“We don’t think of ourselves as hoteliers,” said Juan Vela, vice-president of Velas Resorts, over breakfast at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya. “We think of ourselves as providers of experiences.”
Vela and his brother, Eduardo Vela Ruiz, were property developers who never planned to be in the hotel business. The first Velas resort – the Velas Vallarta, opened in 1989 – was meant to be condos. But when recession hit during construction, condo scales screeched to a halt, and the brothers were forced to take a new approach for the 50 per cent of units that went unsold.
Today, Velas Resorts is a thriving small chain, with three properties in the Puerto Vallarta/Riviera Nayarit area and one in the Riviera Maya. A fifth is scheduled to open in Los Cabos before the end of the year. But it didn’t start out that way.
“We sat by the phone and waited for reservations,” Vela said of the Velas Vallarta launch. “In January we booked three per cent. In February, six per cent. We checked to make sure the phone was connected.”
Those early challenges led the brothers to ditch their marketing manager and take a more hands-on approach – they spent three months personally visiting wholesalers in the United States and Canada. After stepping back from sales for some time, Vela returned to Canada three years ago to “knock on doors” again and visit travel agencies.
The approach has worked. The Grand Velas Riviera Maya is already 75 per cent booked for the coming high season, with Canadians representing the second-largest source of guests from outside of Mexico.
“All good properties have a certain philosophy,” Vela said, noting that the philosophy at Velas Resorts is to provide excellent service and fine dining experiences in an all-inclusive setting, complemented by great spas.
PAX has just returned from a visit to the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, where we discovered new developments in several areas of a property that Vela said is constantly reinventing itself.
The new Spa Corner overlooking the main pool was born from a simple problem: Moms staying in the beachside Ambassador section felt guilty for heading to the spa – a kilometre away in the hotel’s Zen jungle section – because it interrupted time with family. Opened in October 2015, the Spa Corner’s curtained cabanas overlook the Ambassador pool and beach, so moms can get a massage without leaving the family far behind.
The property offers six specialty restaurants, including the only five-diamond restaurant at an all-inclusive property: Cocina de Autor. Adult guests can dine at any of these with no additional fees (four of them welcome children), but reservations are required.
The newest restaurant, Chaká, opened just last month in the Zen section space formerly occupied by the Italian restaurant, Lucca, which has moved to the Ambassador section of the resort. Chaká highlights the cuisine of the Yucatan Peninsula, which includes the Riviera Maya. There are also plans to open a Yucatan-style grill restaurant, Ana Mari Irabien, the property’s public relations representative, told PAX.
The property offers two Kids Clubs – one in each of the Ambassador and Zen sections – as well as a Teen Club. The Zen Kids Club’s newest offering is a mini-golf course, opened just last month in a
lush area next to the property’s greenhouse.
Wedding and Meeting Facilities
The property introduced several new wedding facilities last year, including a beach platform, a second-story terrace overlooking the beach and a chapel that seats 170 guests. The terrace, called the Terraza del Mar (Sea Terrace), offers 8,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space and is also popular for meetings and groups.
TripAdvisor currently rates the Grand Velas Riviera Maya as the number 2 hotel in Playa del Carmen. Vela said they aim to hit number 1 this year.
“We always have one thing in mind,” Vela said, noting it was a lesson the Vela brothers learned from their 92-year-old father, a well-known doctor respected by everyone in the town where they grew up. “Whatever you do – it doesn’t matter if you work in a gas station filling up tanks – make sure you’re the best.”