Patrick Hoyos Published August 7, 2013
The SoCo Hotel, opened in May this year, has had a good first few months, and is setting a new standard for south coast hotels. It is owned and operated by one of Barbados’ most outstanding hoteliers and one of the region’s most respected tourism personalities, Ralph Taylor, who for two decades was the CEO of the Almond Resorts Inc. until his departure in May 2012.
After the controversial closure of the Almond hotel group by its parent Neal & Massy Holdings Ltd., Mr. Taylor decided to focus his energies on creating a South Beach-style boutique hotel on the former Sierra Beach Hotel property, which he majority-owned and had ear-marked for a condominium project. It is next to South Ocean Villas, a Spanish-style condominium tower also co-owned by Mr. Taylor.
The experienced hotelier hired an American architect to bring to life his Miami South Beach concept for the new SoCo Hotel. The result is a 24-room stunner in off-white, beige and brown, with hardly a pastel colour in sight. Apart from a distinctive Swiss-cheese concrete panel on the Hastings Main Road front of the building and a squeaky clean off-white reception area with comfortable sofas and a view of the ocean, there is not much on the street level of the hotel to suggest a new approach.
But once you take the stairs to the level below, the full vision becomes apparent.
A large dining room, where the only bow to contrasting colour is to be found in the dark blue goblets on the brown rattan tables with white linen table cloths and matching chairs with beige seat cushions.
Large panels of glass allow the light to come pouring in from a terrace which features a pool, adorned with white umbrellas and beige lounge chairs. The pale colours of the brickwork around the pool bridge the minimalist colour palette of off-whites and dark brown.
This terrace is the viewing platform for the combinations of blue in the ocean-sky vista by day and the riot of orange, purple and red at sunset.
Just in front of the hotel, about ten feet below, is the end of the Richard Haynes Boardwalk, a south coast attraction that provides a magnificent eastward walking experience for nearly two kilometres, all the way up to the edge of Accra Beach and linking SoCo to restaurants, nightlife and shopping without exposing its pedestrians to vehicular traffic, except to cross the road where necessary.
To the west, the end of the boardwalk gives way to a long swathe of beach with the added attraction of breakwaters placed along the front and sides of a cleared space in the natural reef, making bathing safe for children.
“SoCo has done well so far,” says Mr. Taylor, noting that it ran almost full until August and is already sold out for September and heading there for the remainder of the year. “There is a real consumer demand for boutique hotels,” he says.
SoCo is working with Tropical Sky in the UK and other booking and marketing agencies, but Mr. Taylor says a lot of the early guests simply found the new property on the Internet. “Last week we had 12 rooms booked by guests from Brazil, (but) we did not advertise to them. They said they had Googled ‘Barbados hotels’ and had chosen us over several others.”
A recent visitor from San Diego, California had a similar story. “He said his girlfriend had found us on the Internet,” recalls Mr. Taylor, adding, “You have to find a niche. It’s the only way to succeed in the global marketplace. Otherwise you will not be able to compete with (the major players).”
In recent days Mr. Taylor has launched his new venture on Travelocity and Expedia, and also done advertising campaigns to the U.S. market with TravelZoo.
But he admits that there is a limit to how much marketing a small hotel can do, which is why word-of-mouth and the Internet is so important to its success.
SoCo’s restaurant is headed by Barbadian Chef Andrew Jean, who Mr. Taylor lured back home from Atlanta, where he had worked for 12 years. The restaurant is open to the public for lunch and dinner and offers a fusion of Caribbean and international cuisine.
SoCo’s room rates range between US$300 to $650 per night, and can also be booked and paid for directly on the hotel’s website (www.thesocohotel.com).
One guest wrote on Trip Advisor that “The staff are what really makes this place stand out, though. Felix and Michelle at the bar are superb and go out of their way to provide a brilliant service and really make sure you get in the holiday mood. The restaurant staff are also very efficient and polite. Andrew in reception is also worth noting, he sorted out car rental and a turtle trip for us and made the whole thing very easy.”
Fifteen months after Almond’s parent Neal & Massy pulled the plug, the flagship Almond Beach Village remains closed. But Ralph Taylor’s new hotel, at the other end of the island and a world of away from the mass-based “cruise-ship-on-land” all-inclusive concept – is open for business and looking toward a bright future as a modern, sophisticated boutique hotel.