Rosa Harris: Luxury Is Simply About Treating People Well

Beach Jaco, Nicoya, Costa Rica
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Rosa Harris started her career in the Cayman Islands, studied hospitality at Cornell and now directs the destination’s tourism initiatives.

Rosa Harris started her career in the Cayman Islands, studied hospitality at Cornell and now directs the destination’s tourism initiatives.

The Cayman Islands appeals to both affluent Millennials and Baby Boomers because it offers luxury without any pretensions.

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Luxury Travel Advisor recently returned from a trip to this lavish cluster of Caribbean isles and found that hospitality representatives, ranging from tourism board members on Grand Cayman to hotel employees on the dive paradise of Cayman Brac, believe that luxury can be served without the attitude.

You would neither find strict dress codes nor unfair rules of conduct here. Instead, the Cayman Islands is where you come to get pampered at your own pace, in your own vibe.

The humble attitude and top-notch services of Cayman Islands can be traced back to one person, who is at the helm of its tourism department.

Rosa Harris, the director of tourism for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, started out in the travel industry at a very young age. Whether as a front desk manager right out of high school or as the head of the tourism board, a good workplace environment enabled her to relate to other people, she told Luxury Travel Advisor over lunch at the elegant Blue Cilantro restaurant on Grand Cayman.

“I think, in workplaces now, what is most important is to work with people from other cultures,” she says. “Coming from the Caribbean, it was an immersion in many different backgrounds, so you have an appreciation for culture. You have a very high tolerance for differences of people.”

After she finished high school, Harris immediately began working as a concierge and front desk manager at the old Clarion Grand Pavilion Hotel, which is now an office suites building on West Bay Road on Grand Cayman.

Seven Mile Beach will welcome Grand Cayman’s first hotel in a decade, with the November opening of Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa.

Seven Mile Beach will welcome Grand Cayman’s first hotel in a decade, with the November opening of Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa.

Harris was also an employee at The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, when the property first opened in 1996. She was there for about six months before going off to college. She attended school in Boca Raton, FL, for her first year and then transferred to Cornell School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University during her sophomore year. She went on to receive her MBA from Manchester Business School at Manchester University in the UK.

“Now that I work in the travel and tourism industry and represent the Cayman Islands as the director of tourism, I have an appreciation and openness about how I go about work. I try to relate to people, and think that working with others in a team-based environment, and having an appreciation for differences are key. It was a really great learning experience at Cornell,” she says.

Overcoming the Odds

But what university couldn’t prepare Harris for was how to maintain both mental toughness and professionalism in the aftermath of a tragedy that far exceeded tourism.

In September 2004, Harris became department head at the then Hyatt Regency, Grand Cayman when Category 5 Hurricane Ivan — the 10th-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, according to — caused destruction in the Cayman Islands.

“I would say nobody could teach that. It’s definitely an on-the-job, real-world experience. When a country is devastated and there’s no light and no water, you’ve got to get to work early to take advantage of sunlight and you’ve got to get off the streets by sundown because there’s a curfew,” she says. “Then you’re planning to reopen a hotel, so I was helping to look for fabrics and swatches for the renovation. You would go out and you’d have to rake the leaves or do something outdoors as well because you were basically cleaning up a site. You become a master of all trades in an environment like that. You go to work with an open mind thinking, ‘OK, we’re just going to get our hotel back to where it was,’ but, that didn’t happen.”

Instead, it remains shuttered and has become an “eyesore,” says Harris, not for the reason that it’s terribly unpleasing to the eye, but rather because it serves as the last reminder of Ivan’s destructive path. Perhaps that won’t be the case for long.

In March, Dart Realty Ltd. purchased the Hyatt Resort, Grand Cayman Beach Suites and Britannia Golf Course from Embassy Investments Limited, which had acquired the Hyatt Resort in 2003 and has operated the Beach Suites since 2008.

Additionally, Embassy has also announced that it would close the Grand Cayman Beach Suites as of September 1. Currently, Dart Realty Ltd. has no definitive redevelopment plans and will carefully study the site in the coming months, explore options and formulate a master plan to integrate the property into Camana Bay, says Mark VanDevelde, CEO of Dart Realty.

“With their track record and all of the development they have done in the Cayman Islands, we’re certainly very confident that the old Hyatt property will be returned to something that will be a huge contributor to the tourism industry,” Harris says. “It’s kind of surreal for me to see that years later the hotel has finally been sold. I think if I can see that property reopen during my role as director, it would be pretty special for me.”

But this isn’t the only project keeping the Dart Realty group busy in the Cayman Islands. The group is also developing the first Caribbean hotel by Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

An Island Tour

Luxury Travel Advisor toured the construction site of the ongoing Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa project on Grand Cayman and can attest that the hotel looks like it will be completed in time for its scheduled November opening. This is Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ first hotel outside of North America (Kimpton has managed properties in Canada). The new resort will also be the first Grand Cayman hotel development on the island's famous Seven Mile Beach in about a decade.

We met with Steven Andre, general manager, who told us the hotel will consist of roughly 265 rooms and will be built on a 10.5 acre parcel of land. He said the name ‘Seafire’ refers to Seven Mile Beach and the sunset that can be viewed from various vantage points in the resort.

Cayman Brac, primarily a dive destination, is only 12 miles long and has a population of around 2,000.

Cayman Brac, primarily a dive destination, is only 12 miles long and has a population of around 2,000.

Although Andre would not commit to telling us whether this will be a five-star hotel, he did say it will provide five-star service and will be priced between The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, which is perhaps the most expensive hotel on the island, and The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, one of the best mid-level hotels there.

Andre also said there is a major incentive for finishing on time, as a group is slated to book out the entire resort in November. It will, however, be a soft opening, with the grand opening planned for sometime in December.

“This is an exciting time for us, and it is going to bring Kimpton to a new level,” Andre says. “There are also a lot of other developments in the works and I would expect other Kimpton hotels in the Caribbean in future.”

There will technically be two pools on the property: one will be the adults’ pool, and the other will be divided into three sections — a plunge pool; a family pool, also called the main pool; and a children's pool.

The hotel will offer six restaurants. The 32-seat signature restaurant will serve Mediterranean, tapas-style food. Its name is yet to be decided on, Andre says.

For food and beverage requests, advisors should reach out to Himanshu Jethi ([email protected]), food and beverage director.

Tip: According to Andre, 93 percent of the rooms will afford ocean views, while the remaining ones will face the north side, which also offers impressive sights of the lit-up nightlife of Grand Cayman.

Note: The hotel’s full-service spa will have eight treatment rooms, including two couples’ rooms. As far as meeting space goes, Andre says there will be three meeting rooms and a 7,200-square-foot ballroom.

Advisors looking to customize a trip to the hotel should reach out to John Cardona ([email protected]), director of sales and marketing. For additional information, get in touch with Andre ([email protected]).

San Francisco-based Kimpton, acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) about a year ago, currently manages 65 hotels and operates more than 70 hotel-based destination restaurants and bars in 31 U.S. cities and resort areas.

The GRAND CAYMAN PENTHOUSE at The Ritz-Carlton offers 8,000 square feet of space.The Ritz-Carlton

With the new Kimpton opening, Grand Cayman’s reigning leader in luxury hotels, The Ritz-Carlton, is upping its game with new offerings and a more relaxed vibe.

Pictured: The GRAND CAYMAN PENTHOUSE at The Ritz-Carlton offers 8,000 square feet of space.

Luxury Travel Advisor loves this property for its location on the famous Seven Mile Beach and also for the surprisingly casual vibe brought to the hotel by General Manager Marc Langevin.

“This hotel is not pretentious at all,” says Langevin, “and that is something very important to me. These people are paying good money. We should not have strict dress codes or other rules. Yes, there are places here that you could dine at in your shorts and t-shirts and, no, you don’t have to worry about having sandy feet in the lobby.”

Langevin originally came to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman in May 2004 to lead all operational elements of the hotel’s pre-opening. Following his tenure in Grand Cayman, Langevin joined The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas as general manager, where he was responsible for operating the luxury oceanfront resort, which had undergone an extensive $40 million renovation. He said the main goal during his second run as the hotel’s general manager was not just to give it a new vibe but also to get creative with its offerings. “This place needed to be re-imagined,” says Langevin.

Besides the new, chill vibe that Langevin brought to the hotel upon his return, he also incorporated some out-of-the-box offerings such as a new penthouse and the virtual golf experience that is especially entertaining on a rainy day.

The hotel recently launched its ultra-exclusive Grand Cayman Penthouse, which company representatives call the largest and the most elaborate luxury hotel suite ever to open in the Caribbean.

Perched on the seventh floor of the resort’s south residential tower, the project was conceived in collaboration with Five Mile Capital and Phoenix Construction. Ideal for multigenerational travel or an intimate retreat with loved ones, the penthouse has a private elevator that opens onto a space with panoramic ocean views.

The penthouse offers a full kitchen and dining area, a private library and cinema as well as an expansive, wraparound outdoor terrace with some of the most coveted views on the island. 

While Luxury Travel Advisor didn’t actually get to see the penthouse, as it was occupied at the time of our arrival, we did check out the comparable two-bedroom suites located on the same floor. Note: These suites are basically the same as the penthouse, except that they are smaller. The penthouse also has a 12-person dining table and a huge living room. Nice Touch: The terrace of the penthouse wraps around and includes a dining table for eight to 12 people looking to eat outside.

Advisors looking to make special room arrangements should get in touch with Julio Diaz ([email protected]), reservations manager.

The seventh floor is home to 11 bedrooms. The penthouse has three while there are also four two-bedroom suites on the same floor. Each of the suites is 2,300 square feet, while the penthouse has roughly 8,000 square feet of space. Hint: The entire floor can be rented out, which is an excellent option for multigenerational travel or couples traveling with other couples.

Advisors looking to customize a getaway to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman should reach out to Heidi Nowak ([email protected]), sales and marketing director.

The beach cottage at Le Soleil d’Or, with its own private swimming pool and beach, is well suited for honeymooners looking for alone time.

The beach cottage at Le Soleil d’Or, with its own private swimming pool and beach, is well suited for honeymooners looking for alone time.

Exploring Cayman Brac

While The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman may have the distinction of being the most luxurious hotel on Grand Cayman, Le Soleil d’Or (French for Golden Sun) is looking to put lesser-known Cayman Brac on luxury advisors’ radar.

“I want to say that Cayman Brac certainly has a bit more room for expansion, that we would be able to tolerate boutique styles — anything under 75 or 50 rooms — for development,” says Harris. “Little Cayman, I would say, is the destination to really preserve. We want to be very calculative when it comes to the development that happens there. We want to be sensitive to its natural environment and ecosystem.”

Cayman Brac is only 12 miles long and has a population of approximately 2,000 people. This is primarily a dive destination, but it also serves as a great escape for those clients looking for a little more seclusion than is offered on its more populated, neighboring island of Grand Cayman.

Cayman Brac has 35 heritage sites, including forest, beach walks, bird-watching spots, caves, cliff trails and wetlands. Seen here is the Bluff, which is the highest part of Cayman Islands.

Cayman Brac has 35 heritage sites, including forest, beach walks, bird-watching spots, caves, cliff trails and wetlands. Seen here is the Bluff, which is the highest part of
Cayman Islands.

The island has 35 heritage sites, including forest, beach walks, bird-watching spots, caves, cliff trails and wetlands. Hikes and visits to the sites can be undertaken with the help of nature guides at the Heritage House and Interpretive Centre at Northeast Bay.

While Grand Cayman serves as the perfect headquarters for multigenerational groups, large destination weddings and couples traveling with other couples, Cayman Brac is ideal for lovebirds looking to spend some alone time and enjoying the island’s beaches. Tip: For couples planning to spend their honeymoon in the Cayman Islands, we suggest two nights in Cayman Brac and four nights on Grand Cayman.

There are two places to stay on the island. Cayman Brac Beach Resort is well suited for diving enthusiasts. It re-opened toward the end of 2015 following a renovation project that included a new free-form pool, a bar and upgraded accommodations.

However, if luxury takes priority over soft adventure, we highly suggest the uber-swanky Le Soleil d’Or.

The hotel has eight keys and is spread over about five miles of the island. This is not only a place to enjoy high-end accommodations and full ocean views, but is also a foodie’s dream, as it probably has the best farm-to-table experience we’ve come across in the Caribbean.

Le Soleil d’Or is divided into four categories: the Farm Lodge, the Boutique Hotel, the Beach House and the Beach Cottage. The property also has a Beach Studio, which is an apartment at the Beach Club.

The Farm Lodge, as the name indicates, is the closest category to the hotel’s 20-acre farm and is home to three bedrooms, all of which come with its own cell phone to make local calls.

The farm was basically built from scratch as most of Le Soleil d’Or’s grounds were occupied by sinkholes and endless amounts of bush that needed to be removed.

The farm produces everything from eggplants to papaya to watermelons and passion fruit. Zucchini, cucumbers and cashews are also grown here. It also has an olive tree, which needs about three to four years to fully grow.

Guests should not be confused by the green oranges that grow here. They look and taste just like any other orange, but cannot attain that bright orange color without some cold weather, something Cayman Brac fortunately has zero of. The farm also has its own chicken coop, where roughly 200 eggs are produced every day.

The Boutique Hotel, which opened earlier this year, has four bedrooms. Each of the rooms has its own veranda and patio. It is the only category to have rooms that can be booked individually.

The three-bedroom Beach House is a two-story, 4,000-square-foot home with a private pool and beachfront. This private spot on your own stretch of beach sleeps six to 10 people and includes its own swimming pool with pool house for al fresco dinners and late nights.

Among the accommodations, our favorite was the Beach Cottage. This can be recommended for honeymooners. It is a studio apartment with a King bed, its own private swimming pool, a private, man-made beach, hammocks, a kitchen, full ocean views and an incredible amount of privacy. Nice Touch: The full-size refrigerator comes stocked with snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.

Note: The Beach Club is currently an exclusive amenity for Le Soleil d’Or’s guests; however there are plans to open it to the public eventually. Advisors with special room requests should reach out to [email protected].

Hint: The vision is for the Beach Club to be a destination for both visitors and locals to mingle. Plans call for live bands, bonfires and other entertainment. This will be a very important addition to the hotel as there is currently no real nightlife or evening entertainment on Cayman Brac. Those plans, however, are not yet finalized, hotel representatives say.

We were also told Le Soleil d’Or has plans to launch a new full-service spa, a Pilates studio, a bakery and a cigar shop by October or November.

Everything served at the restaurant, from food to cocktails, is made from ingredients of the farm. The hotel also has its own mixologist. Tip: We highly recommend the “Culinary Cocktail.” This is where the mixologist prepares a cocktail of your choice and pairs it with an appetizer that includes some of the same ingredients as the drink, perfectly matching the two.

Advisors should get in touch with Sharon Thony ([email protected]), marketing director, for a customized getaway to Le Soleil d’Or.

New Era of Luxury

Rosa Harris says that Cayman’s current hotel inventory is at about 5,500 rooms. Half of that is in the condo/villa segment and the other half is in hotel rooms.

“We’re quite anxious to get more hotel rooms in order to grow that side of things but truly there is a formula,” says Harris. “There’s air seats, there’s the products, the hotel rooms and then there’s the experiences. You factor in price point and all that, but not so much in the luxury category.”

Right now, Harris says, the Cayman Islands welcomes roughly 385,000 guests by air on an annual basis and the target is half a million in the next three to five years.

“It’s an aggressive goal, but we are certainly well positioned to hit that target,” says Harris. “I put the target up there because there are excellent things happening in the Cayman Islands tourism industry.”

And how can advisors assist?

“It is cutting through the clutter of sun, sand and sea to let me curate this special experience for you in the Cayman Islands, where you can have a great meal and take in the most stunning sunset,” says Harris. “All of these different experiences make it unique. Also, I feel that even though it was in 2012 when Forbes magazine named the Cayman Islands ‘the friendliest country in the world,’ that still speaks true, as we have people talking about how friendly everyone is on the island, how someone took the time to give them directions to ensure they were getting to the right place and were on the right track.”

Speaking of “the right track,” that’s Harris’ goal going forward, as she navigates a new era of luxury for the Cayman Islands, ensuring that visitors will experience luxury “without the attitude.” 

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