Amusement Logic: Why did you choose the leisure and tourism sector and how did you arrive at the position of Vice President for Architecture, Design and Construction of Playa Hotels & Resorts?
Ken C. Shannon: My first paid jobs, while still a student in high school, were somehow always in the leisure market. I worked at a municipal park teaching kids baseball when I was only 16 and when I was 17, I worked at a National Park in Canada in guest services; coming up with recreational activities for the campers. Later in life, when I became an architect, it just seemed natural to be working on buildings that had an element of fun. So, for more than 30 years I have been involved in one way or another in leisure hotel and resort projects, often internationally. Playa Hotels really started ramping up their Caribbean and Mexican market position back in 2008; acquiring existing hotels, adding to them, rebranding them, and ultimately building all-new resorts. I owned a small design firm when Playa launched, and my work with them evolved to the point where we were exclusively doing their projects. When they offered me the role to lead their A, D, and C work, it was an easy and welcome transition.
A.L.: What are the lines of design and architecture that best define Playa Hotels & Resorts?
K.C.S.: It’s funny you mention that, because we hear very often that our hotels have several design similarities, even though we are not consciously aware of them. I would say that everything we develop is design rather than budget driven. That is, the guest experience is everything to our design teams. One of my favorite activities when I am working and staying at a Playa hotel is to pretend I am a guest, so I can see the hotel as someone would see it while on vacation, versus being a business guest. I often ask others what they think of the various restaurants, amenities, pools and so on. I am often surprised that elements we believe will be extremely successful sometimes are not, and other elements that we feel will not gather so much attention turn out to be the signature attractions! We are constantly learning, evolving, modifying, re-imagining. This keeps life interesting, and hopefully our guests recognize we are getting better and better every project we design and build.
A.L.: What about sustainability in respect to design, architecture and construction of Playa Hotels & Resorts’ facilities?
K.C.S.: Well, we have come a long way over the past dozen or so years. Sustainability used to be just a box that we ticked in the property offering list, really not more than simply one more item we needed to address in design and delivery of the asset. That has changed enormously; and our entire approach to design now begins with discussions that involve water consumption, electricity demands, recycling, and our carbon footprint. Energy costs in our destinations are spectacularly high in many cases, so we need to consider this in how we design the larger volume spaces, such as lobbies and buffet restaurants. Besides the good business aspect of our new approach, it is also simply the right thing to do in considering our environment and what we want our children to inherit. I get zero push back from anyone inside the company on these matters, and moreover, our guests are frequently including sustainability of the hotel operations in their decision-making process when choosing a Playa hotel or resort.
A.L.: What factors make it advisable for a hotel or resort to have an all-inclusive operating model?
K.C.S.: The traditional All Inclusive model for hotels and resorts was based on volume, getting as many guests on the property as possible, to lower food & beverage costs for the masses. There was a standard kit-of-parts that included a certain number of specialty restaurants, bars, pools of a certain size, a theater for shows, and so forth. Some people call this the ‘Dirty Dancing’ model, where the North Eastern states of the USA had these packages where families would just drive the family car and stay for a week or two. Later, when air travel became less costly, the market shifted to the Caribbean and Mexico, where the sun shines more than 300 days per year. The product then started to evolve, and shifted from mass tourism to luxury; hotels became smaller and more exclusive and segmented. Initially there were only Family resorts, while today there are Adults-only resorts and many other sub segments for guests of all types. The formula continues to modify and change, but the core idea, that guests pay one fee for a robust vacation experience, is still true, and vitally important.
A.L.: And what does an all-inclusive hotel or resort need to be successful?
K.C.S.: Most All Inclusive resorts have a beach, and therefore are located in places with abundant sunshine. Beyond that, there are many, many components of the typical AI product. Interestingly, these components often vary by location. For example, a pool experience in Los Cabos, Mexico is quite different from a pool experience in Cancun, Mexico. A dining experience in Montego Bay, Jamaica, is very different from one in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. This brings up another really important point; we try to take advantage of the differences and uniqueness in each destination and country. Our guests tend to be loyal and stay with us year after year; we owe it to them to give them a varied experience in each hotel or resort.
A.L.: What do water attractions bring to an all-inclusive resort hotel?
K.C.S.: This is a very important question, and more relevant today than ever. The first generation AI hotels and resorts had very basic water experiences; simple shapes, one water depth, white plaster finishes, and sadly, a boring overall experience for most guests. It worked for a long time though, as there just weren’t other options. Today we can witness an enormous shift in pool design; some are geometric and contemporary, others are free form and organic, some have an infinity edge, others have a wet bar, and on and on it goes. The biggest change of recent years has been the inclusion of Water Parks as a core design feature in the Family All Inclusive product. We have found that in all market segments, from mid level all the way to ultra luxury resorts, we need to include a water park as a core component. And more than that, we need to take great care in designing the mix of water park components to include something for every guest profile. This is probably where I enjoy my job the most; last week I was able to spend two full days testing water parks in our existing hotels to evaluate and modify for the next one.
A.L.: What type of public is Playa Hotels & Resorts targeting (tourists or locals, family or youth, etc.) and why?
K.C.S.: Each property is different and each caters to a different guest. Covid, for all the terrible things it caused, opened up the local/ domestic market for most of our hotels. Besides helping get our associates and team members through an awful time, we were able to provide a fund and safe destination for the residents of the countries where we operate. We learned a lot during this challenging time, and today we are making a huge effort to give back to those who helped keep us afloat during the pandemic. At the end of the day, our business is about creating memories and making people happy. There is nothing more powerful in that process than making sure our team members are happy.
A.L.: What role does Playa Hotels & Resorts give to innovation and the renovation of attractions and services, and what investment policy does it implement?
K.C.S.: Where we innovate the most is in trying to make things as easy as possible for the guest. Nobody wants to spend a half an hour checking in a resort after traveling six hours by plane to the country of our hotels and resorts. We want them to decompress the moment they pass the gatehouse and arrive in this wonderful place, where everything they can possibly ask for is right there and waiting. No more passwords to open apps, no stress trying to get a drink, no fighting the masses to get a lounge chair by the pool, no pressure to buy more of anything. From the first lines outlining the master plan, and right up to opening day and beyond, we work hard to give amazing service that is as seamless as it can be.
Most hoteliers in the resort business know that the re-investment cycle for a property should be 7-10 years. We do our best to take a deep dive into the assets as often as we can, to keep the properties sparkling and new. Sometimes, we are able to reduce that cycle because we see the property results are so successful that the guests keep coming back to the same place every year, and we need to offer new experiences for them to enjoy. I can think of several hotels where we make it our policy to add new elements almost every year.
A.L.: What expansion plans does Playa Hotels & Resorts have for the coming years?
K.C.S.: We emerged from the pandemic stronger and better than ever before. Our CIO, Fernando Mulet, likes to call this Playa 3.0. Closing in on two decades of experience in the AI business, we survived the Great Recession and the Pandemic, and sadly, we’ve seen many of our competitors fall during these cataclysmic times. Our outlook for 2022 and beyond is stronger than ever. Most significantly, we see the promise of taking this model to new markets such as the Middle East. That said, we continue to believe that the Caribbean and Mexico market is just getting started; we see huge growth coming and we have several new build projects on the boards for these places.
A.L.: How do you see the future of tourism in general and that of Playa Hotels & Resorts in it?
K.C.S.: Well, we all expected the demand to be high as the world opened up from the pandemic, but I doubt many believed it would rebound quite so quickly and with such force. Our challenge now is to keep pace with the surge in leisure travel and to remain where we feel most comfortable, with best in class assets. The AI market is still relatively new and finding its place, but I personally believe the day is coming when almost every vacation hotel and resort will be all inclusive. It just makes so much sense on every level. For the consumer, the value is extraordinary, even in the ultra luxury products. I love it when I hear someone mention they just tried their first all inclusive resort and they were shocked with the superior quality of the property and the food offering. In my mind, there is no doubt that this is the future.