Wanted: trusty & affordable lodging beyond Port-au-Prince

  • Whether a traveling salesman on a circuit of customers, a Diaspora family on vacation, or NGO mission visiting different project sites, everyone is hobbled by the lack of good quality, predictable, and affordable lodging in other parts of the country beyond the Port-au-Prince metro area, which is a real deterrent to much needed progress across Haiti’s hinterland. 


    Anyone who has traveled by car a while in the US or Canada will typically book on one of the many travel websites like hotels.com or Expedia.com, and select one of the many trusted roadside brands like Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Motel 6 or Best Western that has earned his loyalty. Chain affiliated hotels and motels have reached virtually every part of the country.


    But the situation in Haiti is much the opposite: most towns lack good lodging options, which ideally would:


    • cost $70-90 a night per room, with breakfast, taxes & fees included

    • have a restaurant, perhaps bar, auto rental desk, exercise room, internet wi-fi

    • in some cases have function rooms for conferences and seminars for at least 50 people

    • feature attractive landscaping, and parking on the premises, and

    • provide top notch 24-hour security for guests, visitors and their vehicles


    Firstly, in Port-au-Prince room prices may be edging down as new hotels finally are coming on line, but even with this new capacity [from the recently opened Oasis and Best Western hotels] they are pricey and much of the year it may still be hard to book a good quality room in this $70-90 price range. What’s more, much of the city’s hotel capacity, even at some of the newer hotels, has become really substandard, and the customer service often lacking. The city needs more well-run, low to mid-market affordable hotel capacity. How will it get it? The coming Marriott is sure to come on line maybe in 2015 at even higher prices. Moreover, in the future, good capacity is much needed in areas like the city center, and airport and not in Pétion Ville.


    Secondly, in the north, on the supply side, Cap Haïtien hasn’t seen any major new hotel open in years, but fortunately some expansions are under way, but the city and its metro area still do not have any modern full-service hotel facility. On the demand side, the outlook is quite positive as economic developments get under way at the Caracol industrial park, near the new university of Limonade and at the heritage sites of the Citadel and Sans Souci Palace, which are getting upgrades programs from time to time. Once the improved airport at Cap Haïtien gets some international air service, visitor volumes to the north will be rising and hotel needs will rise in tandem. While some small boutique hotels are reported to be under way, the area may be in for a hotel shortage, in which case prices of rooms will soar. The city may see some missions and guest houses opening up to travelers before it gets a new full-service hotel. But will these be enough to handle the rising visitor volumes, at an international standard? Very doubtful.


    HotelThirdly, along the north-south overland routes crossing the Center and Artibonite departments, new lodging might make sense at towns like St. Marc, Gonaives, Hinche, La Miel or Mirebalais.One obvious opportunity is at Mirebalais, which once its new teaching hospital is fully built and operating, will create needs for visiting instructors and trainees, patients and their families plus contractors and suppliers offering medical supplies and services. In a more general way, for those wishing to cross Haiti by road, good quality lodging will be needed as the roads in the north-south corridors are upgraded and traffic volumes grow. These provincial towns must not be overlooked in the travel marketplace. The same can be said for the towns along the east-west routes linking Port-au-Prince to points like Léogâne, Les Cayes and as far as Jérémie.


    The solution whose time has come is the creation of a chain of 3-4 hotels, [motor hotels or motels in US jargon] under a common banner, to consistently meet the traveling public’s needs with a good quality lodging product. As is true in any market, travelers want a predictable, reliable product and will reward it with their loyalty. This means not only functional facilities and good construction, but also ‘invisible’ innovations for example in good management systems and incentives for workers. It requires a partnership as follows. On the one hand, a Haitian sponsor can secure viable hotel development locations, identify fellow investors, and provide a solid legal foundation for the venture. On the other hand an internationally known hotel company can provide proven design standards, an adaptable management philosophy and successful image, embodied in a well negotiated management contract. This choice of management will be the sponsor’s most critical decision, to achieve an enduring business partnership, but this is how the hotel business operates, whatever the quirks of the national culture.


    Suitable management companies could come from the US, Canada, EU or even the Dominican Republic, one of the Caribbean’s star destinations where a few international chains such as ACCOR, Occidental, and Best Western have had operations for some years. Some chains in high demand won’t talk to a sponsor without a feasibility study, describing the merits of a given hotel project. They will gauge a sponsor’s level of sophistication on the basis of his business plan including any feasibility studies. Proposing one project with promise should arouse some interest, but proposing a group of well-located projects in an emerging marketplace like Haiti’s should arouse even more interest.


    Hotel Office

    There is a major business case in favor of creating a group of hotels over a single project, namely that the knowhow as to project formulation, financing and management can be applied to successive projects, mutually reinforcing to some extent, and significantly cutting the startup costs per project. If the all-in cost falls to $75,000 per room rather than $90,000, this will boost the bottom line and cut risk, in the eyes of the funders.


    Now that Haiti’s capital city and gateway is finally getting new hotel capacity, it is time to invest beyond Port-au-Prince and build up modern capacity in the nation’s provincial business centers, directly supporting sorely needed economic progress in the departments. With their knowledge of the hotel business in the US and Canada, Diaspora Haitians could take the initiative and design just such a partnership, as has been done in so many other countries.


    Manuel L. Knight is a tourism sector planner based in Washington DC consulting for development agencies and hotel developers and their lenders. He is a top contributor to TripAdvisor.com. His first mission to Haiti was in 1998. mk@KnightConsultLLC.com © Photo credit: G8 Hospitality and EconoLodge.