Marriott Hotels has partnered with Medium to launch a new travel publication, Gone, and provide a unique insider look at the innovations that are driving the world’s leading hospitality brands. This is Part One in a five-part series.
Hispaniola, the land mass that Haiti shares with its neighbor to the East, the Dominican Republic, is the second largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba. It’s less than four hours by air from New York, yet worlds away in terms of its culture and history.
Arriving from chilly Manhattan in November, the view from the air is at once breathtaking and serene, a picture postcard of tropical delights. On a recent Tuesday’s descent, the sky melted into an azure sea along a wide edge of pristine white sand that carves the long open bay of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
Gone accompanied Marriott here to see firsthand the state of the nation as it nears the five-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that crumpled the city and left an estimated 100,000 dead.
From a distance today, it is hard to discern the marks of the disaster that instantly thrust this long-troubled nation into the humanitarian spotlight. Some of the scars have receded on the ground, as well, where life has returned to the streets and the people of Haiti are finding ways to piece their lives back together.
Today, aid programs once focused on mitigating the immediate aftermath of the quake have shifted from disaster recovery to building sustainable economic growth. Among the many who responded to the call for help was Marriott, which committed to open a hotel in the capital. Working with former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative, they found a business partner in Digicel, Haiti’s largest cell phone carrier, and the Marriott Port-au-Prince will welcome its first guests in February.
“We saw a chance to foster a new idea of corporate social responsibility,” says Kathleen Matthews, Marriott’s Chief Public Affairs Officer. “This project will create hundreds of jobs for the local community. And it will send a message to the world that Haiti is open for business.”
Haiti was once the leading coffee exporter in the world, a top clothing manufacturing site in the Americas, and the site of a thriving tourist industry. But the coffee business has been in decline for more than a century; manufacturing faltered in the 1990s; and tourism was brought down in the late 1980s by a number of factors, including the widely adopted—and entirely false—belief that AIDS had originated here.
These stories of failure and despair have historically framed the global narrative of Haiti. But now the country has the potential to revive its economy, partly by becoming a destination for cultural tourism — a rarity in the Carribean. The Citadelle, a magnificent fortress built to withstand an assault by Napoleon’s army, and Jacmel, a picturesque, UNESCO-protected port town, offer much more than a generic beach vacation. These and other sites are windows into an intoxicating culture that reflects three distinct civilizations: the Taíno people who were the original inhabitants; the French colonists; and the Africans brought here as slaves.
The Marriott Port-au-Prince is more than just another hotel project: It’s an investment in a country and its people, as reflected in the stories below.
Marriott’s first Haitian hire has worked his way up from the slums of Cité Soleil
Lucardo, as he is known to his friends, came to Port au Prince at the age of three, to live in a part of the city that absorbed huge numbers of migrants like himself: Cité Soleil, one of the poorest slums in the Western Hemisphere. His mother, overwhelmed by the task of caring for six children, had sent him there to live with an uncle. When he was six years old he was playing with two other boys near a water tank which burst apart, sending concrete blocks flying. One of the boys died instantly; another escaped unscathed. Lucardo was so badly injured that he spent almost a year in the hospital. Doctors tried to save his arm but, when his hand became gangrenous and threatened to kill him, they had no choice but to amputate.
Back in Cité Soleil, Lucardo had to try anything he could to survive. So he danced in the streets for tips, relying on strangers to give him a few gourde (the local currency) to buy food. He spent ten years in an orphanage up the hill and then returned as an adult and began to search for work.
“Many people in Haiti think that a handicapped person cannot work,” he says. “We are like statues to them.”
It was an almost impossible challenge. “Sometimes I would show up for a job, but as soon as they saw that I didn’t have an arm, they wouldn’t want to hire me,” he says. “I’d offer to work for free to prove I could do it, but nobody wanted that either.” After countless failed attempts, he went back to the orphanage as a counselor.
A couple of years after the earthquake, some people who knew Lucardo as a hard, trustworthy worker and good English speaker introduced him to Andrew Houghton, Marriott’s Area VP for the Caribbean. After an interview, Lucardo became the Marriott’s first Haitian hire, with the immediate task of assisting GM Peter Antinoph in opening the hotel.
“When we open, I want Lucardo to work in a guest-facing role. He’s such a great ambassador for Haiti,” says Antinoph. For Lucardo the experience has been a revelation: “I never thought I’d get inside a building like the Marriott, never mind work there. This job has allowed me to enter so many worlds. It’s just amazing. It’s also given me a chance to show people that while I may be without an arm, my mind is not handicapped at all.”
Haitian-American who “came home” for the first time to become the Marriott’s Director of Finance
Sharon Sylhomme’s parents left Haiti in the mid 1970s and she was born in Florida in 1984. Though she speaks the Creole dialect, she had never set foot here. “I never heard anything good about my country,” she says. “My parents left for a better life in America and they never looked back.”
After the 2010 earthquake, though, Sylhomme found herself thinking more and more about her parents’ homeland. Something clicked when she heard about a job opening for Director of Finance at the new Marriott. Here was an opportunity to “go home” and help her country.
“It took this job to get me to understand my own family, my own culture.”
“I thought this might be something life-changing for me,” she says. But first she needed to ask her parents for their blessing—which, as she suspected, was not forthcoming. Haiti was way too dangerous for Sharon, her father said. There were kidnappings, health problems, instability in the government. She hung up the phone disappointed, but not surprised.
A half hour later he called her back. He’d talked to his brother, who’d been living in Haiti and who told him the security situation was much improved. Sharon’s father, not usually given to second thoughts, had changed his mind. “I think you should do it,” he said. “It will allow you to see life through a different lens.” Some of her Haitian friends, though, were less encouraging. There’s no way you can change anything there, they told her.
“I was prepared for the worst: no electricity or street lights, rampant crime, dangerous riots,” Sylhomme says. “But it’s been the opposite — a learning experience about my own country.”
“I didn’t really understand my culture at all before I came here,” she says. “When I started working in the States I had to learn how to be positive, to smile, to greet everyone in a friendly way. I’d never grown up around people who acted like that. When I came here I understood why: People here are very reserved at first. They don’t smile. They have to get to know you first. It took this job to get me to understand my own family, my own culture.”
Gilbert Gonzalez and Paula Coles are supplying the Marriott with coffee and handcrafted textiles — and helping revive the local economy
“Haiti was once king of the coffee world,” says Gilbert Gonzales, Vice President of the Rebo coffee company. “But the industry has been in a steep decline for two hundred years. Our aim at Rebo is to regenerate that business.” His cafe (one of several) near the airport is bustling at breakfast and lunch, while across the street in his factory, local women sort beans in preparation for roasting.
When Peter Antinoph, the Port-au-Prince GM, had to decide on a supplier for the hotel, he immediately thought of Rebo. “It’s not just about the business it will generate,” he says. “It’s also about raising the profile of a Haitian product: everyone who visits will understand that Haiti can produce a world-class cup of coffee.”
Paula Coles has lived in Haiti for twenty-five years, most of that time as a self-described “desperate housewife.” She took care of her own children and volunteered at a Port-au-Prince orphanage, but always wanted to do something more.
A year after the earthquake struck, she started realizing her dream. “My husband runs a T-shirt manufacturing business,” she says. “And I saw there was a lot of fabric being wasted because of regulations. I had an idea to try to make something with it.” She came up with a weaving technique using the bright scraps of leftover material to produce bags woven with the same classic pattern as Indian rag rugs.
The big breakthrough came when Donna Karan saw Coles’ creations, and decided to sell them at her stores worldwide. Coles now has sixteen employees and plans to move to a new space where she can increase that number to fifty.
Antinoph was immediately struck by Coles’ creations and commissioned her to produce, not just pillowcases and slipcovers for the hotel, but also two huge tapestries that will hang in the lobby. “We always like to source locally,” says Antinoph, “because guests prefer to be in contact with products from the place they’re visiting. But here there’s another reason: We can expand our economic impact beyond the gates of the hotel and help local businesses employ more people.”
The Marriott Port-au-Prince is scheduled to open in mid-February 2015, the week of Haiti’s famed Carnaval celebration. Book a room there at Marriott.com. And stay tuned on Medium’s Gone for a feature story about Haitian Carnaval.