Brazil’s hospitality gap

(The following is a guest post by Eric Cullenberg, director, VIS Investimentos, Brazil, and director, business development – Brazil, Gansevoort Hotel Group.)

Prior to moving to Brazil, I had spent most of my adult life living in New York, where I, like many of my generation, rode the dot-com boom and traveled frequently to client engagements throughout the United States. In a way I would say I “grew up” enjoying the fruits of the hotel industry’s U.S. revolution that has occurred in the past 20 years — I was an active participant/indulgent consumer, but I really knew next to nothing about the business. I just lived in it, or at least it seemed like I was living in hotels.

Looking for new life challenges, I accepted an offer to help a friend launch a startup in São Paulo a few years back. Things at that time were quite a bit different. The sting of the financial crisis of the 90s was still fresh, credit was almost unheard of and cash was king. This is when I was introduced to the concept of monthly interest rates — something to this day I still can’t get used to, but these were the times of hyper-inflation when the cost of something was higher after lunch than it was beforehand.

During this time, I took it upon myself to travel within Brazil so I could experience parts of the country less visited by foreigners, where I hoped to see a more authentic existence. On my short jaunts, I was exposed to a wide variety of hospitality options, some of which took some getting used to. As a foreigner, I will admit I was not thrilled at first with the concept of a “posada” — roughly equivalent to a rural bed and breakfast. To provide a snapshot, a posada typically has rustic finishes that are offset with fewer modern amenities than we may be accustomed to having when traveling abroad. I would even go so far as to say that at the highest end of this product classification, the posada was Brazil’s unintentional first wave of lifestyle accommodations (I can’t call them hotels, even to this day).

My experience suggests most posadas are family-owned and -operated, not dissimilar to the focused-service models I have watched sprout up throughout the United States since being in Brazil. The unique component of the posada operation is its attachment to the community in which it operates; there is obviously an element of accommodation of travelers, but the transcendent element of incorporation into the community is something I have not seen elsewhere. There is a great sense of pride each family/posada has within its community, and the mutual respect shared amongst them can be magnetic, and they tend to be refreshingly informal and casual in their approach to delivering service.

I grew up in rural Maine, so when I think of posadas, I think about sleeping at my grandparents’ farm when I was a kid. It was not always the most comfortable experience, but that wasn’t really the point. I loved it.

Even today, estimates suggest at least 85% of the hotels in Brazil (including posadas) do not have a brand affiliation, suggesting an overarching “informality” of the market itself. As we all know, international brands and hotel operating companies are converging with great intensity in Brazil, focusing their expansion efforts on the major gateway markets. Several Brazilian operators have begun to expand into secondary and tertiary markets, including placing franchised/licensed international brands on self-operated hotels within earshot of mining operations in more remote locations.

What really strikes me about the service industry here is the size of the gap between what is considered luxury. The complaints are innumerable in this forum, and many of the readers would likely yawn at some of them, but the concept of hospitality, in general, seems to have a completely different meaning here. I would say, bluntly, that I dread checking in to hotels in Brazil. There is almost always something that I did not expect, do not like or that annoys me from the very beginning of the welcome experience. I actually find this to be somewhat profound.

Brazil is a country rich with culture and a nurturing spirit; it has a strong tradition of posadas that are family- and community-oriented, so the concept of servicing others hospitably should be ingrained in the core of Brazilians. Something must have gone drastically wrong or was lost in translation when creating the modern Brazilian hotel experience.

When speaking to your hosts at reception, I’ve learned you need to have your guard up. You need to be prepared to argue, even raise your voice (as I have done on more than a few occasions), as it really can become a war of wits, however tiring and unnecessary. The basic assumption is that each party is trying to squeeze as much as possible out the other, or that I must have four friends hiding in the back of my car who are all going to try to stay for free! 

The disconnect exists immediately at the arrival experience. To present an example of hospitality in a residential setting: people will not let you into their home without kissing you on the cheek, offering you a beverage, and/or food until you are bursting at the seams, only to mandate a coffee to complete the meal and send you off drunk and fully caffeinated. They won’t let you open the door when you leave (they do it for you, feigning superstition) and will not close the door until you are out of sight. This is not a social class thing; I’ve seen this in company of the poorest of the poor, richest of the rich. No difference.

Thus I have often wondered why a country with such amazing hospitality and a strong tradition in posadas has such awkward hotel experiences? It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’ve been in Brazil for the better part of the past decade.

Fortunately, for many reasons Brazil has become perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world to work in hotel development; namely, soaring demand and limited supply has ignited a firestorm of activity over the last five years. And although I cannot explain this phenomenon that I call the hospitality gap, today I am focused on what I can do to improve the competitive landscape here and hopefully help to bring a more authentic Brazilian-style hospitality to hotels in Brazil.