The Spa Life

A world-class spa is no longer an option for a resort hotel; it's an absolute must. That's the epiphany that moved Tishman Realty Corp. executives to build a state-of-the-art, $1.25-million Mandara Spa at its Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico.

The property's 7,000-square-foot Balinese-influenced spa opened last October, replacing a smaller, outdated facility the resort had since its opening eight years ago. The need for the spa was so urgent that Tishman cajoled Mandara to speed up construction so the facility could open a few months early to accommodate a large group that booked the hotel based on availability of the spa.

“In the 1980s, a health club was the must amenity for a hotel to be competitive,” says Drew Toth, director of marketing and sales. “Today, a world-class spa is the mandatory facility for every luxury resort.”

Tishman chose Mandara, which operates 65 resort and cruise ship spas around the world, to design, develop and operate the Rio Mar facility because of the firm's approach to the business. Founded in Bali, Indonesia in 1995, the Steiner Leisure subsidiary emphasizes soothing surroundings and superior guest experiences at its spa facilities, a perfect match for the relaxed Caribbean atmosphere at the beachfront Westin.

“The atmosphere at Mandara is not at all clinical,” says Toth. “Rather, it's all about relaxation and solitude. There's not even a clock in the place.”

The Rio Mar Mandara has 11 treatment rooms and offers a menu of typical spa services — massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and such — as well as some proprietary techniques that reflect the firm's Balinese lineage. Examples of the latter include a traditional Javanese Lulur cleansing ceremony, hot stone therapies and a variety of milk, coconut and frangipani rubs and wraps.

Other amenities include an oceanview relaxation and meditation room, changing lounges, steam rooms and a full-service hair salon.

TWO-YEAR UPGRADE

The addition of the spa is part of an overall $15-million, two-year improvement project at the 600-room, 500-acre property. In 2004, Tishman spent $8.2 million of the total, with the remainder of the project slated for this year. In addition to Mandara, the ‘04 upgrades included a $200,000 renovation, reimaging and new menu at the Marbella Restaurant and a makeover of 200 of the resort's guestrooms. (The remainder will be done this year.)

Designers from the San Francisco-based McCartan firm fused the Caribbean and Mediterranean cultures that define Puerto Rico into the redesign of the resort's guest-rooms. The look includes porcelain tile floors covered with area rugs as well as new draperies, headboards, seating and lighting. The designers describe the color scheme as “a rich spice blend of chili, cinnamon and mahogany with accent shades of olive and amber.”

For artwork in the rooms, the team chose photography that shows scenes from the nearby El Yunque rain forest. Of course, completing the rooms are the iconic Westin Heavenly Beds, as well as high-speed Internet access.

As expected at a resort, recreation areas received special attention: At the Peter Burwash Tennis Center, two Laykold courts were added and the 11 existing Har-Tru courts were resurfaced. The pool area got new decking and resurfacing, while the golf club received a new fleet of GPS-equipped golf carts with two-way communications capabilities. New bunkers were added and drainage improved at one of the resort's two courses.

And in line with Westin's brand-wide initiative, the Rio Mar created a Westin WORKOUT facility to replace the former health club.

THE PLAN FOR '05

In addition to the remaining guestrooms, CapEx focus for this year will be the resort's pool area. Centerpiece of the project will be the addition of 18 luxury poolside cabanas.

“It's the next big trend in the resort business,” says Toth. The cabanas, which will rent for about $90 a day, will have wireless Internet access, refrigerators and butler service. “It's like having the Heavenly Bed out at the pool.”

Behind the scenes, the property is investing $500,000 in new technology, including a new front office system as well as a system that enables the hotel to send e-mail messages to guests prior to arrival to suggest onsite activities and to book tee times, spa appointments and other services.

To bring the improvements to life, the Westin instituted a new Rhythms of Hospitality training program for all employees. “The goal of the program is to help our associates to better anticipate the needs of the guest,” says Toth. “No matter what we do to improve the facilities, how we treat the guests is what will be the defining factor in our success.”

ON THE COMEBACK

After a mild slump following Sept. 11, 2001, the Westin's bread-and-butter group business is staging a comeback. Groups, particularly sales incentive gatherings, typically make up about half of the property's business. Its oceanfront meeting center includes the largest ballroom (24,000 square feet) in the Caribbean.

“Our incentive customers are often couples, which is another reason we needed to upgrade our spa so dramatically,” says Toth. “The spa gives them another activity for both men and women to choose while they're here.”

Leisure business, on the other hand, has been “gangbusters” for the past several years, says Toth. “Before 9/11, we didn't focus as much on the leisure side as we do now. There are also other reasons for the increase, however. We've seen a lot of pent-up demand for leisure travel, and Puerto Rico is being discovered or rediscovered by many travelers. And there has been significant growth in our leisure business through our electronic channels.”

As a nod to the increased competition in the Caribbean from all-inclusive resorts, the Westin recently introduced a single-price package (starting at $370 per person per day) that includes room, three meals, unlimited drinks, water sports, tennis and discounts for golf and spa services.

The hotel is also creating a Town & Country package that combines a few days at Tishman's Sheraton Old San Juan (see sidebar) with a stay at the Rio Mar.

THE BIG IDEAS

Anatomy of a Complete Resort

  • 600 guestrooms and recreation facilities spread over 500 acres of land
  • One mile of beach and two oceanfront swimming pools
  • 12 restaurants and lounges
  • 7,000-square-foot luxury spa
  • 7,000-square-foot casino
  • 6,000 square feet of retail space
  • Two 18-hole golf courses, clubhouse and pro shop
  • 13 tennis courts, including two lighted courts
  • 48,000 square feet of meeting space, including the largest ballroom in the Caribbean

Tropical Transformation

San Juan, or more specifically historic Old San Juan, is a hot market. The hospitality industry in Puerto Rico's capital and cultural hub is undergoing a transformation in anticipation of the September opening of a new $415-million convention center that will be the Caribbean's largest meeting facility. The number of visitors to the island jumped 11 percent last year to nearly five million. Visitor spending also rose by 13 percent to $3 billion.

One significant project was the recent renovation and rebranding of the former Wyndham Old San Juan near the city's cruise ship port. Owner Tishman Realty & Construction rechristened it as the Sheraton Old San Juan and gave it a $7.5-million facelift that touched all areas of the 240-room property. Highlights include a guestroom redo that incorporates the new Sheraton Sweet Sleeper bed ensemble as well as custom casegoods, carpeting, wallcovering and artwork. Designer Debbi King of The Carroll Adams Group says the goal was to give the accommodations a “sophisticated Caribbean” look.

Renovation of the public areas included a refreshing of the casino and meeting space and the addition of a new Nuevo Latino restaurant, Forgata Latino Bar & Grill.

Based on island-wide occupancy of nearly 80 percent last year, Puerto Rico is bracing for the addition of 3,000 new guestrooms in the next two years, raising total room count to 15,000. Most significant will be a 500-room Sheraton that opens in 2007 next to the new convention center. Other projects on the boards include a Fairmont, additions to both the Caribe Hilton and Wyndham El Conquistador, two Four Points by Sheraton properties and several independents.

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