Eight years in the family business was enough for Peter Hillenbrand to be sure it was not for him. He turned his back on the 9-to-5 life and took the plunge on a risky business venture, taking over a run-down Little Cayman resort.
More than two decades later, he can safely say the gamble paid off.
Mr. Hillenbrand was given the Cayman Islands Tourism Association’s lifetime achievement award Wednesday night, largely for his work in transforming the Southern Cross Club into a world-renowned luxury eco-resort.
He was one of several winners at the annual Stingray Awards at The Ritz-Carlton hotel Tuesday night as tourism industry workers gathered to pay tribute to the best in the business.
“It changed my life,” says Mr. Hillenbrand, of his decision, in 1995, to take over what was, at the time, a dilapidated resort.
It was tough at first, but he believes the challenges have been worth it.
“The Department of Tourism was on the verge of closing it down when we took over,” he said “It was kind of a seedy resort. We have slowly built it up to what it is today and I think it is something we can be proud of.”
After being presented with his award by Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, Mr. Hillenbrand paid tribute to his staff and to organizations like CITA and the Sister Islands Tourism Association that have helped make the Southern Cross Club a success.
“With the talent and the respect of the people out there in that room, just the fact that they nominated me is one of the greatest honors I have ever had,” he added.
A diver since he was 8 years old, and a regular visitor to Little Cayman, Mr. Hillenbrand, who studied marine biology, said it was the lure of the underwater world that attracted him to the island and that keeps him interested in the job today.
“It is better than being an astronaut,” he said of exploring Little Cayman’s reefs as a scuba diver. “You can learn about it a lot quicker, it is more accessible, less dangerous. If I ever get tired of the underwater world and the ecosystem in Little Cayman, then it is time to put me out of my misery.”
He believes Little Cayman should and will stay a pristine island, untouched by too much development.
“There is nowhere like it left in the Caribbean,” he said. “The biggest resort has 40 rooms and we are the second biggest with 14. We can continue to improve the product and there is room for more development as long as it is done responsibly. The ecosystem there and the natural environment is unique and that is the attraction of Little Cayman.”
There were many other winners on the tourism industry’s big night, as servers, kitchen staff, divemasters and housekeepers gathered to honor their colleagues across the industry.
Betise Bodden of Sunset House won the accommodations employee of the year award for her dedicated service as a housekeeper at the resort. Lois Hatcher, a dive instructor at East End’s Ocean Frontiers, who also spearheaded a reef restoration project in George Town, won the water sports employee of the year. Daniel Bond, who manages a fleet of boats for Red Sail Sports, won the water sports manager of the year award.
Mr. Bond said, “I have a genuine interest in making sure people have a good time. We are all about getting the best experience possible and getting those repeat guests. I really enjoy what I do. I go to work every day happy and that helps me do a good job.”
CITA President Ken Hydes, who was given the Minister of Tourism Award, said the staff were what made Cayman’s tourism industry great.
“The beaches and oceans and everything that makes Cayman great would all be for nought if it wasn’t for the people represented here tonight,” he added.
Manager – Charlie Thompson – Wyndham Reef Resort
Employee – Betise Bodden – Sunset House
Manager – Oraine Lawrence – Budget Rent-a-Car Grand Cayman
Employee – Jay Mehta – Netclues
Manager – Jennifer Dodd – The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman; Seven Restaurant
Employee – Jolene Nelson – The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman
Manager – Daniel Bond – Red Sail Sports
Employee – Lois Hatcher – Ocean Frontiers
Patrick Kenney – Red Sail Sports
Kimberley A. Conolly – The Wick Candles & Scents
Lifetime achievement award:
Peter Hillenbrand – Southern Cross Club