Thursday, March 04, 2010

Interview with David Ames

Thursday, March 04, 2010
by Philippa Jacks

David Ames tells me he doesn’t particularly like the Caribbean.

This is not what you’d expect to hear from a man about to open one of the most ambitious resorts the Caribbean has ever seen.

Ames is chairman of Harlequin Hotels & Resorts which will, in four months time, open the doors of Buccament Bay – a 1,200-room mega-resort on the small island of St Vincent.

Ames makes no bones about the fact that he hasn’t rated the Caribbean in the past. “I go on holiday to the Maldives or the Far East,” he says. “I go where you get value for money. And I don’t believe you get that in the Caribbean right now.”

Celebrity tie-ups

With Buccament Bay, Ames intends to “show the Caribbean how it should be done”, combining luxurious accommodation with a star-studded programme of activities. The Harlequin Sports Academy is being led by TV football pundit and former Republic of Ireland team captain Andy Townsend, with Pat Cash brought in to set up a Tennis Academy, and Liverpool Football Club launching its first soccer school.

In the Harlequin Performing Arts Academy, guests will take classes in acting, stage-management and make-up from real West End and Broadway professionals.

An extraordinary attention to detail has seen Harlequin design bespoke cutlery, crockery and furnishings for Buccament Bay, as well as sourcing its own wine label, and even creating a swimwear range.

As the launch date of July 1 draws nearer, Ames and his team are already setting to work on the next resorts in the portfolio. Ground has been broken on The Merricks in Barbados, 

The Hideaway in the Dominican Republic, and The Marquis Estate in St Lucia last month. 

The Marquis Estate will feature the world’s first Gary Player golf hotel, with rooms and villas spread around the course. With two further Dom Rep resorts in the pipeline, Harlequin claims it will open a staggering 8,000 hotel rooms in the Caribbean over the next five years.

Joining the dots

Expansion is not limited to the Caribbean; resorts in Brazil and Thailand are also planned. But what’s particularly interesting is the way in which the Caribbean resorts will be joined up. Harlequin says it will set up its own airline, Harlequin Air, as well as building its own boats, so guests can enjoy two or three-centre holidays without having to use regional transport.

Development is funded by investments through sister company Harlequin Property, and Ames claims Harlequin Hotels is in the fortunate position of having no debt.

He says around £1 billion-worth of property has already been sold, and the group is in no hurry to get paying guests through the doors. “What’s important for us is for our travel partners to come and have a look, and feel confident sending their clients to us. We’re not desperate to get paying guests until November.”

Government talks

The government of St Vincent and the Grenadines has understandably welcomed such large-scale investment: Buccament Bay is currently employing 1,000 workers.

Ames has also been approached by the Jamaican and Antiguan ministries of tourism, and even in St Vincent there are further areas the government would like the company to develop. “We’ve proven that we mean what we say. The Caribbean’s fed up with people going in there then not employing the locals,” he says.

So while the Caribbean may not have been David Ames’ destination of choice in the past, the region certainly looks set to be the focus of attention of Harlequin Hotels in the future.