From Design to Hospitality: How to Thrive in a Male-Dominated Industry Celebrity designer Sarah Baeumler was on vacation when she discovered an abandoned resort and purchased it on a whim. Now she's at the forefront of the Caribbean tourism industry with advice for future hoteliers.
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When perched on the sands of a secluded, exotic locale while staring out at the turquoise horizon with a drink in hand, one invariably thinks to themselves, "Should I just move here?" Sarah and Bryan Baeumler were on a family vacation in The Bahamas when a serendipitous boat ride to the sleepy island of South Andros sealed their fate. After falling in love with an abandoned resort from the 1960s and purchasing it almost instantly, the family embarked on their biggest adventure yet: transforming the property into a five-star, boutique luxury resort while living and working on one of the West Indies country's most remote Out Islands.
"People told us we were crazy, " admits Sarah, a former ballerina and classical ballet school owner. Nevertheless, she and Bryan bult their first home from the ground up, a project that fueled her passion for interior design and catapulted the couple to stardom with several home-improvement shows on HGTV's Canadian network. In the near-decade since, the two first-time hoteliers have overcome everything from hurricanes to a global pandemic, with cameras capturing all of their ups and downs. Turns out that with revenue in the hotel segment expected to reach $198 million this year, with a projected market value of roughly $456 million by 2025, maybe the Baeumlers weren't as crazy as everyone originally thought.
"Travel is what shapes us," says Baeumler. "It's what defines who we are and how we see the world. There's something really exciting about being at the forefront of this industry and being the ones who get to curate this experience for our guests."
Even in an industry where the ratio of female to male CEOs is approximately 20 to 1, with women making up only 12% of global hospitality leadership in 2019, Baeumler found a way to play to her strengths. "There were certainly a lot of doubts, but I think women thrive in this industry," she shares. "The hotel business is about relationships and always taking care of your internal team while interacting and connecting with guests. It's well suited to female entrepreneurs who have strong leadership skills and the ability to be a good listener."Related: Summer's Officially Over — What's Next for Businesses That Rely on Seasonal Tourism?
Exorbitant import fees on building materials, a termite infestation and a looming and violent hurricane season that pushed back the hotel's opening didn't stop Baeumler from settling into her new role as a lead interior designer and co-owner of the brand-new Caerula Mar Club. "When working with a hotel, the size and scale of your projects are massive," she explains. "When you are scaling everything to this size, the costs are exponentially larger, and so are the risks."
Baeumler recommends having a year's worth of operation funds set aside to account for any major issues that might arise. And sure enough, shortly after its February 2020 opening, Caerula Mar had to shutter its doors due to the pandemic. Sarah quickly pivoted, working closely with her PR and marketing teams to promote full resort buyouts and booking packages with standalone villa accommodations and private flights to help reduce travelers' contact with other resort guests for added safety and security.
According to industry trend reports published by the likes of Barron's, and the New York Times, sustainable, purposeful and regenerative travel — the idea of leaving a place better than when you found it — are among the leading trends driving 2021 travel. For Baeumler, it's about making connections to the local community.
"We've been enamored with this island from the moment we arrived, and we're committed to improving the local economy and growing Andros as a travel destination," she says. That's why, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, she and Bryan partnered with Home Depot to supply generators to the island and joined a local council designed to better equip South Andros for future hurricane seasons. They're also in the process of installing solar panels that will reduce the resort's carbon footprint and drastically reduce energy consumption.
In Baeumler's words, "I'm a mother first. It's been amazing to see our kids adjust to life in South Andros and the way it's shaping them as human beings." To that end, Caerula Mar also partners with a local high school to purchase agricultural products that are farmed by students and features an on-site garden where Executive Chef Sebastian Lopez hosts organic farming workshops with the students. The Baeumlers' plans to further develop South Andros include restoring historic landmarks, expanding the local marina and developing an additional property that will create essential jobs for local residents.
In addition to running a resort, anchoring a family of six and designing luxury homes, Baeumler has created a dynamic lifestyle brand that offers premium products and services, including beauty and bath products, fine linens and more. "The best advice I can give women entrepreneurs is to learn everything you can about your industry," she offers. "Always stay on the heels of the latest news and trends in your industry and look for ways to incorporate that into your business so you can be ahead of the curve. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, focus on being able to define your business in finite terms. I don't consider myself an expert on everything, but I know what I'm good at and I always stay true to that and trust my creative process. As women, we often question whether we have every box checked, but really, we have to trust that we know our worth and strengths and what we can bring to the table. And that's enough."