CJI Conversation: The Hartling Group’s Karen Whitt on the Turks and Caicos Hotel Industry
By Joe Pike, Special Contributor
The Hartling Group, which represents three top luxury hotels in Turks and Caicos, was poised to have its strongest first quarter in company history, said Karen Whitt, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Then the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, eventually forcing all Turks and Caicos resorts to close its doors on March 28.
In fact, Whitt, who also serves as president-elect for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), told Caribbean Journal Invest (CJI) that she expected Turks and Caicos, in general, to have its best first quarter in the destination’s history.
Whitt said hotel investors in Turks and Caicos, and the Caribbean in general, are adjusting to new resort protocols from eliminating pens and brochures from rooms to requiring all employees to wear plastic aprons, masks and gloves while cleaning the rooms. Also, it will not be allowed anymore for someone to clean a room while a guest is present, said Whitt.
In a Q&A with CJI, Whitt shed some more light on the future of the hotel landscape in Turks and Caicos once the coronavirus crisis ends.
Does Hartling (which operates The Palms Turks and Caicos, The Shore Club Turks and Caicos resort and The Sands at Grace Bay) have plans in place for re-opening? Not so much date-wise or when they will open, but more HOW they will open? How will they prepare for a travel-starved customer base?
That’s a tricky question, to be honest.
First and foremost, we shut down during the height of high season, so when we closed in mid-March all Turks hotels in the whole country were already in tip-top shape.
We had gone through a fall of doing all the refurbishing and renovating, and getting the hotels in shape for the season.
Our curfew was March 28. All hotels in the whole country closed. That was a mandate by the government. But we were ready for what would have been the most successful first quarter in the history for all three hotels, so we already prepared for that.
We have a small crew at every hotel. Every [general manager] is staying at each hotel. We have essential staff, such as security, obviously. We have enough people to make sure the system is running smooth – the essential team is looking after the irrigation systems, pumps, and pools.
We will have a full team come in and clean all areas of all hotels, all guest areas. There will be seriously deep cleaning going on. The landscaping will be done, the beaches will be prepped from top to bottom.
Cleanliness is key to all of this. Luxury hotels are already known for cleanliness. That is something that is an expectation of a luxury resort, but now that will be taken a step further.
I know it’s hard to think about this now, but does Hartling think any of its hotels in Turks will actually face the issue of too many bookings? A system crash, etc.?
We are going to limit the number of people in our hotels at a given time. I’d say about 20 percent of the [room] inventory [between all three hotels will be off limits at first].
So, we don’t expect too many bookings because we are going to have to follow new protocols regarding how many people are able to stay at the hotel at once.
Can you please talk about residential resorts and how they may be the future of hotel development, especially post coronavirus?
Obviously, the condo-resort business model is a favorable model because it allows you to share the risk of your operation with the condo owner. Condo owners essentially become partners.
It allows two things: you have an automatic financial base, but you can also create a lot more when you have these renters and investors, and so forth.
For Turks and Caicos, the main thing I like about it is a couple of things. It gives us a built-in base of airlift during downtime. Because we have a loyal customer base of owners that are eager to support the local economy, they will be the first people to run back to the destination. They want to rebuild the economy where their second home is.
It’s attractive. It is the future of hotel development post corona, but corona has nothing to do with it. The condo-resort model is strong whether it is facing a crisis or not facing a crisis.
Generally speaking, most condo-resorts tend to be low density and are very spacious. They are built to be, and be perceived as, second homes, so from a design standpoint that might attract someone more post-corona. Low density tends to be more luxurious because it allows developers to use all other resources for the common areas.
Will Hartling’s properties offer deals or discounted rates when this is over? Or is that just fiscally impossible since the company may need to make up for lost revenue?
I look at it a little differently.
We are taking extreme measures and creating a new amenity with masks and hand sanitizers. I guess the compelling message for the public is to come here because we are doing everything we can. And you are arriving at a place that is safe and clean.
That is a value add. Peace of mind that you are going to a safe and clean place is now a value add. In lieu of discounting, we are investing that money by taking extreme measures to be healthy and clean.
And there is nothing cheap about those measures.
One example is food and beverage. We have to limit reservations because tables will be spread out more. Parallel 23 (The Palms’ signature restaurant), for example, will probably see 70 or 80 guests a night, compared to 120 a night.
The clientele [that Turks and Caicos and The Hartling Group attracts], they are not looking for deals. They are going to be happy and anxious.
And that’s why the Caribbean will be sought after. It’s easy access. Plus, an open-air, beach destination is perceived as a clean and healthy environment. So, no, we will not be offering discounts and deals, and so forth.
But we always believe in added value. So, people can expect that when they visit us.