AMResorts’ Javier Coll Explains Apple Leisure Group’s Big Plans For Colombia, Starting With The Dreams Karibana Cartagena Resort
In December of 2017, a beachfront luxury hotel opened as part of the Karibana Cartagena real estate development. With a Jack Nicklaus designed PGA golf course and club, the hotel originally opened as the Conrad Cartagena. The COVID pandemic shut down most tourism in Cartagena—and around the world, for the better part of two years. The investor owners of the hotel took the opportunity to completely reimagine the hotel as Colombia’s first high-end all-inclusive resort.
Colombia has a great selection of business hotels, and many opportunities for ecotourism, but despite thousands of miles of coastline on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, there have been no large high-end resorts of the type found in Caribbean destinations like Jamaica, The Bahamas, or even The Dominican Republic. There are small resorts, and there are some low-end mass market all-inclusives targeted towards domestic consumers with moderate incomes, but until now, there has been no large, luxury all-inclusive resort option.
This has changed with the May reopening of the Karibana property as the Dreams Karibana Cartagena Golf & Spa Resort. Located on the northeastern outskirts of Cartagena, the hotel has 268 guest rooms and 21 suites in addition to its 2,300 square meters (25,000 square feet) of indoor meeting and events space and 1,000 square meters (11,000 square feet) of lawn area suitable for events.
Finance Colombia’s Executive Editor Loren Moss was able to speak with Apple Leisure Group’s Group President for Global Business Development Javier Coll about not just the Karibana’s renaissance as a Dreams all-inclusive resort, but the company’s strategy more broadly. Now a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Apple Leisure Group is aggressively seeking additional development opportunities in Colombia and throughout the Americas.
Finance Colombia: We’re here to talk today about the new Karibana property that’s joining the AMR collection. Now even though Colombia has a strong tourism industry overall, it’s continuing to grow. I was at an event earlier today where they just announced a new non-stop route between Medellin and Buenos Aires, but Colombia only has a few resorts and even fewer that market the all-inclusive modality; especially Colombia has a couple of resorts but they’re kind of focused on the domestic market. Why is that? why is the resort sector and the all-inclusive sector underdeveloped here in Colombia and why is the time right now for Karibana to join the AMR collection, your group of properties?
Javier Coll: Well, sometimes it’s the chicken or the egg, right? I mean you don’t have the right product, therefore there’s no real culture in certain countries to do this type of vacation, right? in this case, my wife is from Colombia and used to tell me that their way to go out of the city was basically like renting a house, or driving, or going to different places but not necessarily thinking about a resort vacation, resort-like we usually do in other places, so every year we take one week, two weeks’ vacation depending on our kids’ holidays and we always do that, we always go to an all-inclusive resort, we know that we’re going to be fine, we’re going to have a great vacation but we’re talking about places where you have options, great options, right?
When you don’t have those options it’s not part of your yearly schedule if you will, right? you won’t do that, you will do all the things but not that, so I guess in my opinion part of it is that the chicken of the egg you don’t have the product. Lately, I know that a better product is coming to Colombia, different brands open, different hotels in Colombia and that means several groups working on the marketing and commercial departments like bringing people.
Now it’s not just national tourism, it’s also an international one, so you have to keep building up, I mean, it’s not going to be just us, it’s not going to be just other hotel chains, it’s going to be all of us so, I think we’re going to be able to help just because as you know, we have two operators, right? Especially the United States, but we also have agreements with other operators in Latin America and that was our core business, from the beginning, 50 years ago we started as an operator, so we tend to develop destinations, we help develop in Cancun, we help develop in Punta Cana, hopefully, we can help develop in Cartagena on that sense increasing the number of passengers, the moment you increase the number of passengers, you see more projects coming to the destination, if you see more projects coming to the destination, more national guests also will keep coming to this destination, so it’s a process, I think that is the reason, but I think it’s going to happen, I mean, that is one of the main reasons going back to your second question, that’s one of the main reasons we chose Colombia.
First of all, we wanted to grow in Latin America and South America, especially Colombia. It’s the door to South America, but also is one of the most important destinations for leisure, which is what we do, so when you think about options, leisure options, beach, sun, right now you have Brazil, you have Colombia, and then you have very limited places within Latin America, so those two places are two of the most important ones in Latin America, of course Colombia is closer to the United States, so for us it is a no-brainer to start in Colombia, we want to grow in Colombia, we don’t want to stay in Cartagena, we’re going to keep growing, but eventually we’ll get into other countries in South America.
Finance Colombia: So what can you tell me about the expected guest profile, who is the property targeting and who do you expect to visit?
Javier Coll: Well our product is Caribbean five-star, and I say Caribbean because you don’t really have stars in the Caribbean, right? I mean, it’s not like a city that is very well defined what a five star is. In this case, it’s Caribbean five-star, and that means that the rates are going to be kind of high versus other products that you may find in Colombia, so we expect like a bit middle high-class type of customer with a high capacity of expenditure within the resort.
It’s not just the all-inclusive that you pay, but then once in destination, we offer an array of different options: spa, any wines, we usually have agreements with suppliers where we are able to have some of the best wines you can find. Whatever it is we usually have it and that means that we are catering for the high-end spectrum of the customer and that’s the goal. The goal is to have a very high-quality product catered to the high-end market that we believe that is present in Colombia and in other countries, of course.
Finance Colombia: I know the property well, I’ve been to the property, it’s a fairly new property, it’s only a few years old but I knew the property when it was operated by a previous operator. The ownership group, the developers, the real estate people brought you guys in, if I were to visit now, how much will it have changed? I know that you go in and you put your own touches in there; there’s a building there that’s kind of raw infrastructure to use, but how much of a remodel, a refresh or update or complete change, because I know that now it’s operating under a different concept. How much would I see the property have changed from how it was originally?
Javier Coll: Well, as you know, the previous brand was a high-quality brand, I mean it was a good brand, I think the problem was not in the brand or the attributes, or the quality of the asset, so we’ve been focusing on software, right? Hardware is pretty decent, pretty good, we, of course, did some work on the asset decoration, some things that on the back of the house that didn’t work actually. that’s one of the reasons why we opened in May, we thought we would be opening earlier but now it’s difficult to find some parts because of the supply chain [issues] and all those things, all those problems, everything was delayed, so… yes, so that we invested or we asked the owner to invest some money there, on the back of the house, some in decorations, but the most important change is going to be the software, the way we run the property, the operational attributes, the service that’s where we’re going to focus most of our efforts, because again, the asset was fine. I mean, if you were there you probably concur with us that you know it was a pretty good hotel, it was a pretty good asset, [excepting] maybe a couple of details, maybe maintenance things like that.
“The goal is to have a very high-quality product catered to the high-end market that we believe that is present in Colombia.”-Javier Coll
I mean, it’s more software than anything else, that why the way we run our hotels, the essence of our brands—in this case it’s going to be a Dreams, which is very well known, one of our most successful brands, and we have a very particular way to do things. So that is the software that I’m talking about, that is the way to do things that I’m talking about, so most of the change that you’re going to see is going to be on the operations, not necessarily on the asset.
Finance Colombia: I know that there is an adjacent, really kind of they’re attached to the property, but it’s shared. I know there’s the Karibana real estate development and everything there but there’s a golf club and there’s a PGA…I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and one of our hometown favorites is Jack Nicholas, and he designed, or his firm designed the golf course there. What’s the resort relationship with the golf club? I know that there are local people and there are people who live in the real estate development that use the golf club, but in an all-inclusive property is that like it’s a separate tier, is it completely separate, not included, what’s the relationship? Because I know a lot of readers are going to be interested in that.
Javier Coll: Well, what we usually do in other destinations is that we cut deals with any golf course around our property that is close by, as you know, if you’re a golfer, you know that when you go for a golf trip you don’t want to play just in one golf course, you want to play in two or three different golf courses, so in this case, we’re going to try to do the same. We’re going to try to cut deals with golf courses that are close by to the property, make sure that what we usually do is we include the golf, so it’s part of the rate actually, however, many times the golf course tells you, okay, yes, we can cut a deal on the tee time but they have to use the cart and they have to rent out clubs if they don’t have clubs, right? So you may end up paying something just because of that, and that is something that we’re working on, but I’m telling you the way we work in other destinations because we want to try to replicate the same thing in Cartagena, so the answer is yes, there will be some kind of agreement, we’re just still defining that to be part of the offer of the all-inclusive.
Finance Colombia: Marvelous. When is the hotel open and what’s the best channel for either guests or—I know that property even before it was popular with event organizers, with weddings and that property has really flexible meeting space for corporate events. I remember the last time I was there, it was completely full. I showed up and I even called the people who I knew there and they’re like “there are no rooms, we’re full” because they had the corporate events that were just booming before the pandemic, so I would imagine that even though it’s an all-inclusive resort there are corporate incentive events and companies are always, whether they’re in Latin America or in the US, companies, I know are always looking for new destinations, where they want to treat their top salespeople or things like that
What’s the best channel for finding out about booking, whether that might be the simple kind of retail consumer booking or people that are interested in organizing, maybe doing a package or something like that, whether it’s a wedding or like a corporate incentive type of an event? What’s the best way to contact the Apple, the AMR collection or the Hyatt or the Apple Leisure Group?
Javier Coll: Our most important website, which is the one that includes all the collection of brands and resorts is AMResorts, so you can find all our brands, all our locations, everything and you can book any of our hotels there. So one of the things that I believe is part of our success is that we are present in most of the channels that you mentioned and the most important ones are owned by us, so it’s not like we depend on third party operators. For the hotels that we manage, we have our own distribution and even though we sell other brands and other hotels, owning distribution makes a big difference as a management company. So at some point we were at 5 million Americans going to the Caribbean and through our distribution channels to other tour operators that, just to give you an idea, that could represent up to more than 30% of all the Americans thrown into the Caribbean.
So we had that type of control and we have our own two operators filling the hotel, then we have our direct channels through the website, AMResorts that we were talking about, but also the hotel website, so you can go to AMResorts.com, or you can go to in this case will be https://www.dreamsresorts.com.co/resorts/colombia/karibana-cartagena-beach-golf-resort . You can do it through Hyatt as well. If you go to Hyatt, you can do through Hyatt. We have the Hyatt loyalty program, we have our loyalty program, which is called UVC Unlimited Vacation Club, which is a vacation club but we consider it to be a loyalty program and the more than 100,000 members that we currently have. They book directly through the UVC websites to their limited vacation website, so at some point we may have 50-60% of all the customers in our hotels coming through our own distribution channels.
So that is one of the secrets of our success: financial success and operational success in a big percentage of our revenue is coming from groups and weddings, so at some point, we have more than one wedding per day, per property. And we have 117 properties right now open, that means 117 times, 365, probably a little bit more weddings, so it’s unbelievable the business that we have coming from weddings but also corporate business, you were talking about the corporate business, we have a group sales force that is solely focused on selling groups, but part of them are in Miami, part of them are local,
We have a local office in Bogota to sell our resorts, and now of course to sell the Karibana, so many ways going back to your original question, many ways to book our resorts, but the easy ones are a resort and the same dreams Karibana website, which is the website of the hotel, so those are the easy ways to contact the hotel, try to book a room, or try to organize a group.