Earlier this month, the El San Juan Hotel & Casino — an icon of the bustling Isla Verde tourism strip — closed temporarily as it undergoes a $60 million top-to-bottom redesign of virtually all public areas and guestrooms to attract a new type of client seeking a luxury lifestyle, as well as group business.
In an interview with this media outlet Wednesday, Andro Nodarse-León, managing partner of León, Mayer & Co. — one of three firms that purchased the property in July 2015 — said the renovation comprises “from the entrance to the beachfront, always respecting the DNA that makes the property unique and special, while upgrading it for 2017.”
Built in 1957, El San Juan Hotel & Casino sits on a sprawling 12 acres facing the Atlantic. It features a distinctive interior wood and marble décor — and several signature chandeliers — that has withstood nearly six decades and several owners. It is one of several large hotels in the area, along with the Intercontinental Hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott and the Ritz Carlton.
Over the next several months, the property’s façade will become new, with the construction of a modern driveway and tropical landscaping, an ocean-facing, 5,000 square-foot fitness center will be built, 20 new poolside cabanas added, and a new ballroom adjacent to a redesigned casino will open its doors, among other changes.
“When completed, there should be no doubt that this is the best hotel in San Juan. This hotel had that standing once, but in the last 10 years it was debatable,” Nodarse-León said.
The property’s last major renovation was in the mid-80s, when some $50 million were pumped into upgrades. But between 2005 and 2015, visitor traffic declined by 48 percent, something the executive squarely attributed to the El San Juan’s neglected physical condition.
The drop in business at the hotel contrasted sharply against the industry’s performance, he said, citing Puerto Rico Tourism Co. numbers showing that overall hotel occupancy increased by 24 percent during that same 10-year period.
“In 2005, the hotel’s ‘rev par’ index was 107; when we bought it, it was down to 55,” he said, referring to the hotel industry’s “revenue per available room” performance metric that is calculated by dividing a hotel’s total guestroom revenue by the room count and the number of days in the period being measured.
“The San Juan Hotel is so loved that not necessarily every one noticed how deep it feel in terms of economic performance and jobs,” he said. “Our goal is to achieve that 107 index and exceed it in the next three years.”
The current redesign — which should be completed for the start of Puerto Rico’s tourism season in December — aims to position the El San Juan Hotel & Casino as a competitor against what is available in Miami and neighboring islands for that upscale client, he said.
“The clientele we’re pursuing is looking for unique experiences, at a high level of service. They don’t compromise on quality of service or of the property,” he said. “Our timeline is very aggressive and we want to take advantage of the upcoming tourism season, so that our employees have a place to come back to.”
The hotel has 550 employees and another 300 across some 16 concessions, restaurants and retail shops inside the property. The construction phase will generate between 550 direct and 140 indirect jobs, Nodarse-León said, adding that more than 90 percent of the work is being outsourced locally, down to the art that will adorn the hotel’s walls and public spaces.
The Zika effect
Undertaking such a massive renovation is a gamble for the new owners, who are keenly aware of Puerto Rico’s current economic downturn and the negative effects of how the Zika virus contagion has been handled.
“We’re going through tough moments with the way Zika is affecting how the Puerto Rico market is perceived and that will affect the high season. Now is when groups make their decision on where they will go when high season arrives,” he said, referring to the period from Dec. 15, 2016 to April 15, 2017.
“The 2017 high season won’t be like it should have been because of the negative headlines of recent months. We will never get that back, because they have already chosen to go elsewhere,” Nodarse-León said. “Ours is a huge bet on Puerto Rico, our employees and on seeing the rebirth of an icon as it should be.”