Denis O’Brien’s latest move: Haiti’s first Marriott

The Marriott Port-au-Prince, which officially opened its doors last week after a “soft” opening period of three months, is far more than just a symbol of Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery. It’s a living, breathing, job-creating economic engine in a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince that sorely needs exactly that: jobs, vitality and the promise of further development to come.

It’s no accident that the hotel was built right next to Haiti’s tallest office building, the corporate headquarters of Digicel. The telecommunications giant now boasts the lion’s share of the Caribbean’s mobile phone market. And it’s founder, Denis O’Brien — the Irish-born business mogul who has been in the headlines in Ireland lately— is also a well known and popular figure in Haiti.
O’Brien is the individual who agreed to pump $48 million into the hotel’s creation. Marriott, of course, is the other key partner, having invested a considerable sum in fortune and time to manage their first Haitian hotel.

The Marriott is already making a major impression in this still-developing country, which has slowly been pulling itself up from the rubble and trauma of the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people— many of them right in the capital city. The hotel is hosting regular conferences, including trade shows aimed at attracting new investment and builders into the country.
It was O’Brien who, at the urging of former US President Bill Clinton, made the leap of faith to commit the dollars and manpower for the project two years ago. And it is O’Brien who sought to build the hotel in Turgeau, a section of the capital that is not currently known as a magnet for tourists.

On a recent visit to Haiti, O’Brien explained to the Reporter that the idea of siting the Marriott here was no accident.

“There’s no point building where everyone else is building,” explained O’Brien. “Why would you do that? You’ve got to go into the more difficult areas. When we built in Jamaica, for example, against the advice of everybody, we moved uptown to the roughest, most underprivileged part of Kingston, right down at the port. We decided if we are going to make a big investment we need to make sure it’s going to be very impactful. It’s the same thing here really.”

“When President Clinton spoke to us about the opportunity to build a hotel here — and then the Marriott people were here in the same meeting, we just said within a half-and-hour, ‘Yeah, let’s go and do it.’ But we wanted to make sure the hotel was a Haitian hotel with all the best of Haitian artisan work because probably the greatest artists in all of the Caribbean and maybe even all of Central, Latin America are the Haitians, in my mind. Nobody knows exactly where that creative talent and beauty and skill came from but it’s certainly that is extraordinary.”

O’Brien stayed at the Marriott himself the night before our interview. He was impressed with the room and the service, but moreover, he was delighted to see a sight that he was urgently hoping for: “I arrived there last night and nearly all of the clientle is Haitian. In the public areas, people having dinner with their families. That’s the real test of the hotel. People feel comfortable going there.”

“I’m more interested in the feedback of Haitians. The feedback has been really good. My own staff, we’re in the next building and I wanted my own staff to enjoy it, so we gave everybody a $25 voucher to go over and have lunch. I’m not interested in owning a hotel that’s for the elite. It’s for all customers.”

The employee mix is another point of pride for O’Brien.

“It’s a credit to Marriott,” O’Brien told the Reporter in a May interview. “I love the ethos of Marriott, because they take all comers. You’re judged on your ability and not where you were born. The fact that they recruited diaspora Haitians, but also Haitians from a very poor environment.”

Building a viable tourism sector, O’Brien believes, is the key to building Haiti’s economy in addition to agriculture and light manufacturing. The country, he says, is on the verge of a breakthrough year.

“There’s plenty of good hotels and what’s happening now is that everyone is investing heavily in their hotels and that’s helping the economy here in terms of construction point of view. When tourists come here, they stay at very good hotels and the best restaurants in the whole of the Caribbean are here in Port au Prince,” O’Brien told the Reporter.

“So if you take tourism – I think Haiti is becoming on the most interesting places to visit,” said O’Brien, who said there’s a reason that he has “spent more time in Haiti than all my other businesses put together by a factor of ten.”

“I’m really interested in Haiti, maybe because I just see — despite everything— the potential for Haiti is just unbelievable if we could just grasp it,” said O’Brien.