The Ritz-Carlton one year on

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman celebrates its first birthday today, Friday 15 December, and despite having achieved many accolades already and attained good business levels, the hotel is not without its challenges.

Jean Cohen

General Manager Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Jean Cohen in front of the gingerbread house made by the hotel’s pastry chefs. The gingerbread bricks were baked and attached to the wooden frame of the house. The bricks were stuck together with frosting and children decorated it with candies. Photo: Cliodhna McGowan

The 365-room luxury resort has officially been open for business a full year and has seen a flood of affluent visitors come to stay.

It has also seen many celebrities pass through its doors, including tennis star Anna Kournikova, actor William Baldwin and singer Sheryl Crow.

Looking back on the past year, it has exceeded General Manager Jean Cohen’s expectations in terms of guest and staff satisfaction.

The hotel was rated No. 1 in the company for guest satisfaction.

‘Everyone was shocked because it just doesn’t happen that a new hotel can keep that (rating). At the beginning they thought it was just good luck and that it would not be sustained but we showed them. And we’re really far ahead of the next hotel,’ she said.

This is a testament to the ladies and gentlemen, said Ms Cohen. ‘They’re really special,’ she said. ‘We hear it over and over and over again – how warm and caring the employees are.’

Business levels have also been good, but the cost of doing business has gone up so much it’s been difficult, she admits.

With regard to utility costs Ms Cohen said, ‘I mean they are really just eating our profits’. Noting that this is a problem for everyone island-wide, she added, ‘The cost of utilities is really, really prohibitively high’.

So, while the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman has good revenues, it still needs to have better profits.

Airlift has been another challenge.

Guests are having problems getting flights here out of the North East or New York area, Ms Cohen explained. And the affluent guests that visit the Ritz-Carlton want non-stop flights so they don’t have to change planes in Miami. There is only once a week direct service from Continental Airlines between Newark and Grand Cayman. ‘We’re getting lots of complaints about the lack of direct service,’ said Ms Cohen.

In winter, guests tend to mostly travel from the North East US while they come from the more southern states such as Florida in summer.

The cost of airlift is another hurdle. ‘Other destinations are less expensive to fly to, so when people are looking at the cost of a vacation, especially during the summer, when they’re a little more price conscious, it all turns out to be a much more expensive vacation.’

Another potential challenge facing the hotel is the new passport requirement for US citizens re-entering the US from the Caribbean by air. This requirement comes into effect the end of January.

Although most Ritz-Carlton guests have passports, their children also need passports, and if, say, a child’s has expired they may not bother to come here, she said.

Business has been mostly good all year apart from a lull in the summer, Ms Cohen confirmed, with a real low in September (around 30 per cent or lower occupancy). October was also quiet.

‘We have to find ways to build that up,’ she said.

A busy hurricane season last year and Hurricane Ivan before that have dampened people’s spirits for group travel with the Caribbean at that time of year, she said.

Transient business has also stopped that time of year as children are back at school. And with airlines cutting back on flights in the summer, planes are full and it can be difficult to get a seat, she said.

‘What really happens from a business point of view is that you try to make all your money in the first six months and then hang on for the next five or six months.’

The hotel is fully committed through Christmas and New Year and looking very busy beyond this.

Of course the hotel’s official opening party, with superstar Sheryl Crow and visiting celebrities and travel writers did a lot to put the hotel and Grand Cayman on the map right from early in the year. It resulted in about $15 million worth of public relations.

Great accolades followed. Condé Nast Readers’ Poll rated the establishment the second top resort in the Caribbean. ‘It’s unheard of for Condé Nast because it’s a readers’ poll and usually it takes a hotel years for that to happen,’ said Ms Cohen.

The hotel was also on the Condé Nast hot list for hot hotels and hot tables.

A 14-page feature in Travel andLeisure magazine on the resort and destination was also a big boost.

‘All of those third party endorsements with travel writers saying that this is the hot place to go are better than advertising because they have such credibility,’ Ms Cohen explained.

To celebrate its year anniversary, the hotel is having a special employee party this coming Monday.

‘This is a holiday/anniversary party to reward the ladies and gentlemen for their astonishing accomplishments,’ she said.

A children’s party on the afternoon of the 21st will keep the employees’ little ones entertained in fine style.

The hotel has just fewer than 900 staff, with nearly 200 of them Caymanian. With regard to the recent recruitment of Caymanians Ms Cohen said, ‘Now the reputation’s getting out that we take good care of employees and it’s a fun place to work and the guests are great and I think they’re starting to say ‘This is a good place to work’.’

One big upcoming event for the hotel is the grand opening of the Greg Norman designed Blue Tip golf course on 6 January, with Mr. Greg Norman on island for the event.

Tying in with this is the first Wonder Weekend being hosted by the hotel. These weekends, for the most part, hone in on US holidays and aim to attract holidaymakers here at that time through special themes being done in conjunction with the hotel’s many partners.

In fact, having partners is a new trend for Ritz-Carlton, such as Greg Norman, Eric Ripper and La Prairie, something the Grand Cayman resort is leading the way with.

Another upcoming event is the opening of new retail store Wave on 20 December. On the oceanfront side, the store will stock beach wear and watersports equipment and gift sets just in time for Christmas.

Of course the hotel is still a popular spot with residents.

With all the recent parties and charity balls recently held at the hotel its goal is to be the social centre for the island. Friday night is still hot with the 20 and 30 something socialite crowd.

7 Prime Cuts and Sunsets is very popular, and Periwinkle has been made a little more accessible and lower priced, something that has also been a huge success. Blue now also has a tapas menu making it more accessible to more people.

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