Strategies for Building a Unique Resort Experience, with Rosewood’s Martein van Wagenberg.



Building a “sense of place” is vital toward creating a guest connection. In this podcast, Martein van Wagenberg, managing director of Rosewood Le Guanahani St. Barth, converses with host Robin Trimingham about how to build a strategic resort marketing plan and advice for meeting typical island destination challenges.

Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Martein van Wagenberg: Travel is something that is so unique and people take it so much at heart and it’s such an important part of people’s lives. And sometimes while traveling as well, you try to discover new things and you try to see new cultures and you want to learn about history, which is one part for travel, a reason of travel. And otherwise it’s just, well, let me forget what happens at home and let me move into a little world that I can just enjoy myself. And it looks beautiful and it’s pretty. And I just get some time to take for myself and to relax or with my family. And it’s too important for me and we just have to continue doing that, going out. 

Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by HOTELS magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators. Welcome to the innovative hotelier brought to you by Hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. Saint Barts, also known as Saint Barts or Saint Barthélemy, offers several unique features that contribute to its allure as a luxury destination. But with a landmass only slightly more than half the size of Manhattan and a population of approximately 9000, its smallness must also be carefully marketed to the right target audience. My guest today, Martin Van Wagenberg, managing director of the Rosewood Guanahani. Saint Barth is here today to discuss strategically marketing a boutique luxury destination. Join me now for my conversation with Martin. Welcome. Martin It’s great to chat with you today. 

Martein van Wagenberg: Hey, Robin, great to see you, too. 

Robin Trimingham: Well, I understand that today is a very special day and that you’re celebrating ten years at the resort. Congratulations. Thank you. Thank you.

Martein van Wagenberg: It’s unbelievable how quickly time flew by. 

Robin Trimingham: I have to say, though, you’ve had quite a journey. If I understand correctly, your property was closed for almost four years for renovations. So in some ways, I imagine it must have been like starting almost from scratch when you reopened. How did you begin to approach that task? 

Martein van Wagenberg: Well, I think for us the most important thing was that we wanted to keep the identity of the property and the different color schemes, the authenticity, because that’s what we have here on Simbox to keep that very much in our mind and that although we want to elevate it, the different levels of service and and as well guest accommodations, it was very important that we kept the DNA and the soul of the property that our guests really enjoy so much. We are, after all, in the Caribbean and we can have that little bit of flair, we can have the color, we can have our little bit of quirkiness. And that is really something that within the development or the development process of these renovations, we took that as a core and then we continued to develop that. So then of course, we’re talking about the physical structure, talking about the human element, which of course is at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It’s really by we went to the south of France and as well to Paris in order to interview our potential candidates. And from there on, we could hire the best that were possible to come and to be part of our team together. Of course, being supported by Rosewood and as well taking the values and the vision of Rosewood into consideration and really creating that that family that we want to do here. So for me, the way that I’ve always looked at the team and creating a team is that it’s my job to look very well after the employees and the associates. So if I make sure that they are happy, they have what they’re looking for, we give them the respect, then they will carry on and they will react in a similar way. And that’s how they will provide the service to our guests. 

Robin Trimingham: I think you make an excellent point. My way of saying it would be you talked about the importance of remaining true to what you really are and to keeping the important aspects of that in the forefront of everything that you do in the renovations and the kind of people that you’re hiring. You’ve worked for a really long time in the Caribbean. What do you feel is the most misunderstood aspect of marketing in Island Destination? 

Martein van Wagenberg: Very often. I think it’s actually the cultural depth and the origin of the island. So and that each individual island in the Caribbean and as you mentioned with my experience, I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to work on a number of different islands. Each individual island is completely unique, and that is based in its culture. It’s based about the evolution. It’s not just about the pristine beaches that we have here, the luxury resorts, but it’s about all this history that’s out there and the vibrant communities that we are working with and within. And we are part of which I believe is very important. It’s so diverse and there are so many various interests from island to island. Again, we have the adventure seekers, nature enthusiasts, history, we get the food connoisseurs. Then we are looking at the cultural aspects. We look at the indigenous art, the music, the culinary scene. So there are so there’s such a wide range of activities, experiences that can be offered that there is something for everyone. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah, I really think that’s true when it comes to the Caribbean. I was fascinated when I was reading a little more about Saint Barts in preparation for our discussion. I live in Bermuda. I thought my island was small. We’re 21mi². We’ve got 65,000 people. But let me tell you, I couldn’t believe it. There’s only like 9000 people on your island and it’s maybe half the size or less than mine is when you’re that small. How does this give you an advantage when it comes to developing and marketing a unique sense of place for your destination? 

Martein van Wagenberg: So I think, first of all, you take the island as it is. So you look at its history. You look at the sculpture and see how the island has evolved over the years. So Zimbabwe is very unique. But again, as we said before, each island is very unique. Zimbabwe is actually the tourism industry is not really that old. It’s it started somewhere in the late 60s a little bit, and then the 70s, it got a little bit more going, but it’s really in the 80s that it started picking up and that we had hotels that opened up, including the Guanahani, which opened up in 1986. And then little by little it developed itself towards what it is now. And yes, we are small. It’s 25km². So and we have indeed 9000 people living year round looking for all these specifics and kind of taking all these elements and then put them together where we can align ourselves. And I think this is particularly true for Rosewood to the sense of place. Now, again, that is the hotel and the resort that we’ve created here was always already very authentic and we kept it in that way. Yeah, it has the French Italian architecture in general. 

Martein van Wagenberg: We have the vibrant colors that you find back in the Caribbean, and it’s really during one element again, the product that you have and the experiences, but then it’s as well about what is the atmosphere and what you kind to create. What kind of soul are we trying to share here with the individuals? And again, for that you go and look again at the history of the island and you combine these things so that we can have this lovely joie de vivre atmosphere here. And I think in that respect, we are very fortunate because we have our own little private peninsula. You’ve got the lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other side, and then at the end of that peninsula we have well, we call it La mano, which is actually only now with indigenous plants that are on that specific morning, we created a hiking trail. You can go top of the morning and then you can get this beautiful view over the whole northern part of the island of Saint Martin. So it’s really incorporating what is there into continue that and put it into your day to day experiences that we offer towards our guests. 

Robin Trimingham: When you have a property that is in a unique place, both culturally and from an ecological perspective, in your opinion, why is it essential for hoteliers to play an ongoing role in actively developing and practicing sustainability in their host communities? 

Martein van Wagenberg: Well, it’s that what we offer for our guests, and that’s what the guests are coming to see us for. It’s a lot of it. It’s coming from Mother Nature, the beauty of the beaches. We are very fortunate because we’re in the middle of a nature reserve. So so that means as well that we do get a responsibility to looking after things correctly and properly. And I feel that is and that we started doing as well with the reconstruction. So we looked already about, so what can we do? How can we do things better? How is the impact towards the environment the least? We invested a lot of money into the latest design with regards to desalinization plants and towards our own own grey water treatment plants so that we could because water is a scarcity on the island. So we unfortunately on Zimbabwe, we don’t have any sources of water except the ocean. So we have to make sure that whatever we take, we give back in the appropriate ways. And in order for us to have these beautiful lush gardens, which at the end of the day helps the planet again, because we keep everything just a little bit cooler on our little spot, we have to make sure that all these items and the ecological elements are there. I think it’s just lovely that we have a lot of turtles running around on the island and of course children absolutely love that, but even the adults as well. It’s just wonderful to see that life we have iguanas that maybe might be a bit scary at the beginning because they actually we have few of them that are like a meter to a meter and a half long. 

Martein van Wagenberg: Well, now that we have in the lagoon, we have turtles that are living there. So hence what we did as well. Yes, you can do snorkeling in the lagoon, which is great. But then for the little ones, we have the sea through kayaks so that the parents can go with the little ones over the lagoon and they actually can see the turtles in the water. We have some rooms that are very close to the water. And when you sit there in the morning and you see the sun rising and you have your little cup of coffee, you see the little heads of the turtles popping up to take some air. So that is a very important element. I think the other element is as well being part of the community. So we have been working on and we do have a certificate to actually be the to be the hosting hotel for tourism programs on Sinbad’s. So we have they’ve created so again, with the local organizations that people that are interested to actually work in the hotel industry, they can follow a specific course that has as well, which could be either in the kitchen or in the restaurant or in housekeeping or reception. So they get the theoretic base and then they come to us where they do the practical portion of it. So again, that’s giving back to the community. We have a lot of the younger trainees that are coming to see if the tourism is something for them. So these are again, elements that I think are very important as well for us in order to look at sustainability. 

Robin Trimingham: I think that is an excellent approach to solving the staffing problems on your island that all hoteliers continue to struggle with around the world. How does Rosewood the brand approach sustainability? 

Martein van Wagenberg: I’m very impressed what we’ve seen so far from Rosewood and as well what the different programs that they have put forward. So they’re really committed towards sustainability and as well environmental stewardship. So for that respect, we do have an answer as well. Again, we have certain responsibilities. So one of our KPIs at the end of the year in order to to see if we’re doing well, it’s not just purely about finance, it’s as well. So what actually, for efforts are we taking and what are we doing towards the the the local ecosystems At the same time it’s as well reduction of electricity, reduction of water. We’re looking at food wastage and we’re working towards a zero food wastage, which we still have some steps to go, but I think we are making some steps into the right direction and then as well. So we have to record this. We have to report that we have to deliver every month. We have different software programs that are assisting us with that. And this again, is carried on throughout Rosewood. And then it’s not just about the physical things, but it’s as well, what are we doing to the community? What’s our social impact? How can we get certain people that are perhaps not quite. 

Martein van Wagenberg: Able of doing the day to day tasks in their life. So what can we do on our property to create a position so that we can still help people that are that we can assist them into being respected in their own local community because they can produce and they can be productive. So Rose Wood just started out now doing the new policy. So so it’s much more about the diversity, equality and then the inclusion, which again for us on the island, it’s very torquey because we have different cultures that are coming together and we have to see how do we blend these together? How can we maybe in certain part of the culture, a certain habit or a certain thing is not quite acceptable. But here it’s every day of life. So how can we to make sure that these local cultures we can bring and how can we educate our guests in that respect? And at the same time, how can we educate our employees with kind of what kind of mentality the local guests have? So yeah, I’m looking excited. It’s an exciting program. So we just rolled, we just start rolling it out. So I’m really looking forward to share that with the employees. 

Robin Trimingham: I think you make an excellent point about cultural awareness and appreciation. Once upon a time I moved to Bermuda about 30 years ago and I was from North America. And there’s a custom here. We I’m sure you have the same. We greet everybody in the street, whether we know them or not. But in my country, that also extends to elevators. Now, I don’t know how many elevators you have in Saint Barth, but here in the office buildings, if you get into the elevator in the morning, you really need to say good morning to everybody individually in the elevator. Otherwise they consider you’re not polite. But where I was raised, if you talk to people in the elevator, they would be calling security. So so, yeah, it’s an it’s an ongoing thing. And I think the more that we work to know each other, the easier all of these things get. And we can have a laugh about the things that seem different to us but are really nice once we get used to them. 

Martein van Wagenberg: I have similar experiences because of course, here you say hello to everybody and every guest and every employee or any team member. But as well, if you walk down in Gustavia in the town, it’s just, Hello, how are you? Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. And it’s promptly every time when I go either in the US or go back to Europe. And then I come up and I just keep doing that because it’s such a habit. And then you get these people staring at you in the middle of the street and say, What is this? But overall, actually I must have some great reactions on that. Yeah. 

Robin Trimingham: Absolutely. The same experience when I would go to a shopping mall in North America, I’d go into the store and I’d be at saying hello to all the sales ladies or men or whoever it is, and getting stunned looks because nobody had talked to them all day long. 

Robin Trimingham: Established in 2002 is a woman owned global food service and hospitality company that manufactures smart, savvy commercial grade products, including plateware, drinkware, flatware. Hotel amenities and more driven by innovation. F.O.H Is dedicated to delivering that wow experience that restaurants and hotels crave all while maintaining a competitive price. All products are fully customizable, and many are also created using sustainable eco friendly materials such as straws and plates made from biodegradable paper and wood and PVC free Drinkware F.O.H has two established brands front of the house focused on tabletop and Buffet Solutions and Room 360, which offers hotel products. Check out their collections today at Let’s change the subject here a little bit. So Saint Boris, if, as I understand it, has a reputation for attracting affluent travelers who are seeking I’m going to call it a premium vacation experience. So for our listeners who might be struggling to market a similar type of destination, what would be your advice? 

Martein van Wagenberg: It’s crucial. I think, to emphasize exclusivity and privacy, which is one of the and security. These are some of the elements or these are the most important elements that we have on Simbox. And it’s relatively a laid back luxury. So we have so many unique features and amenities here. And and we do have this exclusive access and this, Yeah. Inclusive to the experiences that, that we don’t have that much in the Caribbean of not anywhere in the Caribbean. So some islands do it have more than the other. But I think for us what we have is space because the island is controlled and it’s not yet and it won’t be because of the philosophy of the government, is that we have to be careful. We have to keep our island and we have to keep so many green places. So development is little by little. I think we did see some upsurge after Irma, of course, but partly that came because people didn’t quite realize what was already constructed before Irma because we had such a dense greenery. So with Irma, unfortunately, that was taken away. So it became a little bit more visible, which in a way was a good thing because it put the brakes on the development in that respect. And so people are a little bit more educated and are very cautious about it to keep the island what we have and go back to these bases and the local cultures and keep that part of exclusivity and security and that feeling of safety that you can just wander around quietly and just feel at home and and feel relaxed. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah, we have similar saying in my country as well. One of the other things that I suspect we might have in common is limited direct flights which can hamper a destination’s ability to attract visitors. What do you guys do in Safe Path to mitigate this or is there a way to mitigate this?

Martein van Wagenberg: Well it’s part of the success of the islands as well, to have that limited accessibility, because once you have limited accessibility and not everybody can get here, you create already an exclusivity. And I think like as well, the way that however you come because the airport on Zambazis is relatively small, so private planes cannot land here. So whoever comes has to go to either the main gateways, which will be either one or Sint Maarten and then they have to go in the little puddle jumper to move from the bigger islands to our little islands. So I think that already creates a certain, again, exclusivity in that because people must be willing to do that. So it is a selective criteria. At the same time, of course, at the same time, we do have still boat access that we can do as well. So from Sint Maarten mainly, and for the rest, it’s a question of planning between the local authorities to see how can we make maximum use of the different airlines and the flights that we have between Saint Martin and Saint Barts. It’s like a bus connection. 

Martein van Wagenberg: It’s just we have a couple of planes that just go non-stop from Sint Maarten to Sint Maarten, but back to Sint Maarten, and they pick up more passengers and they go over again. And the flight between Sint Maarten and Smarts, it’s just over ten minutes. So. So it’s really close down. So it’s up and down. Yeah, yeah. We do have that little down part as well, which is fascinating. And most people actually enjoy it at the end of the day. So it’s really planning that from our point of view as well. We have a dedicated team of concierges and they have the contacts with all the local airline partners. So if internationally, not always flights are available, somehow they manage to do that and as well anything of late boats or things which are a little bit out of the ordinary. I think we’ve become very creative in that field. So that we can provide that service. And by building up the relationships that we have with the different local companies, we can asserted most of the time the access to the island. 

Robin Trimingham: Well, that makes a lot of sense. Am I right in thinking that, like most Caribbean destinations, Saint Barts experiences significant seasonal fluctuations? And if that’s the case, how do you flatten the curve to attract more people in what we here called the shoulder seasons? 

Martein van Wagenberg: Well, I think it’s very essential to implement the different targeted marketing campaigns. And what are we looking for? And it really highlights the unique benefits of our destination, but also more specifically, our hotel. So we are room count, the largest hotel on Sinbad’s. So we have a whopping 66 Quays, which anywhere else in the world would be considered as being very small. But here we are. But then as well in the shoulders and as well, we are the only kind of full service resort on Sinbad. So we have the beautiful two beaches, we have a tennis court, we have two pools. Most of the rooms have a beautiful ocean view. So for us, we started targeting more the incentive market for kind of the lower weeks in the shoulder season so that we can have this little bit of group bookings. The other part of incentives we have the more social groups. So for anniversaries or for birthdays, weddings. So again, kind of slot them in at the right period when we know when the demand on the individual traveler is a little bit less. So by focusing on those, we are have the most family friendly hotel on the island so that we have as well a full verse with explorers, the kids club, with again, a lot of programs again that are aligned to the our environment and the sustainability. So all these different groups have different demands at different times. So for us and our sales and marketing team to establish that and then try to fill the gaps with the different markets and see when their need is really there. And at the same time it allows them as well to provide a little bit of extra service, perhaps at certain times in order to make that happen and to flatten the curve. 

Robin Trimingham: I think you’re making an excellent point that I’m not sure all of our boutique operators really appreciate. You are part of a very exclusive global brand. So for you to go after group business, that would be a natural thing that you would definitely do at all of the Rosewood properties. But I wonder how many of our listeners who are independent operators are really making an effort to go after the kind of group bookings that you’re talking about? Because if you have a beautiful property, there’s no reason you can’t do small weddings or whatever the case may be. Let me ask you a similar sort of a question. I’ve been reading that Saint Barth has a vibrant nightlife for a very small place. How do you sustain enough of that in the off season that the off season visitor feels like they’ve had the authentic Saint Barts experience? I think. 

Martein van Wagenberg: We’ve been quite fortunate. In general, if we take into consideration the number of hotel rooms that are actually on Saint Mark’s because we don’t have that many. So overall, we are just hovering around the 500 hotel rooms. So that’s one thing. And then they’re being complemented with villas. And then of course, we have three and four bedroom villas on the island. So even our shoulder season is still reasonable and that we can keep the nightlife going. And basically for the the restaurateurs and the beach clubs, it’s still good business at the same time. That is as well. The time that we look a little bit more towards the local population as well. So how can we entice them to come and be part of those festivities? And so what can we do there? Um, and at the same time there are a number of events as social events. So the caliber of the social calendar of Saint Mark’s is actually quite large. And we have every month a number of events which are actually going into the shoulder season and into the summer season. So we have music festivals, we have theatres, so there are lots of different elements that is talks very much towards the local population, but at the same time as well to the tourists and we can actively promote that. So we for example, in our website you find the different events that somebody is organizing throughout the year and for ourselves. Recently we had a incredible saxophonist and entertainer, so Jimmy Sax, who was playing here. So we did a beautiful concert right on the beach, which was very well attended, and it was attended by guests and particularly hotel guests, but as well people from the local population. And it was just a wonderful, a wonderful evening. So playing saxophone under the stars, the cool wind of the night that’s flowing through. And it ended up to be a most successful and great event. 

Robin Trimingham: Sounds like a wonderful evening. It just makes the case that in the shoulder season and the off season, it really comes down to knowing your guest, knowing the local population and how to attract them so that people do continue to come out. You touched on the fact that Saint Barts is a favorite place for celebrities and high profile individuals. That’s a double edged sword because on the one hand, they’re craving privacy, safety, exclusivity, but you also want to promote your destination and all of its wonderful amenities and experiences. How do you find the middle ground on all of that?

Martein van Wagenberg: Well I think the celebrity clientele or the exclusive high profile individuals now, most of them are coming to Zimbabwe just because of the reasons that you mentioned. It does have this exclusivity. It has that privacy and they feel safe and they are safe on Mars. So so we have that portion that’s coming in. But there are always news that gets out in one way or the other. So for us, we treat every individual guest exactly the same and we are not sharing the information of the guest with anyone. We are not using that in our marketing campaigns. So things have changed a little bit that actually does give that little bit of extra exposure. Now with the development of the social media and the role that they plays. And then, of course, if the individual themselves is on their channels, is actually exposing where they are, then it becomes a different story. Yeah, so that’s a whole different story. So for us now, we don’t do that. So absolutely not. But you do have some individuals and then sometimes some things come out. But I think with the social media, it does give that exposure as well that you can have and it keeps people a little bit on their toes about what’s happening and who’s coming. 

Robin Trimingham: And they’re intrigued. I think that’s the right approach. Okay. So we have a couple minutes left here. Let me ask you a little bit of a tougher question. So the analysts are continuing to send conflicting messages regarding economic and tribal forecasts for 2024. How do you feel things are trending in the Caribbean and why do you say this? 

Martein van Wagenberg: I agree that there are some very conflicting messages that are out there. One of the things that we’ve learned as well is that with Covid, a lot of things have changed. And you can’t really look at previous years again in the way that we used to do it because things are completely turned upside down. So if I look what happened to us once we opened, we started, okay, it was a new opening, so we were relatively cautious and careful in what we set as our targets and what our pricing strategy was and as well what our expectations for occupancy was. So we started quietly and as well you have a whole new product, so an opening you can only do once and you want to do it correctly. So we took it a little bit slower than the others and we just took a little bit more time. But we continued to grow. And if I look at the mixed messages that are out there, there certainly are. So but we keep moving up and along. And if I look at 2024, for us, it looks to be very positive. We’ve seen an enormous increase already with bookings on file, I think as well, because we’ve been open for two years. 

Martein van Wagenberg: So we’ve proven ourselves and that’s our guest satisfaction score has been very high. So that already builds on more momentum that we started creating. But again, we started looking at targeting the incentive and group market and we have some beautiful incentives already confirmed for next year. So we continue to build up with that. But you always have to remain cautious and I think as well travel is something that is so unique and people take it so much at heart and it’s such an important part of people’s lives. And sometimes while traveling as well, you try to discover new things and you try to see new cultures and you want to learn about history, which is one part for travel reason of travel. And otherwise it’s just, well, let me forget what happens at home and let me move into a little world that I can just enjoy myself. And it looks beautiful and it’s pretty. And I just get some time to take for myself and to relax or with my family. And it’s too important for me and we just have to continue doing that. 

Robin Trimingham: Thank you so much, Martin, for your time. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you today. You’ve been watching the innovative hotelier. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by HOTELS magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders. 

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