At the Best Western Premier in Petion-Ville, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, it’s not unusual to see General Manager Ronald Maidens spot treating carpets, fluffing pillows in the lobby, or waiting tables in the restaurant on busy nights.
In early October, Maidens was decompressing from a particularly chaotic stretch. Within a 10-day span, a training task force from management firm Aimbridge Hospitality, several Best Western brand managers, and the hotel’s owners, Carabimmo SA, all paid a visit to the $15 million, 106-room luxury hotel. In the middle of all this, the staff was competing in the third annual Haiti Food and Spirits Festival. And despite the high-pressure environment, the hotel’s barman, Ricardo, won first place in the festival’s cocktail competition.
Before moving to Haiti, Maidens was the general manager of Cadaques Caribe Resort in the Dominican Republic. The two nations share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but life is much different on the Haiti side of the island. The economy has been in a state of regeneration since being struck by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010. With an unemployment rate that’s hovering around 60 percent, it’s no surprise that Maidens received 3,000 resumes to fill only about 100 positions. The majority of Maidens’ employees have never worked in hotels before, so it’s a constant learning experience for everyone involved. “Service to me is the key to one’s success in this competitive world,” Maidens says. “My daily energy goes into developing and training the staff to do better, and that includes me.”
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Maidens started his hotel career as a bellman at the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel in Israel and quickly advanced to night auditor by age 18. (His mother was stationed in Israel as an ambassador at the time.) His 33 years of experience includes 16 years working in renowned New York City hotels like the Helmsley Palace, the Stanhope, and the Gershwin, and 10 years in Puerto Rico, managing resorts and running a hotel management consulting company. He leverages all of this experience to cultivate his current staff’s talent. “I’m not training in a hotel for two or three days and then leaving,” he says. “The beauty of it is that I’m here, so I can actually follow up on a day-to-day basis, monitoring and making sure the message has been sent out and understood correctly.”
Maidens’ management approach appears to be working, because the staff is performing beyond his expectations. At last glance, the Best Western—the first U.S.-branded, full-service hotel to open in Haiti—was listed as the top hotel in Petion-Ville, surpassing the Occidental Royal Oasis, a luxury hotel that opened in December 2012. Competition will get stiffer once the $45 million, 175-room Marriott Hotel Port-au-Prince opens in early 2015. “The tough part is to maintain our high level of service and increase it,” Maidens says. He drives this success by constantly recognizing and rewarding employees for their achievements. For example, the hotel awards $100 each month to employees with the most mentions by name on TripAdvisor and in Medallia guest satisfaction surveys.
The Best Western Premier, funded by two Haitian banks, Unibank and Capital Bank, broke ground in 2011 with the goal of investing in the local community, providing jobs, and sourcing Haitian goods and services to build and furnish the hotel. The hotel is brimming with Haitian art, from dried calabash fruit curtains to recycled tire figurines and banana leaf collages. Artists used iron drums to construct decorative masks for the restaurant, pop art flowers for the pool, and mirrors and Trees of Life for the guestrooms. All told, there are 580 crafts and 42 decorative artworks from 100-plus Haitian artists, as well as more than 200 original photographs. “Our hotel is like a little museum,” Maidens says.
The hotel currently attracts mostly business travelers from the Caribbean, United States, and Canada, and is enjoying an average occupancy above any hotel in the market. Maidens hopes more leisure travelers will flock to the hotel as Haiti regains its position as a tourism destination. Haiti Tourism Minister Stéphanie Villedrouin has an ambitious set of tourism development plans to promote not only Haiti’s beaches, waterfalls, and mountains, but also its rich culture, music, and cuisine. The goal is to change the perception that Haiti always needs help.
Maidens’ next challenge will be to juggle his work and family life. But business on the books for fall appears relatively moderate, so Maidens isn’t too worried about getting bogged down with work. “If the hotel is busy, the team I have here is trained and ready to take over.”