you want to feel the country, come to Puerto Plata.

What is something people don’t know about Puerto Plata or the Dominican Republic?

The people here in Puerto Plata have a positive point of view of life. This is very important. The second thing is that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the end of the 19th century, Puerto Plata was the most important commercial harbour in the region. That meant that, because of all the commercial production, it attracted a lot of families from Europe to come and live here. So it created a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. Today, it’s a place where people don’t just come to visit, but many people remain to live here. So you have people from all over the world coming here — Italy, Europe, Russia, so it’s a mix of local communities and foreigners living here.

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