Daring to be Different
The Veranda steps out of the box and into a bold new world of resort management.
By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos By Steve Passmore, Provo Pictures
It’s a bold new world at the newly opened Veranda Resort & Residences — a celebratory mix of luxury with genuine experience, laced with a heady dose of social consciousness.
The Veranda is a Grace Bay beachfront condominium resort that operates as a five-star, fully inclusive hotel, yet also offers private beachfront residences, the only hotel in the region to do so. Its hallmark is genuine, “handmade” guest experiences that focus on personal attention and local culture. Behind the scenes, there is more of the same, with a strong emphasis on hiring and training Belongers, ensuring a positive work experience and reaching out with care and concern to the TCI community.
The beautiful Veranda property sprawls over 10 acres, with more than 800 feet of frontage along award-winning Grace Bay Beach. The resort offers an intriguing mix of condominium units and beachfront cottages, welcoming couples and families alike. Architecture is coordinated in an attractive modern British Caribbean style, with a fresh, inviting atmosphere throughout, as sky, sun and sea breeze are major elements of design. Walkways hedged with verdant landscaping lead guests through The Veranda House and around The Villages (East and West) — three buildings housing the 126 studio, one, two and three bedroom guest suites, many with lovely verandas for enjoying the ocean view. Each surround broad central courtyards, beyond which are the beachfront cottages, ranging in size from 3,000 to 4,120 sq. ft. and boasting oceanside decks and private plunge pools. Front and center is the signature Marin Restaurant & Bar, where guests enjoy all-inclusive, gourmet meals and premium beverages, served with a stunning backdrop of the sparkling turquoise sea and vast, open sky. For more casual dining, the breezy beachfront Grill Bleu is steps away, serving a breakfast buffet, a la carte lunch and nightly themed dinners, complete with all the props. (A second level lounge — the only on Grace Bay — is in the making.)
Strategically nestled throughout Veranda’s lovely grounds are three pools (including a children’s pool), the Asian-inspired Sabai Spa and Wellness Center and fitness facility, a tennis court, a library and business center, a dedicated kid’s club and a 6,300 sq. ft. conference center. Veranda guests and residents can also partake in all the activities for which the Turks & Caicos are best known: world-class scuba diving and snorkeling, fishing, sailing and golfing.
Interiors bring together chic allure with Caribbean charm, custom designed by Leslie Williams of local architectural firm Lee & Astwood (who also re-designed the property). A light, breezy blend of colors and fabrics lays the backdrop for local arts and crafts, which manage to blend just perfectly with all the modern “necessities,” including A/C and ceiling fans, LCD TVs with PlayStation 3, WiFi throughout and in-room safes.
The Veranda is managed by Grace Bay Resorts (GBR), under a separate division of the same company behind TCI’s celebrated Grace Bay Club and The Estate. And enveloping like a warm embrace the resort’s natural beauty and luxurious accommodations is the caring, genuine, personal service for which GBR properties are known.
Taking a step back
The Veranda property has an interesting past. It was originally purchased and designed in the early 2000s as a large, multi-use resort. When its original backers went bust, the partially completed buildings languished for several years, until the property was acquired by Faez Limited, a local company controlled by UK entrepreneur Andre Serruys.
Development manager Ronald Sutherland, president of The Hemisphere Group, early on approached Mark Durliat and Nikheel Advani, the well-respected developers and hoteliers behind Grace Bay Club. They had recently created a new division providing development, branding and management under the Grace Bay Resorts brand for über-luxe, low density, oceanfront properties and it seemed like a match made in heaven. Mark Durliat recalls feeling “totally flattered” to have GBR chosen to bring The Veranda to a whole new level. He and partner Nikheel Advani jumped in with both feet and helped the fledgling resort move through the hurdles of going from construction to opening, using every bit of their own hard-won experience. Mark was especially excited because the hotel would debut during a tough economic time. He says, “Every high quality hotel that successfully opens adds more firepower to the TCI’s reputation, in effect helping the entire destination succeed in the long-term.” The response of the hundreds of guests at The Veranda’s grand opening party on January 22, 2010 was huge, positive and appreciative.
Mark gives Nikheel credit for putting in motion Veranda’s luxury, fully-inclusive concept, an idea not common in the marketplace. Nikheel explains, “I noticed that more of our upscale guests at Grace Bay Club and The Estate were choosing our meal plan options as a way of setting a price tag on their trip. It seemed the logical next step to offer a fully inclusive vacation where our guests could order Grey Goose at the bar and enjoy meals that rival those served at the best eateries in New York or Paris.” Wolfgang Von Wieser is Veranda’s lead chef, bringing extensive experience as executive chef at The Bellagio and Four Seasons hotels in Las Vegas. He’s created a modern Italian menu with a Caribbean twist, supplemented by seven different themed menus. In the café, guests can enjoy Italian coffees, gelato, wraps and fresh pastries.
Service comes first
Both Nikheel and Mark will tell you that a key to their GBR success, is service . . . and their special approach to ensuring that it is genuine, personal and caring. Mark explains, “Each resort must feel like a handmade place, and personalizing the guest experience is crucial. We believe in making our staff feel like owners of their workplace; this is ultimately translated into how they treat the guests.” Nikheel adds, “We’ve always strived to redefine service in the Caribbean. We encourage our staff to act and speak from the heart.”
At The Veranda, this took shape by bringing on board local educator, editor and government advisor Dr. Carlton Mills in the unique position of manager of talent, growth and local affairs. His primary responsibility? “To motivate, inspire and encourage locals in particular and the staff as a whole,” he explains. “My goal is to cultivate a local interest in and appreciation of the tourism industry and foster dedication and commitment. I’m also here to help staff members work through potential problems before they become major issues.”
The Veranda’s May 2009 job fair was literally inundated with eager applicants, and with the resort committed to priority hiring of qualified Belongers, they were able to offer employment to over 100 locals, “the cream of the crop,” says Mark Durliat. This includes more management positions than any other TCI resort, for instance Resident Manager Ramon Andrews, a graduate of Clement Howell High School, the TCI Community College and Johnson & Wales University, Human Resource Manager Deleria Simms and Stephanie Smith.
Dr. Mills explains that the majority of expatriate managers were hired for their high level of expertise, “which they are not reluctant to share, knowing ahead of time that they are here to train and facilitate the growth of local individuals in the tourism industry.” With this in mind, each of seven senior leaders has designed a formal training program and monthly seminars to move their staff up in knowledge and remain on the cutting edge of service expected by a high-end destination. Nikheel explains, “We see it as our role to facilitate people to perform to their best potential.”
General Manager Christopher Eastmond echoes these sentiments. A native of Barbados who grew up in England, Christopher brings extensive experience in the opening of upscale Caribbean resorts. He believes that the TCI is a country in the “first generation” of the hospitality industry, with a big learning curve in front of it. However, he believes a positive and genuine attitude is half the battle — everything else is simply a matter of training. He sees his role, as well as that of the other managers, as laying the groundwork for the future, and offering guidance, answers and role models to TCI’s future leaders.
This in-house plan is supplemented by the innovative TCI Belonger Intern course, where three graduates from the TCI Community College Hospitality Program were brought to The Veranda for 12 weeks, rotating for two weeks each through the various departments for true hands-on experience. At the end, each could join the department they enjoyed most.
GBR also operates an exchange program with La Roche University in Switzerland, where 20 students (10 at Grace Bay Club and 10 at Veranda) come to TCI for six weeks of training. Nikheel adds that he will often take local managers with him to visit other resorts around the world and expand their horizons towards a “global view of hoteling.” This helps move forward GBR’s goal of “symbolizing how local and international talent can work together in harmony.”
An authentic experience
The Social Outreach Club, part of the GBR Foundation, is another program to help employees feel like family — and will ultimately broaden the vacation experience for guests. The brainchild of CEO Mark Durliat, the foundation (among other initiatives) has adopted four TCI schools — Charles Hubert James Primary and Adlaide Omler Primary in North Caicos and Iris Stubbs Primary School and Marjorie Basden High School in South Caicos. Targeted as among the most neglected schools in the country, GBR management and staff pay monthly visits, providing furniture, refrigerators, trailer classrooms and other supplies as needed, along with support and encouragement to teachers and students.
Mark Durliat explains the importance of this social connection to the community, “You have to remember that, due to the small population and close family ties, in many cases we are directly helping staff family members and friends. As well, these kinds of person-to-person relationships are easy to embrace — all it takes is a big heart — and are actually good practice in hospitality-oriented skills. I have to commend the Veranda developers for their support of the GBR Foundation. From the beginning, they’ve operated under an entrepreneurial, rather than corporate-minded spirit — the end results go well beyond simply making a profit.”
Concurrently, Nikheel says that The Veranda’s upscale guests are looking for an “authentic experience” to go along with their triple-digit thread count sheets and Jacuzzi tubs. In a way, he says, they want to go “back to basics, in terms of space and time.” This means that besides desiring to interact with a staff primarily made up of T&C Islanders and being entertained with local music and dance, he believes guests would enjoy visiting the out islands, where the peaceful Caribbean of yesteryear is more accessible. As such, plans are to develop a program of eco- and culture-friendly day trips, along with visits to the places and people in the social outreach programs. The end result is to help guests “take away a piece of the TCI in their hearts.”
Expanding their base
With plenty of space available for large groups, The Veranda aims to be a major attraction for conferences, meetings, weddings, reunions and other group gatherings, both local and international.
Real estate sales are another important component of their marketing mix. In fact, Mark Durliat says purchasing a vacation residence or second home at The Veranda can be quite a wise investment. “Prices at The Veranda are offered at levels not seen in Provo since 2003/04. What’s more, buyers have virtually zero risk — the branded resort is in operation by a proven management company, it enjoys a location on one of the world’s finest beaches, and benefits from all the amenities luxury travelers have come to expect — yet is priced at pre-construction levels. When you consider that the property has the potential to generate healthy rental revenues for its condominium owners, the benefits can be particularly attractive. And that’s not even taking into account anticipated price appreciation in the future.”
The Grace Bay Resorts brand is sure to appreciate, as well. Besides expecting to employ 300 to 400 employees and with a target of $50 million in annual revenue in the Turks & Caicos in the coming few years, Durliat reveals that GBR are “taking baby steps” towards soon managing independent luxury resorts in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, St. Lucia, Argentina and, hopefully, the US.
In the few weeks since the soft opening, reports from guests and visiting travel agents are overwhelmingly positive, with agents praising The Veranda’s “good value” for a five-star, luxury vacation experience.
Yet I laud the “behind-the-scenes” value generated here as even more significant. For not only is The Veranda building the TCI’s reputation as a vacation destination, but it is also laying the framework for generations of trained, experienced T & C Islanders who can proudly take up a leading role in the future of their country’s vital hospitality industry.
For more information, visit www.VerandaTCI.com.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.