W Vieques Prepares To Open In Puerto Rico

The latest W Hotel opens early next month in out-of-the-way Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico that until 2003 was a U.S. military installation used as a Navy bombing range. The quiet 88-square-mile island is beginning to awaken to tourism, and the W will provide a big jolt. The property is the first W Retreat & Spa in North America. We chatted with Jonathan Heath, the W’s general manager, on the challenges and opportunities he faces:

What will be the market for the hotel?
The direct market will be the northeast U.S., as well as the European, Asian and Latin American markets. W Vieques will be the only hotel of its nature on the island; the next largest only having15 rooms. It also offers a different experience than the other hotels in Puerto Rico because of its exclusive location on the island of Vieques.

What are the challenges in marketing a hotel on an island without direct air service to major cities and without a previous reputation for luxury lodging?
Although there is not direct air service to Vieques, there are numerous direct flights into San Juan daily, and the island of Vieques is just a short commute from the mainland. We are also working on building partnerships with many of the airlines and transportation services to strengthen island accessibility.

What are the unique elements that separate this resort with others in the Caribbean and in its comp set?
W Vieques is located within a truly undiscovered destination. Guests are able to come here and escape. This experience isn't about traveling somewhere already consumed with resort communities. And being in Vieques, Americans can enjoy the convenience and benefits of domestic travel—there is no passport required for travel, the same currency is used and the phone service isn't international. The W Retreat & Spa offers a collection of world-class brands, including W, Alain Ducasse and Spa Chakra. Guests will also find a unique European design sensibility, secluded beaches and the world's brightest bioluminescent bay.

How would you describe the design and "vibe" of the resort? How will you maintain the vibe?
The property successfully combines the urban vibe of the hotel brand with a resort/beach twist. Its personality is fun, exciting and eclectic.
Since W Vieques is a beachfront property, the Retreat & Spa celebrates the island's natural surroundings and features a mix of modern architecture and natural aesthetics. Lead designer, Patricia Urquiola of the Milan-based Studio Urquiola, captures the essence of Vieques by embracing the natural beauty of the island and incorporating it into her overall and unexpected design aesthetic of rustic elegance. Renowned design firm, Rockwell Group Europe collaborated with Urquiola on the spa and public spaces.

What is the role of f&b in creating a competitive edge for the hotel?
There are four dining options from highly acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse, including the retreat's signature restaurant, miX on the beach. In addition to miX on the beach, Ducasse Enterprises manages the entire food and beverage program for the resort, including W, Café, Living Room, WET, W Welcome Lounge at Vieques Airport, in-room dining and all banquet/wedding events.

What were the challenges in staffing a luxury property in an island location like Vieques? Describe the pre-opening training regimen?
W Vieques will be the largest employer on the island, offering more than 250 jobs to the local Vieques community. Prior to opening, we set-up a W Kiosk at the Consorcio del Noreste Division of Vieques Island where we conducted interviews and searched for potential talent. In addition, we partnered with Puerto Rico's Universidad del Este Carolina campus and established a training program designed to benefit any Viequenese who wishes to develop himself in the hotel and hospitality industry. The goal of the training program is not only to assist the local Vieques community in job development but also to inspire participants to start the program and give back to the island what they have gained.

The so-called AIG Effect still hovers over the hotel industry. What challenges does that represent and how will you overcome them?
This will be a transient-focused property with most of its group business being that of social or, better yet, weddings. The AIG effect or ripple effect will mainly be felt by group-oriented leisure hotels and resorts.

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