Creating the Caribbean Dream: Patricia Affonso Dass, CEO and Group GM Ocean Hotels, Barbados
Wonder why the Caribbean comes to mind when you imagine the perfect beach vacation? Most likely because of Patricia Affonso Dass, who has helped make the region one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. A native of the area, born in Dominica, Patricia was educated at Florida International University and fell in love with the industry working at the famed Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami, before moving to Antigua to work for the Caribbean Hotel Association (now CHTA). Working her way up in various hotels alongside volunteering at the tourism associations, Patricia has grown her career with Ocean Hotels in Barbados, where she’s helped the brand become a leader on the island since 2009. We chat with Patricia about her Caribbean career, coping with COVID, and launching the new Five-Star all-inclusive 02 Beach Club. Here's herstory:
What was your first hotel job?
My first hotel job was my internship with FIU at the Fontainebleau Hilton on Miami Beach – that’s where my love affair with the industry began.
What inspired you to study hospitality at Florida International University (FIU)?
I have always loved travel and the concept of hospitality from the perspective of welcoming visitors to your home/island/country and providing them with experiences that make a lasting connection to the place through the people, the food, culture, and the activities that make each destination unique.
Once I decided to do a hospitality degree program and started researching options, I was attracted by the fact that much of the curriculum at FIU was taught by people actually working in hospitality businesses and the course content had a very practical orientation. The university’s student body also had a very culturally diverse makeup and being located in Miami made for easy access home on holidays. Miami in the 80s was also a pretty cool place from a hospitality perspective as there was a lot of change and revitalization happening on South Beach and in other areas which provided me with tons of inspiration.
What did you do after college?
My first job out of university was with the Caribbean Hotel Training Institute in Antigua. I was hired as the Executive Assistant and given the responsibility of setting up the new operation in Antigua as it was moving from the then Caribbean Hotel Association’s (now CHTA) office in Puerto Rico. My first “real” hotel job post-graduation was with The Hotel Tower in Guyana. I was hired initially as a Bar Manager but very quickly was asked to take on responsibilities in HR and then the role as Operations Manager ending as the General Manager.
Fast forward, you're running Ocean Hotels in Barbados, how did the island cope during the pandemic?
I think Barbados has coped well during the pandemic with respect to its care of the people living in and visiting the island. Like other countries around the world, the hospitality industry has been devastated, as even though our borders remained open for most of 2020 there were virtually no visitors and very few cases. Throughout the island there are strict health and safety protocols, the island now has about 65% of the eligible population vaccinated and standard protocols like mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand sanitization remain in effect in all public spaces, transport, etc. The island’s excellent health care system and proactive approach to COVID by creating a well-equipped COVID facility separate from our main hospital have helped tremendously with the management of the disease. The island introduced the "Barbados Welcome Stamp" which effectively was a fast-track work permit facility that allowed persons to live and work from Barbados for most of 2020, which worked well.
How did you cope personally and as a leader in the industry?
I think it is fair to say that COVID tested me both personally and professionally––as I am sure it did most people––in a multitude of ways. At the start of the pandemic, along with my substantive role as CEO and Group General Manager of Ocean Hotels, I was also still in the role of President of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and as such, I had to focus not only on our own company but on the needs of our membership across the region.
From working on public/private sector task forces to develop and roll out protocols, to advocating locally and regionally for support for the industry while at the same time developing and implementing survival plans for our hotels and trying to learn and understand as much as I could about the disease in order to develop strategies to keep our teams safe and mitigate losses, the first months of the pandemic were pretty full-on and at times felt overwhelming.
To cope I developed a routine that included time for my physical and mental health – an hour a day for exercise, a weekly family zoom call to connect with my parents and siblings who live across the world, while also ensuring that I remained closely connected to my hotel teams and professional network, organizing my tasks and assignments in a way that allowed me to track and measure progress and at least feel some sense of accomplishment. I think for me like many, the feeling of everything being out of my control was something that I had to find strategies to manage and overcome.
What big lessons did you learn during and coming out of the pandemic?
I think that the biggest personal lesson that I learned coming out of the pandemic is that I am much stronger and more resilient than I believed. I have always been a creative thinker, but the pandemic forced me to really look at our operation in a completely different way and that has given rise to a number of initiatives that I believe will continue to serve us well long after this is behind us.
Exciting that everything is back and you’re now introducing a new 5-star all-inclusive product! What is the main challenge for you going from running 4-star hotels to a 5-star all-inclusive?
Yes, we are in an extremely exciting time for our company – we are not only growing the physical plant by adding rooms and facilities but more importantly creating opportunities for our team members to grow professionally also. I prefer to think of it as an opportunity rather than a challenge to move O2 Beach Club and Spa to a 5-star all-inclusive. This change gives us an opportunity as a business to stretch our team’s capability, to expose them to new concepts and ideas, and to offer a fresh new approach to the concept of luxury in Barbados, highlighting the fact that our island offers amazing luxury experiences in areas other than the traditional West Coast.
Seems like many of the big brands are now getting into the all-inclusive market-why do you think that is? Do you think there will be more all-inclusive properties going forward?
I believe much of this change is being driven by consumer demand – the concept of an all-inclusive vacation, whether at a more affordable or luxury level, where your holiday is paid in advance and you can then access a variety of experiences without having to consider “cost” each time you wish to try a restaurant or facility is appealing. I also believe that the concept of all-inclusive can run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to ultra-luxury and highly personalized; it’s not at all a cookie-cutter concept.
How has your experience as past president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) informed your role today as GM of Ocean hotels?
My connection with CHTA has spanned my entire career. The professional support network as well as the exposure that it has provided me has been invaluable to me professionally. As a Caribbean person, I have always had a very regional and collaborative approach. In my role as President of CHTA really helped to strengthen my belief, that while we are the most tourism-dependent region in the world, we are also the most desirable, resilient, creative, and genuinely hospitable. There is no place else like the Caribbean!
What is your favorite aspect of your role as CEO and Group General Manager?
My favorite aspect of my current role is the ability to craft and design what the future of our business looks like. I love the business development aspect as well as equally the people development aspect. As we grow, change, and develop the business we create opportunities for our teams to grow, change and develop also.
In your time as GM, you’ve massively boosted the reputation of Ocean hotels, especially with the recent opening of Ocean Hotels’ O2 Beach Club & Spa. What main marketing strategies have you adopted to ensure this success?
I am a big believer in the power of relationships and in leveraging those relationships – whether with trade partners, past guests, public sector partners, or your professional network – in ways that bring value to both sides of the relationship.
On a local level and regional level, we are actively engaged with the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association to ensure that we are contributing to but also benefiting from any opportunities for exposure.
With our trade partners – both tour operators and travel agents – both directly and through our in-country representation teams, we maintain close and constant communication so that we are able to take advantage of any opportunities that arise but more importantly to ensure that they know that they can count on our hotels to deliver amazing experiences to guests.
A focus on our online presence and visibility is also critical. Over the past couple of years, we've put a lot of effort into improving our websites, online engagement, and the ease with which our guests can engage with us. With O2 moving into the 5-star luxury space PR has also become much more important and a key pillar in our strategy.
Can you tell us a little about the personalized, ‘your stay, your way’ concept for the O2 Beach Club & Spa?
Your Stay Your Way for us really means that while the holiday is an all-inclusive one each guest should be able to have “their” individual holiday experience tailored just to them. We try to learn as much as we can about each guest – their likes, interests, activity levels, etc. and then use this information to create an experience that highlights the best that the hotel and island have to offer in each of those particular areas. From bespoke dining experiences, individual lessons or groceries included as part of the F&B offering it's all about the luxury of personal choice.
Managing a brand of hotels, do you think that it’s important to maintain an element of consistency amongst the individual properties? How does each relate to the other?
Absolutely – consistency is critical to both our partners and our guests having the confidence to book with us. Consistency in delivering a quality product, excellent service, genuine hospitality, a real connection to the destination in all aspects of our operation should be the same across all of the hotels in our group in a way that allows the guests and our partners to book and stay with confidence. The individuality comes at the property level in the unique spin that each of our properties and team members puts on the delivery.