A king guest bedroom at Marriott Port-au-Prince // © 2015 Marriott Port-au-Prince
Feature image (above): The hotel’s open-air concept sees the lobby transition to a lounge area, followed by the bar and dining room. // © 2015 Marriott Port-au-Prince
Five years after the devastating 7.0 earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over 1 million, recovery efforts have been slow, and tourism has suffered greatly. With the firm belief that it is better to “teach a man to fish,” Marriott International, Caribbean cellphone provider Digicel and the Clinton Foundation teamed to build the first Marriott-branded hotel that strives to hire as many local employees and businesses as possible.
The 11-story, 174-room Marriott Port-au-Prince Hotel opened earlier this year and has already created more than 200 jobs for locals, as 96 percent of the work force is Haitian.
Eschewing outside name brands to keep the economy flowing from within, Marriott Port-au-Prince enlisted Haitian beauty brand Ayiti Natives to provide all-natural bath products in guestrooms. Instead of the usual Starbucks products served at most Marriotts around the world, this capital city location exclusively serves Haiti’s Rebo coffee. Meanwhile, its La Sirene Restaurant, La Sirene Bar and Cafe Cho gets their ingredients from a co-op in Kenscoff, Haiti.
Even the hotel’s art is exclusively Haitian. Local artist Philippe Dodard is the hotel’s art curator and worked with Haitian artists to select paintings, sculptures, photography and others artisanal wares to enhance the $45 million property.
We spoke to Peter Antinoph, the hotel’s general manager, who came to the Port-au-Prince location from Paris Marriott Champs Elysees Hotel in France. It was quite a change going from a luxury five-star hotel that was once the atelier of Louis Vuitton to an island struggling to find its place in the world following disaster, destruction and corruption.
Yet like Haiti, Antinoph is also rebuilding. Diagnosed with intestinal cancer a few years ago, he was given a 43 percent chance to live. Miraculously, he beat the odds, but he realized he wanted more out of life than luxury hotel living.
When the opportunity to come to Port-au-Prince arose, he asked to be transferred, as stunned colleagues pointed out to him that he’d be going to “Ha-i-ti” not “Ta-hi-ti.” Today, he can’t imagine working anywhere else. We asked him about the challenges of running a hotel in a country struggling against the odds.
How did you staff the hotel?
We looked for people who didn’t have jobs, who needed work. We spoke to pastors of poor neighborhoods. We drove to the tent cities, called people over and talked to them. We asked questions such as, “Have you eaten today? Are you a mother? Who’s at home with the kids? Do you have electricity?” We hired 70 to 80 percent of our people this way.
Who are some of these staffers?
Lucardo grew up in an orphanage and lost his arm at 6 years old. He had no future. Now, he’s working for us at the front desk.
We have people with cleft palates working for us. We have people who live in tents working for us. We’re making them part of the business and part of the success of who we are, as opposed to treating them as individuals who are not important enough in the role of the hotel.
Was training challenging?
We would find workers with a stick scratching a window thinking that’s how to clean it. They had no windows where they lived, so there was no basis of comparison for them. We train every day.
Marriott also selected a group to train in hospitality at JW Marriott Hotel Santo Domingo before placing them in entry-level positions at the Port-au-Prince location. What were some of the biggest things you needed to impart to the young employees about the hotel or service industry?
A sense of urgency. I always teach my staff: Do it right away. Don’t let it go. Respond to cues, but be nice. I think if we’re nice, it will excuse us our faults and shortcomings. When the staff is genuinely caring and looking after you, if they forget the sugar packet, it’s not the end of the world.
What is one of your biggest goals?
My goal is to make this hotel function better than any other. I want to prove to the world that Haiti can create a top-class hotel, that local-grown Haitian talent — which some might say isn’t good or is slow — can be better than anyplace else. My true mark will be the day I export Haitians to run hotels abroad and show everyone what we can grow in Haiti.
What can a tourist see in Haiti?
Haiti has the largest and longest cave system in the Caribbean. It has magnificent blue watering holes and waterfalls. There are coastlines still untouched by mankind. There is white sand and alpine forests. Citadelle Laferrier is the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. You can easily spend 10 days sightseeing and then lie on a beach for a week.
Anything for foodies?
The country has cuisine that changes from region to region. Haiti produces coffee, vanilla and coconut. We have the best honey and chocolate you will ever eat in your life. It’s worth the trip just for the chocolate alone.