Delayed slightly from an autumn-2014 opening to a spring-2015 premiere, Baha Mar is a massive $3.5billion development comprising four hotels and a 100,000 square-foot casino in Nassau, New Providence Island. The hotel brands are Baha Mar Casino Hotel, Grand Hyatt, Rosewood, and SLS LUX. It’s the kind of dream job marketing people might get to work on once in a lifetime – unless you are SK+G’s John Schadler. He explained to Casino International the company’s plan to revitalize the region’s past reputation as the Bahamian Riviera, while remaining very much a contemporary destination.
Casino International: What is Nassau like as a destination?
John Schadler: Nassau has a storied past and a reputation as a place for the jet-set crowd, in the 1950s and 60s in particular. The area where Baha Mar is now located was known as the Bahamian Riviera, Sinatra and the Rat Pack were frequent visitors. There was a genteel quality to the service, you dressed for dinner but during the day it had a Riviera mindset, very international.
Today, Nassau and New Providence Island are known mostly for Atlantis, the Sol Kerzner project on Paradise Island that is so well known worldwide. Baha Mar will be the more adult-oriented answer to Atlantis.
CI: Is it fair to say the customer base is going to be predominantly American?
JS: Probably 90% of visitor volume is coming from the US eastern seaboard. Canada is also an important part of the mix but I think you could safely assume that everything east of the Mississippi, particularly New York, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, even Dallas and Houston to an extent, those are the big visitor drivers. Toronto is a big market. That’s the existing visitor base and will continue to be where the substantial visitor volume continues to come from. That’s partly proximity, and partly because of air service. There is a desire and plan to grow the market beyond that very obvious one. Part of that is a function of a more international audience that’s free to travel.
The UK has a regularly scheduled service to Nassau and that audience loves the Bahamas and while it may only be a point or two of visitor volume, it’s still important.
There is a desire based on the ownership interest and relationship that Baha Mar has formed with the Chinese government to drive more visitation from mainland China. That may not be a substantial percentage volume but hopefully it will be a significant contributor to average daily spend. The Chinese government and the Export-Import Bank of China is the main lender to the project and the China State Construction Company is actually building Baha Mar, so there is a lot of crossover there.
CI: At what point in the development of Baha Mar did SK+G become involved?
JS: Interestingly, we have been one of the original groups on the project. It’s been almost a ten-year relationship. It began not long after we started the agency, we had been in business four or five years and got a call from the owner, Sarkis Izmirlian, who had seen some work we had done for Borgata in Atlantic City and he was a big fan of that brand. We had handled the launch work for them (and still work for them today); Sarkis asked me to come and see him in Nassau and divulged his plans for this full-scale destination resort. At that stage it was a joint venture partnership with Harrahs and Starwood, and was scaled in the same manner but with a group of Starwood branded properties. So it was very much the same model in that it was a strong group and convention based hotel in Westin, a very upscale luxury brand in St Regis and a lifestyle brand for a younger, hipper audience with W. The latest iteration may have different parent companies, but Hyatt, Rosewood, SLS and Baha Mar has opted to operate the casino hotel on their own. So that project was full speed ahead, and then ran into the great recession. A lot of people in the hotel and development business ran for the sidelines and that’s what happened here so the project was put on hold with no-one knowing if it would ever see the light of day.
We had done a huge amount of work up to that point in the brand’s development, and were then told it was not going to happen. Then there was an influx of money that was looking for a home outside of mainland China, and the government and bank were looking for investments in places like the Caribbean. The same goes for the construction company, they were casting their net wider. The project became fully funded, and Sarkis found new hotel partners; it’s been almost three years that we have been full-bore on developing the brand, and it is due to open early in 2015.
CI: In branding terms, what was your vision for Baha Mar’s identity?
JS: We have had the benefit of a couple of iterations in the brand’s development so it’s allowed us the opportunity to really hone the message and carefully consider the brand premise. I mentioned earlier that historically and from a heritage perspective that this area of the Bahamas was known as the Bahamian Riviera; the location and the setting from a geographic and a natural beauty perspective is second to none. The water is magnificent, a blue you have never seen before; the beaches are pristine, the environment is beautiful. We thought there was something to that, and to the authenticity of the place and its past. Not that we are looking to the past to simply re-create it – we are looking to the past to an extent to herald it, and to take attributes of the experience in the 50s and 60s, the storied past of the Bahamian Riviera, and bring it to life. We thought we could liken the Baha Mar brand to be among the great Rivieras of our time, the great destinations. So we have established this premise as Baha Mar as The New Riviera, and we have taken cues from the great imagery and sensibility and style of Monte Carlo, St Tropez, Amalfi, the great jet-set glamour destinations we all romanticize about. That premise has really held true and we have tried to be committed and authentic in all that we are doing. We are also trying to infuse it with a sense of place and authenticity, as people travelling now want to discover what unique cultures are all about; they don’t want fake experiences. We are infusing a tribute to Bahamian culture in everything we do.
CI: How are you executing this using both traditional and social media? There is such huge competition for the ‘leisure dollar’ – how are you going to grab people’s attention for this?
JS: There are a couple of answers to that. First, the owner has been very careful to segment the market by brand type and by offering to reach out to a diverse clientele; this is an upscale resort so we are narrowing the target to an extent. However, based on the lifestyle brands we have chosen there is going to be something for everybody, from very high-end luxury at Rosewood to the very much younger, hipper lifestyle brand of SLS, to the very glamorous, Vegas-style environment of the Baha Mar casino hotel.
Second, the competitive nature of this market is huge, so you’re dealing with Atlantis on the island as a competitor, though it tends to focus more on the family market. The other competitors are Vegas – though that may sound far reaching, the east coast drives a lot of visitation to Vegas; if you can get to Baha Mar in 2.5 hours from New York versus five hours to Vegas, and we have the beaches alongside the luxury and gaming offering, we think that’s a real advantage. Atlantic City and some of the larger gaming markets are viewed in our competitive set. Then there is the audience that goes to Hawaii, Mexico, other Caribbean locations, who are looking for a new, exciting place to go. The Bahamas is often seen as a place to relax, but now we are adding a very exciting entertainment offering and we think there is a huge, pent-up market waiting for this.
SK+G and I have worked on many significant launches over the years in big markets – Las Vegas, Macau, Atlantic City – as well as in non-gaming markets. We have to establish a share of voice, we are starting from scratch; there is some traction for the brand but it is not widely known. We will use a lot of traditional and non-traditional media. You will know Baha Mar is here when we startthe effort . We are handling everything for the brand from the web site design to all of the creative; we just finished shooting a major television spot for the launch, we are handling all photography and identity development for the resort; we are naming, writing, pretty much delivering every aspect of the brand to market.
On the social side, there is a significant PR effort and there will be a significant promotional effort that is going to involve a very unique offering to the consumer that I don’t believe has ever been done before. There will be a lot of experiential marketing, which I can’t divulge yet but it will involve event marketing, guerrilla marketing, street marketing – taking the effort out of the traditional space. This can drive social interaction and you need impetus for that.
CI: Is the MICE offering important for Nassau already, or is it an reas you are going to try to grow and influence with Baha Mar’s facilities?
JS: There is a pent-up demand for MICE business in the Caribbean in particular; that’s one reason why Hyatt is playing such a significant role in the project and will be managing the convention centre. They are trying to grow their presence in the region for the meetings market, and this will be their showcase. There is presently a relatively significant meetings market in the Caribbean but for the most part it is still leisure based, and there is a desire to grow that both in the Caribbean and Latin America.
CI: Is there going to be much of a locals market, do you think?
JS: It’s an insignificant market, really. There are lots of ex-pats and people with second homes on the market who may be regular visitors, but it’s not a highly-populated market like Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Locals will also be prohibited from gambling, so they may utilise F&B but gaming-wise it will not be a relevant market.
CI: How will SK+G’s role change when the property opens?
JS: I don’t think the brand will be on cruise control for some time. It’s a major destination resort, and you have to look at a three-year ramp-up to get to that cruising altitude. Every major resort destination I have worked on has shown that the first year of working on an operation is sometimes more challenging than the pre-opening. Before you open you are allowed to be idealistic, while being pragmatic, without full knowledge of how the consumer is going to interact with the property. A month or two in you are reoriented to the reality of how people respond to the brand. From a marketing, service, and operational standpoint a lot happens in the first year that is challenging and you need to react quickly. We are preparing for that, and honestly looking at the launch period as 18 months. We’re not viewing it as pre-opening and opening.
CI: If you could convince Reed Exhibitions to have G2E at Baha Mar, you would be the most popular man in the gaming industry…
JS: We’ve talked about this… We had a significant presence at G2E Asia, and also G2E in Vegas. It may be a bit of a challenge to get everybody to make the decision to go there. Vegas is still the centre of the universe in that respect but… It’s something we can work on!