In the summer of 1998, a Dallas gal packed her bags and moved to the Caribbean to pursue a hospitality career. Now, Karen Whitt is general manager of Regent Palms Turks and Caicos and president of the Turks & Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association.
Leaving behind friends and family was emotionally tough, and it took time to adjust to island culture, but Whitt embraced the opportunity to launch a new and promising career. “I don’t think there is any greater growth opportunity than to move out of your comfort zone into something that challenges you to grow and learn new things,” she says. “That’s very rewarding in itself.”
Whitt started out in the marketing and public relations field, and often worked on initiatives with hospitality groups. One of her projects involved promoting Jamaica as a destination, and a business trip to Sea Splash Resort piqued her interested in operations. When an opportunity to manage the Negril resort opened up, Whitt entered a general manager’s program at Cornell University School of Hospitality Administration to receive the proper training for the job. In August 1998, she moved to Jamaica, where she lived and worked for seven years.
In July 2005, Whitt moved to the Turks and Caicos Islands to help open the five-star hotel Somerset on Grace Bay, which was still in the development phase. In February 2011, after about five years as the Somerset’s general manager, she moved next door to the Regent Palms. The hotel is located on Providenciales, one of the most developed islands in Turks and Caicos and the number one beach destination in the world in TripAdvisor’s 2012 Travelers’ Choice awards.
Whitt has leveraged her communications and marketing background and used it as a platform for her operations roles. “Once you’re on the operations side, you’re actually creating experiences and trying to ensure that you match up to what’s being delivered and promised to the customer,” Whitt says, “so it was a natural transition in a way.”
As a marketer, Whitt helped sell concepts and promote products, but didn’t have control over whether the client was delivering on its promises and meeting consumer expectations.
“In marketing, you have to say what you are and then, on the other side, you have to be what you say,” she explains. “I was always very interested in that side of it, in terms of the operations, to make sure it was a match.”
The Turks and Caicos Islands have a high concentration of five-star properties, Whitt says. To ensure the Regent Palms stands out from its neighbors, Whitt and her team will be focusing on an overall refresh of the existing product, staff training and retraining, and evaluating the luxury model to find ways of adding value to the customer experience.
“In this day and age, travelers are traveling smarter and they’re looking for more value,” Whitt says. “We’re trying to look at ways we can continually add value to their overall experience. This is a very important part of what we’re doing right now in marketing brainstorming sessions.”
The property, which re-launched its luxury spa in March following a comprehensive redevelopment, recently received World Traveler Awards for the leading spa resort in Turks and Caicos and the Caribbean for 2012, and was named Turks and Caicos’ leading resort of 2011.
The Caribbean’s high season is approaching in December, and Whitt and her team are busy preparing for the boost in tourism. The competition is fierce with nearby islands like Bahamas and Jamaica, but Whitt says with razor sharp promotions and carefully crafted messages, Turks and Caicos can attract their fair share of consumers.
Whitt also collaborates with her local competitors as president of the Turks & Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association, which provides networking opportunities, training, promotional activities, and outreach initiatives for its members to achieve sustainable growth for the community.
“There’s a lot more power in numbers when you can work together,” Whitt says, “and we do that quite well.”