How Carmen Otero said "I DO" and Grew Weddings Biz for the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in Cartagena
There’s a very good reason Cartgena is known by locals as "la fantastica"! As one of the world’s most inspiring colonial cities, it combines the romance and rich history of French and Spanish cultures with breathtaking, centuries-old architecture, earning it UNESCO heritage status. Nestled in the heart of the walled Old City, The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, with a rich history of its own, was originally built in 1621 as a convent, and was then used as a charity hospital, prison, and medical school before its stunning transformation into this iconic hotel in 1995.
Recognizing the immense romantic appeal of the city, the gorgeous location on the Caribbean coast, and less than a 3-hour plane ride from Miami, Carmen Otero has masterfully marketed Cartagena and the hotel as a sought-after wedding destination. According to the New York Times, due to postponements and pent-up demand from the pandemic, 2.5 million weddings are planned for 2022, the most since 1984.. The Santa Clara and Carmen Otero have been able to grow the wedding market above and beyond pre-covid numbers, with 130 weddings currently booked for this calendar year, and based on bookings for 2023 and beyond, the number of Santa Clara weddings will far exceed previous years. We chat with Carmen about how she said "I DO" to her career and the lucrative destination wedding market.
What made you select the tourism industry?
I was born and raised in Cartagena, a beautiful city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. While growing up there, tourism was not prevalent like it is today. In fact, there was little tourism. Yet, there was a substantial amount of history, culture, and charm waiting to be shared with the rest of the world. I understood how traveling to Cartagena could be a truly transformative experience. Here, we are blessed with biodiversity, UNESCO marked architecture, exquisite climate and so much more that anyone choosing to book a trip would want to check off their list. Thus, through my studies and ever-growing passion for travel, I felt called to work in the tourism industry and share the wonders of my city. A major and crucial goal of mine was to shape travelers’ perceptions of Cartagena and Colombia overall, which when I first started was a big task.
What has been your career path?
I did my professional hospitality career in Cartagena, received my diploma in Tourist Management at Universidad de Alcalá in Spain and my MBA at IESE Universidad de Navarra at the Barcelona Campus. I worked with Cartagena Tourism for five years. Sofitel Legend Santa Clara opened as a hotel in 1995. Fast forward to 2022, I have been here since its inauguration. It has been a delight to transform the historic structure of the hotel, which was originally built in 1621 and had former lives as a charity hospital, convent, and prison, into a haven for travelers right in the heart of the city.
Throughout my career, my biggest challenge has certainly been achieving a favorable perception of Cartagena. It took strategy and determination to shine a bright light on what makes Cartagena so special. On the other side of the coin, once tourism numbers increased exponentially and incredible new hotels began opening, sustaining momentum for Sofitel Legend Santa Clara as the top hotel was a challenge. We had to keep working and highlighting the hotel’s brilliance. To this day, we never stay stagnant. We continue to reinvent ourselves while maintaining the charm and elegance that the hotel is beloved for.
Cartagena was not always on the radar for international travelers, what changes have you witnessed and are proud of?
I witnessed a shift in travelers’ perceptions from an unsafe destination to one full of culture, style and excitement. While there have been immense changes in all aspects of tourism, I am particularly proud of the development of the Historic Center in Cartagena – from preserving landmarks and cleaning up the area. The opening of Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in 1995 contributed to what it is today. Furthermore, the ease of traveling to Cartagena and the launch of direct routes to Cartagena from the major U.S cities was incredibly significant. There are direct flights from New York to Cartagena, with five hour flight time, far closer than other major South American destinations. We want traveling to Cartagena to be a seamless experience for all and easily accessible for many.
Colombia still has the reputation of being dangerous, how do you overcome that?
From when I began working in the tourism industry until now, the reputation of Colombia has changed drastically. It became a desirable destination, that travelers from all over the world wanted to visit. Our country and Cartagena are both places with much more security and the perception has rightfully changed.
Cartagena has become a huge wedding destination, for both national and international couples. What separates Cartagena from other traditional wedding destinations?
Throughout my years in the tourism industry, one of my proudest achievements has been positioning Cartagena as an ideal wedding destination. Couples who do not have ties to Cartagena continue and desire to get married here as they see the value of so many great qualities ‘married’ together. The city has differentiators including the enchanting streets, the colors, the cuisine, and the warmth of the people. Furthermore, compared to other destinations, the prices are more reasonable.
What role does the Santa Clara play in the future of Cartagena and El Centro?
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is regarded as the grand dame of Cartagena. Because of the hotel’s strong history combined with true luxury and exquisite design, this is a hotel that guests and tourists marvel at. While we have a strong past, we are excited about the future. We like to stay ‘Avant Garde’ if you will, with our programming and developments. For example, the opening of our LEED-certified sister property, Sofitel Barú Calablanca offers travelers a new way to experience Cartagena. We saw a gap in the way that travelers were experiencing the requisite stop of going to the islands for wellness and cerulean blue water. Now, our travelers have a tasteful way to get the best culture and island.
Where do you see yourself being a part of the future of Cartagena and tourism to Cartagena?
I see myself continuing to bring fresh ideas to the team. I attend forums, read about the tourism industry, and diligently take into account what our loyal and new guests want. My passion for promoting Cartagena will never die!
Colombia is traditionally a country run by men, how do you, as a female DOSM, work in a predominantly male environment?
In the tourism industry in Colombia, women have predominantly leading roles. Nevertheless, for anyone in the industry, it is important to have the utmost confidence. I display this with my passion, creativity, and my ability to take chances and learn from my mistakes. I admire all females in the travel and tourism worlds. In this industry, you must be bold, creative, and hospitable. I deeply respect their confidence and I learn from those around me every day.
Thanks for sharing your story, Carmen. To finish, what would be your travel tips for first-time visitors?
If you’ve never been to Cartagena, here are some suggestions:
Visit El Centro (the Old City) and get lost in the many small streets.
Walk the wall that surrounds the city and end it with sunset drinks at Cafe del Mar.
Visit the islands, for example through Santa Clara and the Sofitel property on Baru.
If you are adventurous: take a food tour and experience the city and its history through its food.
Visit Getsemani and all the street murals telling stories about the city.
Contributor Barbara Meier-Conte is originally from Switzerland, she lived for almost seven years in Cartagena, prior to that she worked in hotel sales for 15 years covering the diplomatic and transient market in Washington, DC. Barbara consulted for a hotel in Cartagena for a few months. She is passionate about Colombia and especially Cartagena. Her blog BMCinCTG takes you along onto some of the adventures she experienced while living there. She now resides in Scottsdale, AZ, and hopes to return to Cartagena and Colombia soon to visit friends.