The First New Hotel to Open in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria Is Thriving. Here's What Its Founders Have Learned.
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The Serafina Beach Hotel opened in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March 2018, just six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, causing at least $80 billion in damages and permanently closing an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 businesses. Creators Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato -- the founders of global brand Serafina Restaurant Group -- had their work cut out for them. Even after repairing the damage wrought by the hurricane, they had to contend with an absence of local workers (many of whom had fled) as well as a conspicuous lack of tourists. “We opened in an environment that was really challenging,” they admit.
Located in the heart of San Juan’s trendy Condado district, today the hotel lives up to Assaf and Granato’s vision, despite the difficulties they faced. It features 96 water-view guest rooms, a ballroom, an infinity pool overlooking the ocean and a Puerto Rican-influenced Italian restaurant called aMare that even locals flock to as one of a few new eateries on the island. “We wanted to offer the same lively and welcoming atmosphere guests would find at our restaurants at this property,” they say. “It seemed like a natural expansion of what we’ve been doing our whole lives, which is taking care of people.”
In the year since opening, the hotel has played a role in San Juan's economic bounce back, creating over 100 new jobs. It has also experienced double-digit occupancy growth every month, a tangible sign of Serafina Beach Hotel’s success. The island itself is having a moment as well, having been named the No. 1 destination for 2019 in The New York Times' annual 52 Places to Go list.
How did Assaf and Granato do it? Only by learning these hard-earned lessons.
1. A lack of resources shouldn’t compromise your vision.
“The biggest challenge we faced was finding workers on the island to help finish the property and rebuild areas of the hotel that were damaged. Many people fled before and after the hurricane hit, which left us with very few resources. However, we didn’t let this stop us. We continued to believe in our vision and dream, and many of our team members didn’t lose hope either. We were able to use our network to find quality construction workers to help us finish the hotel and really see this through. Everyone involved with the opening put a lot of heart and soul into this project and was willing to go above and beyond to make sure we were able to finish.”
2. Challenges strengthen team bonding.
“As we worked through this challenge, it helped us form a stronger bond with our employees -- we refer to them as la familia. There came a point when our relationship with our team was more than just a working relationship; we all became family, and to this day we still remain very close. Everyone was working with passion, and we cannot thank our key management team enough for the hard work and resilience they showed.”
3. Success might take time.
“At the beginning, tourism wasn’t that strong yet, but we had tremendous support from the local population, as well as businesses and groups looking to help bring tourism back to the island to help boost the economy. Since opening, our property has been selling out every single weekend and has been a desired location for fashion shoots and production crews to call home base as they film throughout the island for movies and TV shows. When we opened, it really was a turning point for the island, and it brought people hope. It showed how the island was moving forward and that life on the island was returning back to normal.”
4. Be open to making changes.
“One of the best things about our property is the ideal location and close proximity to two bodies of water -- the Atlantic Ocean and the Laguna Del Condado. However, we really needed to consider how this could also affect the property when there are hurricanes or big storms on the island. For example, we had to change the layout for the restaurant terrace prior to opening for storm protection purposes. Initially, the terrace was enclosed by glass, which ended up shattering. This was a learning opportunity for us, and something we had to change to ensure the safety of our guests. To solve this, we redesigned the terrace to be an indoor-outdoor venue, with planters filled with greenery to frame the outdoor space.”
5. Embrace your environment.
“We worked hard to have our brand identity visible from the moment you walk in, but we also wanted to stay true to the destination and infuse the property with local flare. For example, we commissioned art from five local artists, which guests can see throughout the property. We wanted to make sure that the community is reflected within the hotel, and that we are able to give our support back to the locals who have really embraced us and made us feel like we are a part of the community. Puerto Rico is such a special place, and the people here have always been so welcoming and supportive, which is why we think it is very important to honor both.”