Hilton Worldwide will officially debut its first Curio Collection property in Belize in December when the Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club opens on Ambergris Caye. In fact, the property represents a milestone for both Hilton, as it marks the brand’s first foray into the country, and Belize where the resort is not only the country’s first luxury branded property, but also the country’s largest luxury resort, with 205 cottages and villa-style accommodations set on 60 acres.
But this series of firsts is entirely by design as owner/developer and CEO Beth Clifford specifically set out to develop a resort in an emerging market. “As a developer, you want something with a certain rate of return, so when you find a good market that’s also a break-out market, the appreciation is much higher for those investing with you and you can also help define the market,” she explained. “Because Belize is still an immature market, there’s an opportunity there for us to really drive where the country is going, so we can be a big fish in a small pond.”
The resort also signals Clifford’s arrival in hotel development. A seasoned construction and real estate executive, Clifford’s experience has run the gamut from small historical preservation projects and residential neighborhood developments to commercial office projects and semiconductor and biopharmaceutical developments. But she describes the Mahogany Bay Resort as a legacy project that would be the capstone of her career. “I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and felt that, in Belize, I could do something innovative and that hadn’t been done before,” she said. “I really wanted to make a mark.”
After assessing a number of markets, she finally landed on Belize when further research showed that the country was lacking in a resort or lifestyle hotel with more than 70 rooms. In addition, while inbound travel has been growing at a year-over-year rate of 12 percent for the last 16 years, hotel inventory has increased by less than 3 percent in the same time period. That was enough to satisfy Clifford’s quest for a market with the fundamentals to potentially drive meaningful ROI.
Clifford settled on the island’s west coast where she found a location that’s 12 minutes from the barrier reef, a 10-minute golf cart ride to the airport, eight minutes to fly fishing flats, and close to downtown San Pedro and its many dining, parasailing and skydiving offerings. Clifford noted that unlike many all-inclusive resort destinations where guests typically spend six of seven days on property, the average visitor goes to Ambergris Caye for eight days with four days already planned prior to their arrival.
“This is really about the adventure traveler who wants to go cave tubing or visit Mayan ruins or go scuba diving or take the ferry to Belize City and we wanted to make sure guests don’t feel tucked away, but have within 10 to 15 minutes access to everything,” Clifford noted.
Clifford wanted a property that highlighted the time period during which Belize was British Honduras and served as major center of mahogany exportation. So, she built the resort using sustainably harvested local mahogany and further contributed to Belize’s economy by launching her own furnishings company.
“For centuries, the people in Belize have been woodworkers and artisans,” Clifford said. “To create Mahogany Bay, we brought them together with international designers who are experts in resort development and local product so that today, we import very little that isn’t readily available in the country, which is mainly appliances.”
Now, Clifford is the third largest employer in the country and is poised to become the second largest once the resort opens with more than 400 people on its payroll. “We really saw this as an opportunity to bring together best practices—both U.S. and local—with local talent,” she added.
As Belize has an average 85 percent hotel occupancy, according to Clifford, she also envisioned a property with more than 200 keys as a means of further opening the market to destination weddings, large family groups and incentive travel. With standard cottages and villas that have multiple bedrooms and baths, including a bunkroom for kids, she anticipates that the resort will benefit from the fact that booking a block of rooms on Ambergris Caye is currently a challenge for many travelers. She also believes the property will bring a higher service standard to the destination that doesn’t yet exist.
“We’ll really go after the incentive side of the group market more because the layout of the resort and San Pedro really lend themselves well to that business and since we sit on 65 acres and have more than 8,000 square feet of private indoor event space, you can really do anything,” Clifford said.
Yet, Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club has another unique aspect that goes beyond its location, size and British Colonial-inspired architecture. The property is also situated in the resort community of Mahogany Bay Village. The eponymously named resort will have all the hallmarks of an upper echelon British Colonial-inspired Caribbean resort, including a private beach club, farm-to-table restaurant and on-site marina. But it will also serve as a gateway for visitors who want to experience the next frontier of American entrepreneurship.
But the resort, its location and its concept aren’t just appealing to travelers. It clearly represents an opportunity for Hilton and its Curio brand. For Clifford, partnering with Hilton is also a symbol of success. At the onset, she felt that securing a partner with the distribution capabilities of a major brand was essential, but she didn’t want to lose the individuality of the resort by adhering to strict brand standards. Curio’s flexibility with brand standards and the reach of the Hilton Honors program sealed the deal for her. Clifford explained that “as the first resort property in Belize to attract a brand, we thought that would lend credibility to our property and their distribution would also be an opportunity to showcase Belize globally.”
Loyal Hilton guests also benefit. “On the west coast of Ambergris Caye, you can see the sunset and enjoy a cocktail while you watch the sun go down and that’s what most people do on vacation,” Clifford adds.