W Vieques: One of Starwood’s most coveted retreats
It has been a little more than three years since the W Retreat & Spa, Vieques Island opened its doors, and ever since then, it has become one of the most coveted properties by the world’s most discerning travelers, who will apparently spare no expense when it comes to vacationing in the lap of luxury.
Perhaps that standing has everything to do with the fact that the picture-perfect property sits on a pristine oceanfront bluff and is run by a staff of mostly viequenses who is trained to do whatever guests want, whenever they want it. That is the mantra that guides the hotel operated by the Starwood Hotels chain and owned by Reig Capital Puerto Rico Inc.
In an exclusive interview with this media outlet, Greg White, general manager of the W Retreat & Spa, Vieques Island, confirmed that the property is one of the top redemption hotels in Starwood’s frequent guest program.
“We are heavily sought-after. We’re very aspirational. We’re at one of the top redemption levels for points,” he said. “You have to spend 20,000 points per night to stay here, so that means that you’re having to spend $20,000 in hotel stays somewhere else in the Starwood chain to earn to stay here one night.”
So being one of the highest redemption hotels in all of the Starwood system helps the W, and Puerto Rico, in terms of creating an image and destination awareness, said White, who assumed the leadership of the Vieques retreat a little more than two-and-a-half years ago.
“So the world is now made aware of the destination, and destination awareness is probably one of the number one challenges. I know that when I started here, and was telling people ‘I’m going to work in Vieques,’ everyone said ‘why are you going to Vegas?’,” he said.
The W Retreat & Spa, Vieques Island is one of only four Starwood properties worldwide that operates under the “retreat” concept, along with locations in Thailand, Bali and the Maldives. Sprawled on 30 acres of beachfront property, the 156-room W Retreat & Spa blends the brand’s contemporary style with the stunning nature and wildlife of the island.
The idyllic location has drawn a slew of celebrity guests and hosted hundreds of weddings, which have not only fueled the W’s bottom line, but have gotten the wheels of the Vieques economy moving.
“We’re the largest employer on the island, with more staff than the municipal government. We have a payroll of 230 people, 195 of which are full-time and receive full benefits,” he said. “About 90 percent of our people are ‘viequenses’.”
Furthermore, he said occupancy at the W has represented steady business for island service providers — car rentals, restaurants, tour operators — who in turn generate work for Vieques residents.
A shift toward luxury category
During the sit-down with NIMB, White said operating the Vieques resort has also represented a win for Starwood because it is well-positioned to benefit from the recent surge in luxury tourism generated in Puerto Rico, which is expected to fuel future business.
“Now you’ve got three or four very high-end luxury properties in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is redefining itself as no longer a second or third option for vacation-goers because of a lack of high quality product,” he said, noting that Starwood also operates the St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort in Río Grande, which recently drew a significant investment by billionaire businessman John Paulson.
“It’s actually causing some of the other well-established, older properties to start re-evaluating their business and start renovating,” White said. “If people who are willing to pay for what’s different and exciting are convinced that the quality is here and service will also be there, they’ll go there.”
Puerto Rico’s lineup of high-end properties also includes the Dorado Beach, A Ritz Carlton Resort in Dorado that opened less than a year ago and has become a magnet for celebrities.
Certain challenges remain
Although the W has positioned itself well among vacationers, the fact remains that there are still challenges that come with operating on a small island. First on the list are transportation issues, both by sea and by air, that White said should be addressed by both municipal and central government authorities.
“The airport needs to be expanded and the ferry system needs to be stabilized — and it’s not just the passenger portion of the ferry, the real challenge is the cargo because you can’t really feed the island what it needs without reliable, affordable transportation,” he said.
The need for improved services, especially at the airport, is evidenced by the growth spurt of passengers going through the Antonio Rivera-Rodríguez Airport in Vieques. When the W opened in 2010, there were about 19,000 passengers a year using the airport. Now, that number hovers at around 45,000 a year, White said.
“There are a couple of things that have to happen on the island, there has to be an acceptance that tourism is the driver of the economy in the future,” he said.
“There will be lobbying on the island for an improved airport, which includes expanding the runway,” he said, adding that the W has helped to spruce up the airport, paying for the facility’s most recent paint job.
That, however, may be a costly and far-off proposition, as the current runway cannot be expanded further because down the road from it is the historic 375-year-old Ceiba tree, an off-limits, historical symbol of the island.
“Although the space is available on the grounds formerly occupied by the Navy, the reality is that is falls under the protection of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now,” he said, which leaves little wiggle room to check an airport expansion off the wish list.
Despite that, White believes in the importance of protecting the former Navy training site from development, to preserve the essence of Vieques.
“We have the largest nature reserve in all of the Caribbean. We have a destination that is unlike any other and there’s no development of the beaches, so that puts us ahead of any of our competing islands, most of which are industrialized,” White said.