In the past few years, Playa Hotels & Resorts has been endeavouring to evolve with a new generation of travellers. One that seeks more adventure and cultural experiences in a warm-weather holiday, and that has a discerning palate at mealtime. Here, Travel Life talks to Alex Stadlin, CEO of Playa Hotel management, who in 2013 was instrumental in the creation of a partnership with Hyatt to develop a modern, all-inclusive vacation.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into the hotel business.
A. I worked as a translator at the Olympics in Mexico in 1968 and helped a couple of the delegates arrange their travel. From there I got really hooked on the hotel business. When I was about 16 or 17, I applied to Cornell and did a graduate program. From there I started a 33-year-long career with Marriott Hotels that took me throughout the U.S. (Washington, California, Atlanta), London, Germany and Mexico before I retired. A month later, Bruce Wardinski, who was the chairman of Playa Hotels, convinced me to come back and try the all-inclusive business, which was a sector I was not familiar with. I thought it would be an exciting new challenge, so that is how I ended up as CEO of Playa Hotel management. We operate 14 hotels and I manage the operations as well as the company’s growth.
Q. So you didn’t get a chance to enjoy retirement for very long…
A. That is true, however, it has been an incredible journey since joining Playa. I joined in 2008, when we were dealing with a number of challenges existing in Mexico. In 2011 the business came back and is extremely strong in the Caribbean and in Mexico in general. The future continues to look strong.
Q. With your many years in the hotel business, what would you say have been the key changes to the industry over this time?
A. Firstly, in the area of Food and Beverage, we have seen a real move away from “mass feeding.” Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain customer who likes the buffet, but I think the customers today are really looking for a different kind of experience, and to have the
choice to eat when and where they desire.
The room concept has also changed from a mass concept to a more thought-out design to satisfy the needs of the customer. Each Hyatt Zilara and Hyatt Ziva resort features suites with expansive spaces and unique features, like swim-up suites. It’s all part of experiencing what we call “The Evolution of All-Inclusive.”
Q. How did the relationship between Playa Resorts and Hyatt come about?
A. In 2013 we decided that if Playa Resorts really wanted to break into the big leagues, we would have to form a partnership with one of the large American chains. So, after talking with several of them, we decided that Hyatt was the best company to be working with due to the fact that their outlook for the future was very similar to ours. Hyatt was also very interested in getting into the all-inclusive resort business, which is exactly what we were looking for.
Q. What do you think Hyatt brings to the traditional all-inclusive customer?
A. Firstly, it brings a certain amount of credibility and shows that all-inclusives are now a global business. It also brings new customers who might have traditionally gone to the EP (non all-inclusive) hotels who now are looking for more of a resort all-inclusive experience in the Caribbean, Mexico, the Far East and the Middle East.
Q. For the Hyatt customers who were loyal to the brand, do their benefit programs, such as Hyatt Gold Passport, apply when they stay at the all-inclusive resorts?
A. Absolutely. They receive the same treatment as they would expect at any Hyatt hotel and they can use their points to stay in one of our Playa Resorts, as well. It is a
Q. Can you explain what the difference is between Ziva and Zilara, the two brands you’ve created?
A. Ziva caters to families and Zilara is adults-only. We are finding more and more demand for the adults-only experience, where adults can indulge in a vacation without the kids and where couples can spend quality time together. In Jamaica, we have the two products within one property. One section of the resort is branded Ziva, a great vacation experience for all ages, and the other side of the resort is Zilara, totally self-sustained [though they have full access to Ziva’s facilities, too].
Q. Can you give me some more information on how the “Service from the Heart” concept was born?
A. A couple of years ago, we bought four hotels in Mexico. The owner at the time, Fernando Garcia, explained to us that his challenge had been that some of his back-of-the-house staff were not that fluent in English and felt shy when approached by someone speaking English. So, he adopted the “from the heart” concept where the staff would put their hand over their heart as a salutation to the customer to show they were proud and that the guest was welcome in the hotel.
We have taken this action into our other properties and it has become one of our signature service concepts.
Q. How do you ensure that you keep a distinct character to each of the resorts?
A. One example is that although we provide the same à la carte restaurant in all our hotels, each one will look different and have slightly different menus to provide a different feel and experience to our guests. This is one of the tasks that Hyatt gave us and it has proven to be challenging, but also a lot of fun. The automatic reaction when we are successful in a certain location is to say: “Hey, let’s duplicate this in another location,” but what we want is to provide a different experience to customers who have chosen us
as a brand and been to our other locations. Each time we plan a new hotel we start from zero.
The same goes for the hotel room itself. Although we had a very successful model in Los Cabos and the easy thing to do would have been to recreate it, we want to keep improving, tweaking and sometimes dramatically changing the look to meet the needs of the market we are attracting and to bring specific local flavour so people can feel the destination they are in.
Q. What would you say are some of the unique selling features of each property?
A. As I mentioned before, Jamaica has both the Ziva and Zilara brand concepts in one complex. Aside from being a premium resort in the area, when you book at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, you have the option to include a round of golf in your room rate. The White Witch Golf Course is amazing, one of the best courses in the Caribbean. Los Cabos features a fantastic location, which is within walking distance of the town of San Jose de Los Cabos, the real Los Cabos, with its true Mexican flavour. In the Puerto Vallarta property, we have a unique advantage of being able to offer a private beach, which is something that very few hotels in Mexico offer. On both sides of the property, there are rock formations that provide a natural barrier and provide a certain exclusivity of the beach to the hotel guests while being only five minutes from the iconic town of Puerto Vallarta.
In contrast, our property in Cancun is located in the heart of the action. We are equally fortunate with our location in Riviera Maya as we are located beachfront in eclectic Playa Del Carmen, just one block from 5th Avenue, which is considered the South Beach of Mexico.
Q. What would you say is the biggest challenge moving forward in the hotel business?
A. The challenge of differentiation and looking for new locations. As the customers change and new generations come into the market, they are always looking for new destinations and different types of adventure. The tradition of going to a resort and sitting on the beach for seven days is not the case for the future.
As hoteliers, we need to think outside the box and see what else can we offer to fill those seven days. Another area we have seen emerge is the spa business, so we are planning some new initiatives in that area to provide innovative concepts.
Q. Are there any future developments for Hyatt Ziva and Zilara that you are able to share with us?
A. I cannot speak to the specifics, but the company is growing and growing fast. We are listening to our customers and our partners and planning to grow in both the Caribbean and other areas of Mexico.