Shopping credits, ghost kitchens, and call centres are some of the ways luxury properties are ensuring there’s still a vibrant community around
By CHADNER NAVARRO
WHEN Casa Palopó, an intimate, 15-room retreat on the slopes of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, began assessing how best to go about reopening for tourists, it sought to secure the approval of one group in particular: Its 5,000, mostly Kaqchikel Maya neighbours.
According to owner Claudia Bosch, her return to prep the property for reopening was not initially well-received.
“Some took photos of the helicopter arriving and departing, creating bulletins accusing us of mass tourism,” Bosch says. Locals worried that reopening would mean the introduction of the virus to Santa Catarina Palopó, a remote town where, to this day, not a single Covid-19 infection has been reported.
Who can blame them? Destinations such as the Bahamas experienced a spike in infections just two weeks after reopening to foreign visitors. Casa Palopó has been receiving locals since Aug 1, when domestic travel was again permitted in Guatemala, while it’s been announced that international visitors, including Americans, can come back on Sept 18, when the airport in Guatemala City is back in operation.
As in the Bahamas, tourism is a major economic driver for Guatemala’s highlands. And as the local standard-bearer for luxury, Casa Palopó plays no small role in the area’s fiscal wellbeing. Its staff of 24 comprises almost entirely locals from Santa Catarina Palopó or neighbouring San Antonio Palopó, and the ripple effects of their competitive wages benefit many more individuals. Meanwhile, tourism interest in the hotel’s Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó project, an artistic endeavour to paint the town’s facades in colourful indigenous imagery, has led to the founding of nearly a dozen local businesses.
Bosch, a Guatemala native who comes from a family of business owners, sees reopening as a critical lifeline for both the hotel and the area at large. “Residents were and are still sceptical and fearful,” she says in early September. But she’s listening closely. “We are slowly easing those concerns, and realise this is going to be a very long process.”
Conversations with Santa Catarina’s mayor and its indigenous leader-led Bosch to create the Community First programme, which will transform 10% of the nightly rate from all bookings, starting Sept 18, into vouchers that can be spent at select restaurants and artisan shops located in town, a half-mile downhill from the property.
But the programme’s initial rollout will focus on a handful of on-site pop-up shops at which guests can spend their vouchers without leaving the confines of the resort. Among them will be the traditional weaving collective Centro Cultural, which produces colourful woven goods, including embroidered pouches, scarfs and huipiles, the colourful blouses worn by Mayan women.
Once locals feel more comfortable with having visitors on the streets, at their tables and in their shops; Casa Palopó will introduce other partners such as Café TUK, a coffee shop that sells bags of Guatemalan coffee beans. Unused vouchers will be donated to Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó.
Bosch and her team have also set their sights on improving public health advocacy in town, having donated fabric for the production of face masks and installing antibacterial gel stations in high-traffic areas, such as the main square and the dock. Eventually, they plan to add handwashing stations, too.
Ghost Kitchens, Studio Space
Casa Palopó is not alone in realising that post-pandemic business relies as much on the wellbeing of its neighbours as on its public health protocols. For hotels in denser areas, though, that can mean many things, such as maintaining the unique spirit of the neighbourhoods they’re in by helping local businesses stay alive.
Baltimore’s Hotel Revival, a Joie de Vivre Hotel, for instance, loaned various on- property culinary spaces to a group of food vendors displaced by the pandemic. Its 750-sq-ft kitchen was used by the likes of Sporty Dog, a food hall mainstay beloved for its creatively composed gourmet hot dogs.
The eatery was able to use the hotel kitchen and execute takeout and delivery services from its ground-floor cafe. Revival activated this offer from March to May. It has since handed the baton to its sister hotel, the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, which will temporarily loan a kitchen to Urban Oyster, the city’s first Black-owned oyster bar, which closed in July because of the pandemic.
At Andaz West Hollywood, GM Nate Hardesty and sales director Matthew Ojinaga have loaned the outdoor terrace to Barcode, their still-closed favourite barbershop. The 533-sq-ft space houses up to five barber chairs, which Barcode owner Jorge Lara says have been booked out for weeks, spurring him to hire more barbers.
Ojinga says the hotel “gets some brand awareness” out of the arrangement, but he’s more concerned about simply keeping Barcode going. “Once you find the right barber, you stick with them, no matter what.”
Other hotels are more focused on health-minded community initiatives.
In the Caribbean, Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort transformed its unused ocean-facing lounge, the Reef Club, into a tracking call centre at which 30 newly hired locals make upward of 2,500 daily health checks on the island’s 3,000 or so weekly visitors. The Health Department couldn’t handle this volume on its own, explains GM Mark Nooren; given how strongly the tourism sector is pushing for expanded tourist arrivals, the private sector stepped in to shoulder responsibilities.
According to Nooren, the centre is staffed by “paid volunteers” from various industries, including some from his hotel, which not only provides the space, but caters daily meals.
“Our economy has collapsed,” Nooren explains. “If this call centre helps the island go back to a higher level of visitors, that will benefit all of us.” — Bloomberg