David Konwiser & Christien Johnson of Villa Punto de Vista On How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Managing Expectations — There’s nothing worse than thinking you are getting something that you are not. We are extremely careful about that but on top of that we also believe in the fine art of under-promising yet over delivering. We find this combination of delivering on expectations but also seeking to over deliver has been a winning ticket!
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Konwiser and Christien Johnson of Villa Punto de Vista in Costa Rica.
Conde Nast award-winning Punto de Vista Estate features two luxury villas on 2.5 acres perched in the rainforest above the soft sands of Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio beach. David Konwiser is the architect and creator of the villas’ form and function. His younger brother, Christien Johnson, is a business school graduate and expert in luxury travel. Together, they offer discerning travelers the ultimate luxury experience https://www.villapuntodevista.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
David: I was professionally trained as an architect and studied in the US and Scandinavia. But my roots were in Costa Rica where I was born. After working for Gensler in corporate architecture and then a failed dot.com in 2001 I was looking for a reboot and found my way back to my birthplace. Our family was looking for an investment opportunity and I found the amazing plot of land that is now Villa Punto de Vista. The rest is history!
Christien: After studying internationally for 5 years in Costa Rica, I went to business school in North Carolina with a focus on entrepreneurship and marketing. Gaining experience in the service industry in the US, my roots in Costa Rica lead me back. After several years working for the country’s top luxury travel provider I chose to take my experience, talents and vision to create our current family business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
David: That’s an easy one. With only months to go before completing our first villa on the estate, Villa Punto de Vista, I was contacted by my brother (and now my business partner) Chrstien who was at the time working for a high-end Costa Rican travel agency. He told me IM Pei — arguably one of the great fathers of modern architecture of the 20th century and famous for his pyramid of the Louvre in Paris — wished to spend New Year’s week at our brand new, still-unfinished villa. Needless to say we accepted the opportunity and also the challenge to complete the villa on time for my mentor and Architectural Digest published a terrific story about it!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
David: Learning boundaries is what comes to mind. We were tossed into the role of being everything from villa butlers, managers and even housekeepers from Day One with Villa Punto de Vista and I think we were a bit too “hands-on” with the first luxury groups that we serviced. We probably bewildered our first clients somewhat that the villa owners were also on-site as service members and we learned quickly that we were going to need to delegate and manage from afar to make our high-end clientele feel comfortable and at home.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Christien: Well that person is for sure our mother Cecilia. Mom is beyond a mother, she’s an empire builder! She trusted David and his, dare I say, wild architectural design and was the primary investor in our first villa and a partial investor in our second villa as well. We would not be enjoying this interview with you had it not been for our mother and dream maker.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
David: Our first innovation was the concept of the villa itself as both a private villa but also a well-appointed event venue for up to 100 persons. Nothing like it existed in Costa Rica (and still doesn’t) and it was the destination wedding, celebrations and corporate retreat markets that I hoped the villa would appeal to. And it did!
Christien: Beyond that it’s also the fact that the villas are fully staffed more like a private yacht with crew, that sets us apart from other rental homes on Airbnb or HomeAway. We truly blend the line between a luxury five-star hotel and renting a private luxury home, but more importantly creating a “travel experience”. Our warm and authentic butler-managed staff is numerous but discrete and tends to be the first thing people talk about after a stay with us.
David: Since we’re talking about innovations it’s worth mentioning that we were one of the first hospitality properties in the world to initially include iPads in every room which was a hit! Also, the integration of both Lutron and Control4 home automation systems into our properties have given our villas a high-tech touch.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Christien: Fragmentation of larger groups was a common almost expected occurrence at impersonal hotels/resorts, limiting the genuine and real connection throughout the travel experience. Well, the pain point the hospitality industry has had, even pre-Covid, is a need for improved connection and a more personalized travel experience (as well as a safer travel experience for the current situation.)
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Christien: Well the good news for us is that from Day One we’ve had a business model that responds to the needs of a COVID and post-COVID world. Now, more than ever, travelers are looking for privacy in smaller groups with only close family, friends and trusted co-workers in their midst. They are looking for a real connection with one another in an amazing setting conducive to that and that’s what we consider the new definition of luxury.
David: An offering we have put together over the course of the pandemic in direct response to our higher-end clientele seeking the most private and secure travel experience possible is our Elysian Escape Experience. This beyond-five-star offering includes premium chef-prepared meals, a mixologist on staff with all beverages included and bespoke activities, entertainment and tours for the most authentic travel experience to Costa Rica. The package can, our course, include private and secure air transportation from any point on the globe.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
David: To answer that question I will first tell you that I once read about how Steve Jobs basically designed the products that he would want to use himself. It’s the same with the Villa Punto de Vista Estate. I designed a building and Christien the travel concept that we would want all of our friends and family to enjoy. My brother Christien’s astute business experience and magic touch substantially improved that concept and running a business that works for us, our hard-working staff and our guests alike. We’ve created what we consider to be as perfect a travel experience as we could!
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Christien: As I said above, “connection” to me is the real destination of luxury because you just can’t have that kind of focused experience with your travel guests in an impersonal hotel/resort setting. Wellness is at the core of what we provide at the estate and that starts with a clearer state of mind. We try to create an environment where our guests are able to step away from the busyness and imbalance of their daily routines and focus on relaxation, relationships and simplicity.
Our goal is to provide a carefree and supernatural experience, this is where it all starts. Our majestic location offers an extraordinary sense of place to “center you” with only the sound of the ocean, toucans, monkeys and Scarlet macaws. Then we then proceed to nourish you with only organic and locally-grown fresh ingredients for meals and rejuvenating tropical fruit beverages. We also offer and encourage our guests to enjoy the many private spaces overlooking the ocean and the jungle to experience holistic spa treatments or yoga, pilates or other wellness-oriented instruction. These can be enjoyed either at the property or with your feet in the sand where the rainforest meets the sea just below our villa estate.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
Christien: Well here’s my top 5 and I think I speak for the two of us…
#1 — Managing Expectations — There’s nothing worse than thinking you are getting something that you are not. We are extremely careful about that but on top of that we also believe in the fine art of under-promising yet over delivering. We find this combination of delivering on expectations but also seeking to over deliver has been a winning ticket!
#2 — Surprises — In continuation of the theme of over-delivering this is the act of delivering surprises to our guests. These can be material like offering warm, freshly baked treats to go along with Costa Rican coffee some afternoons but mostly our guests are just blown away by the surprise of how authentic and attentive our staff is and how they are so anticipative of their every need. This really surprises our guests most of all.
#3 — Simplicity — We carefully plan for every guest stay to address the unique needs of each group and try to consider every possible way to be sure our guests have an easygoing and carefree experience with us. Simplicity is at the core of this.
#4 — Genuine Service — As stated above, the attentive service of our staff is key to our travel offering but it’s so much more than that. Our humble and hard-working staff is like family. We treat them like family and they treat our guests with professionalism, respect and genuine care. It’s not something you can train for. It’s an essence that is rare in the world but is found in Costa Rica and an essence we have cultivated in our staff members by offering them an extraordinary work environment as well as empowering them.
#5 — Connection — As discussed but again the role of Villa Punto de Vista is to provide a private, care-free and secure setting for our guests to enjoy a real connection amongst themselves but to take that concept even further — we also invite that connection to happen with our warm and authentic staff. It’s something unique to the Punto de Vista travel experience.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Christien: Giving back is at the heart of who we are as a business. I’d like to start with what we have done for our local community. Beyond the hundreds of workers that labored to see our visions come true there’s the 25 villa staff members we continue to employ today. In fact, once the pandemic struck and Costa Rica shut its borders down for almost nine months we kept our entire staff together at great financial hardship but it wasn’t even a consideration for us to let them go. They are the soul of the authentic travel experience we provide. We consider them family, and when 90% of all the other properties let their staff go, we doubled down on socially distant training, improvements and perfecting health protocols for when we would open up.
On a local level we have recently been encouraging our guests to bring school-oriented items with them to donate to Pack for a Purpose, an international organization with ties to schools in our local community to provide impoverished children with the materials they need to learn and succeed.
David: There are also some local and international charitable organizations we have supported over this past decade that give us a deep sense of satisfaction. Internationally, we have worked with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite to raise a considerable amount of money for their many remarkable programs over the years. Other organizations we have donated to include The Junior Diabetes Foundation (JDRF), The UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center, RainForest Alliance and we have appeared on-stage in live auctions for various local charities supported by celebrities and athletes like Seth Myers, Will Farrell, Paris Hilton, Chevy Chase and Rafael Nadal to name a few. At last count we have raised well over $500K for these charitable organizations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
David: It may seem like a nebulous concept but the impact of climate change is probably the most important endeavor to tackle in our lifetimes for both ourselves but mostly for our children and future generations. Tackling climate change is not a movement that I could start (as it’s a movement well underway) but it’s a movement that we all need to internalize and make our own to feel the passion necessary to make real change in the way we run our businesses.
I can tell you that at the villa we have been doing everything in our power to become as carbon neutral as Costa Rica herself, from energy efficient systems, solar power and cool roofs to recycling, composting and other methods to be as green as the lush rainforest that surrounds us! Currently, 95% of single use items have been replaced with sugar cane husk compostable plates, cups, straws, stirrers, etc. Our luxurious sheets are recycled from plastic bottles, and we have consistently won awards for our efforts for recycling by the local government. We’ve also incorporated green practices throughout our daily operations.
Without the magnificent beauty of our local area and taking care of our unique and biodiverse environment, travel to locations like ours would not be an inspiration to conserve them. As Sidney Sheldon said, “You try and leave the earth a better place than you found it.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for the opportunity!