Robinson’s road to Baha Mar
It was the darkest day for the Baha Mar project.
After years of planning and strategizing, Don Robinson, the president of Baha Mar, remembers the day the resort’s casino partner pulled out.
“It was traumatic,” he said.
“We spent so much time and effort on getting to this point. When you are that close and someone doesn’t believe in your vision, it’s very difficult. That’s when your good people need to stay, not leave.”
For Robinson, the seasoned executive from The Walt Disney Company, it was more than a shock to the system.
When Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation, formerly Harrah’s Entertainment, decided to pull the plug in March 2008, the resort lost its key Casino brand, $212 million worth of investment and the 47 percent owner of the project.
Having spent 34 years with the world’s most established destination resort company in the world, and most recently, serving as the guiding force behind Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, Robinson was not accustomed to such disappointments.
Baha Mar, he explains, presented an entirely different set of challenges.
“It’s the most complicated project I have worked on my in life,” he said. “Disney owns everything. Here with Baha Mar there are so many moving parts. As you’re building and designing you want to align everyone’s interests and get people to play together in a constructive way. At Disney, there was only one way the property ran. Here, there are many.”
But as the old saying goes, everything happens for a reason.
In a move that has fundamentally changed The Bahamas, Baha Mar would enlist an unlikely partner to guide the Nassau resort.
Robinson had worked with China State Construction Engineering Corporation during the making of Disney’s Hong Kong Theme Park and Hotels. There was a “comfort level” there, although nobody expected what came next. China Construction America, a subsidiary, had already won a sub-contract to build the “superstructure” for the hotels that would make up Baha Mar.
The events that followed were a match made in heaven.
“China Construction America came to us and asked if we could give them a greater role,” Robinson recalls.
“In hindsight, we would have been looking for financing at the worst time and we would have been opening at the worst time in terms of the global economy in 2012. Now we have the ability to procure the project efficiently, and hopefully by 2014 the economy will have turned around and we will open at the perfect time.”
With the stroke of a pen, the Baha Mar project, a $3.5 billion proposition, was suddenly shot into super-stardom.
As the largest project of its kind in the western hemisphere, it includes thousands of hotel rooms, a 100,000 square-foot casino, 3,000 feet of prime beachfront, convention facility, eco-water park and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. Grand Hyatt, Rosewood, Mondrian have signed on as key brands behind the four hotel destination. But beyond the statistics and scale, the role of China has harkened in a new global order, marking the coming of age of the emerging superpower.
The Export-Import Bank of China is financing the project, while The China State Construction Engineering Corporation will bring in thousands of Chinese workers over the coming years to bring the vision to fruition.
At stake is not just a fundamental driver for the Bahamian economy, but indeed an essential litmus test for China’s coming of age as a reliable, powerful investor and developer of the 21st century.
In the beginning, Robinson said building the resort in phases was considered. At a time of financial uncertainty, gradual and organic development has become the buzzword for so many developments in The Bahamas and abroad. However, Baha Mar was never conceived as any normal development.
“You can’t create a brand in phases,” he explained.
“Otherwise, you are going back to the idea of just another hotel on the beach. If you build one hotel, you might get around to fulfilling the entire vision in 20 years. Along the way, what have you done to the brand? I like to think of it as a cruise ship. You can’t just build one a deck at a time.”
The go-big-or-go-home philosophy cuts deep into the culture of Baha Mar.
Sarkis Izmirlian, the CEO and visionary, was first asked by the government around eight years ago to revitalize the Radisson Hotel, now the Sheraton, on Cable Beach. The area, Robinson said, had once been the “talk of the town”, with the likes of the Queen of England visiting the Nassau Beach Hotel. It was the original Bahamian Riviera.
Izmirlian declined to invest or revitalize just one hotel.
Months later, he came back to the government and revealed his vision for Baha Mar.
“He told them that if you really want to make it competitive, you have to think about it in the bigger way. You needed to think of it in terms of a master plan,” Robinson said.
“I used to watch orientation videos at Disney showing Walt Disney gazing over a swamp in Florida, pointing to what he saw here and there and explaining the vision. There is the same feeling with Sarkis. He isn’t going to give up.”
He remembers receiving the first call in Hong Kong from Izmirlian. Robinson jests that the idea of working for a family rather than a corporation proved daunting at first.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “I had never worked for a family before. What if I woke up and you don’t love me anymore?”
Nevertheless, it proved to be love at first sight. The two minds connected. At the time, Robinson was in the final stages of construction of Hong Kong Disneyland, and he told Izmirlian that he would need to see the resort open for at least two months before taking the plunge into Baha Mar.
And true to his word, on February 2006 Robinson arrived in Nassau to be thrown into the deep end of a resort that means “beautiful, shallow waters”.
Building the future
Since those crucial events in 2008, Baha Mar continues its search for that elusive final piece to the puzzle.
Robinson said the resort has received considerable interest from possible casino partners, but it is in no rush to sign on the dotted line.
“Casino operators are fundamentally different than hotels. And a lot of casino companies are focused on Asia. They are stressed financially and there are only a handful of A-list casinos.”
He speculated the decision is still six-to-nine months away.
Robinson called it a “complicated decision”, and at this stage, Baha Mar remains open to a variety of options, including new, less established brands looking to break onto the scene.
In the meantime, as the resort rises from the dust, there are 101 issues that are first in line.
High among them is making the destination affordable and accessible in order to fill those 2,200 rooms. Not far away, Atlantis on Paradise Island, which employs thousands of Bahamians and serves as one of the main drivers of the island’s economy, has more than 1,000 rooms to worry about once Baha Mar opens in 2014.
At a time of global uncertainty, Robinson acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead.
“Of course it’s a concern,” he said.
“You look at your product and you do what is needed to fill it. Atlantis is filled with very smart people and they will do what they have to do to be competitive, and they should.”
Likewise, Baha Mar is putting in place its global strategic initiatives to ensure its long-term success.
Commenting that there are “a number of initiatives at play” to bring down the cost of airlift, Robinson highlighted the importance of the international market for the project.
With an office in the UK to handle the European and Middle Eastern market, Baha Mar has also founded its Hong Kong office. Plans are afoot to drive traffic from around the world, and in particular from China as government officials discuss the possibility of loosening or eliminating the visa requirements for Asian tourists.
“We need to market to the places that have nowhere near the same economic problems that we have,” he explained.
Baha Mar, he added, has already met with Asian airlines to explain the product and discuss the possibility of airlift into the region. He pointed out, however, that the goal is not necessarily volume, but the high-net-worth individuals from these parts of the world as well.
In the end, Robinson, forged by the magic that is Disney, envisions a spectacle nobody has seen before. More than 7,000 Bahamians will find employment when the resort opens. Thousands have found employment already in its construction. It is estimated that visitors to The Bahamas will rise 60 percent when it opens in 2014 and the GDP of the country should increase an incredible 10 percent in its first year of operation.
Backed by the world’s second-largest economy, Baha Mar, and all it represents, now has the momentum. It is a force onto its own as it steamrolls into the future.
“It’s not a hotel on the beach,” Robinson said. “I think people will be amazed at the detail, grandeur and standard. We are marketing to the world.”