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Behind the Scenes of a Mega Resort in the Making: Baha Mar

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Image Credit: Courtney Crockett

There is a story about tourism and money, development and politics, and about how one large hotel and resort complex can threaten to destroy the economy of an entire country. Of course, as with all stories like these, it didn’t exactly start out that way.

Welcome to Baha Mar, a $3.5 billion resort billed as the largest construction project in the history of the Caribbean. New hotels, casinos, a marina, an environmentally sensitive design, and a cause for hope to an economy dependent upon travel and tourism.

When we first reported on this resort, the builders had great expectations. Here is a look at what they planned.

There’s a view you don’t often see—the new national bird of the Bahamas—the building crane. It’s Baha Mar, a 3.5 billion dollar complex and the largest in the Caribbean. But put that into perspective: the Bahamas consists of 700 islands, reefs, and keys, and virtually everything has to come here by boat or by plane. For Baha Mar, that’s a huge logistical challenge.

That means thousands of people working many, many years to bring the project to completion. Let’s go behind the scenes so I can show you how they really made this happen.

Mike Hong is the leading architect of Baha Mar. It is his job to make sure the resort attracts clients from around the world, while still staying on budget.

According to Hong, “The whole thing mathematically has to work out. So even though we play with the aesthetic aspect of this whole thing, when we start this thing everything has to work out, and we have to sort of work within that parameters. No matter how great the vision is, it needs to make commercial sense.”

In order to make commercial sense, the architects had to pay attention to some unexpected elements. First, the resort is curved outward, which provides the largest number of rooms with a beachfront view.

Also, the resort tapers down in the middle. That’s not just a design choice, it was done to avoid a shadow over the pool area during high season. Because if you’ve got a shadow over the pool, no one hangs out there—which means they’re not spending money on food and drinks.

Every design choice affects the bottom line.

“The cost is directly related to the viability of the project, but the cost really affects the experience,” says Mike Hong.

Of course, that experience is still theoretical. The hotel was scheduled to open in December 2014, but delays in construction have pushed back the opening to late spring of the following
year.

But Sarkis Izmirlian, Chairman & CEO of Baha Mar, is optimistic that the delays are just bumps in the road. “We’ve gotten so good at overcoming our issues and our problems. Construction is difficult, it’s complicated, but we can find a solution to any problem. For example, raising $3.5 billion dollars of financing in the great recession.”

In order to raise that money in a difficult financial environment, Izmirlian secured backing from a group of Chinese investors. The partners see catering to the Chinese, and other developing markets around the world, as key to Baha Mar’s success.

“We decided that, let’s go fish where’s there’s fish,” explained Izmirlian. “And today that means Latin America, that means more of Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia, and China.”

In order to attract Chinese travelers, the developers were particularly sensitive to history and etiquette. For example, you won’t find an official fourth floor at Baha Mar because the Chinese find the number four unlucky.

The hotel is also training staff to speak Mandarin, Spanish, and Portuguese. But the training program doesn’t just stop there.

“We’re going to give people opportunities,” says Izmirlian. “The program that I’m most proud of is our Leadership Development Institute, where we’re taking young men and women who didn’t have a shot at very much. We’re giving them a 16-week program of training. Not just service skills, but life skills, as how to be successful. And if they complete that program, we’re guaranteeing them a job at Baha Mar.”

When the resort is done, it will employ 6,000 full time employees. They’ll be working across five different hotels, a casino, 20 pools, an 18-hole golf course, and 40 restaurants and bars—all on a campus that spans 3.3 million square feet of space.

But deep underneath all of that is where the magic really happens. Air conditioning for a resort this size represents a huge cost that can only get bigger. So at Baha Mar, they’ve implemented some forward-looking technology.

According to Tom Dunlap, President of Baha Mar, “The way we’ve reduced our power demand is introducing this concept called deep sea cooling.”

Traditional air conditioning systems work by pumping cold water through pipes, which then cool down the air blown over them. The problem is that it takes a whole lot of energy to cool that water down in the first place.

So instead of drawing warm water from wells, the resort is pulling it from deep down in the ocean, where it’s 20 degrees cooler than well water.

This uses less energy and saves the resort a lot of money. “25 percent of the water bill will drop immediately when we bring the deep sea cooling on board,” explains Dunlap.

When the resort does finally open, it will have taken 4,000 workers—on around-the-clock shifts—four straight years to complete. It will be the largest, most modern resort in the Caribbean.

While that was the expectation and the dream, it was not the reality. The resort kept missing its opening deadline. Not once, but three times.

Then the money simply ran out. With the project 97 percent completed, Baha Mar filed for bankruptcy in June of 2015.

Today, many people remain unpaid. No hotel has opened. All 1,000 rooms remain empty. The economy of the Bahamas has taken a big hit. The original developer may not even be allowed to stay with the project, and some argue that even the stability of the government is now threatened.

In the meantime, there’s another lesson here, whether the resort opens or not: it’s called airlift. There’s another large resort in the Bahamas you might remember: Atlantis. When it was opened in the late 1990s it held the title as the largest resort complex in the Caribbean.

But think about this. If you filled every available seat on every available commercially scheduled flight to Nassau, you still couldn’t fill the rooms in Atlantis. So what made anyone think they could fill Baha Mar?

This story is far from over. So stay tuned.

For more exclusive clips from season two of The Travel Detective, check out:

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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