Mark Durliat

Mark Durliat

CEO | Grace Bay Resorts

Industry
Hospitality/Real Estate

Location
Providenciales, Turks and Caicos


How COVID-19 Is Affecting One of the Caribbean’s Most Prestigious Resorts

Mark Durliat’s distinct and compelling vision was built on his experiences gained as he developed his career around the world. After graduating from USC with majors in entrepreneurship and French, he moved to France, then to Belgium, where a fortunate meeting with golf legend Gary Player forever changed his career path. Originally, he began developing master-planned communities in Europe with Player. He then moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where he co-founded a firm that developed residential and hospitality properties. In the early 2000s, he returned to the U.S. and began to seek out a distinctive destination in the Caribbean. After 10 months of searching, he and his then-business partner John Fair (developer of famed resort Esperanza in Cabo) discovered Turks and Caicos. It was here that Durliat found a rare combination of perfection and potential. Together with a group of private investors, the beachfront Grace Bay Club was purchased and Durliat led its transformation from a small, 20-plus-room hotel to a five-star property that generates annual revenue of more than $44M. Today, as CEO of Grace Bay Resorts, Durliat has overseen the company’s growth to operating three resort properties with a team of 550 employees and annual revenues of more than $60M, while also heading up its new developments, all on Turks and Caicos.

What are your biggest business concerns surrounding COVID-19?

Our biggest concerns have always been around the immediate welfare of our employees at Grace Bay Resorts, who have been plunged into an economic uncertainty never before seen in a destination where tourism is the primary industry. Equally, we remain cautious as to how travelers will adjust in the short term to the new reality of COVID-driven travel protocols and how long it will take before we can restore our operations, stem our losses, and bring our employees back to work. It has been an incredibly difficult balance, and with no guidebook to steer us we have had to adjust fast and find our footing very carefully.

The impact has been extreme. Upon closing, 100% of our revenue was eliminated, which created liquidity concerns and forced unwelcome and unintended staff furloughs. As a tourism-driven economy, the impact of the closure of our business and those like ours has been enormous to the local economy. Most jobs in this destination depend on tourism either directly or indirectly, so the economy in Turks and Caicos has been particularly hard hit.

We closed our resort operations (three in total) on March 27 and were closed until July. Demand has been somewhat low, with the return to full operations very gradual. The bright side is that we expect pent-up demand and anticipate 2021 to be a solid year.

The Rock House at Grace Bay.

What is your current business strategy for dealing with the situation?

Much of our initial strategy was driven by the immediate needs of our employees while at the same time paring down our operational costs to only the essentials. We were in a strict austerity period when we were closed in the spring and early summer. While this crisis has unfolded, we have been forced to entirely revisit many of our operating, financial, and communication processes. Our business is a bit different from normal hotels since we are a condo-hotel business and have important responsibilities and relationships with our condominium owners, who all participate in our resort operations.

Such crises teach you about taking care of one another. This drove my early thinking in dealing with the COVID crisis. The early message had to be that we are in this together and if we stick together, we will get through it. It has served us well in the past.

This business model is prevalent in our destination and has proven to be extremely robust, particularly in crises. The manner in which we communicate with these key partners—our condo owners—has evolved in a positive way during this time, and there was a quick and real understanding from them of the need for a collective approach to the challenges before us. An example of this would be our hospitality employees, where our condo owners agreed to contribute alongside Grace Bay Resorts to support measures for staff, despite there being no legal obligation for them to do so.

This process has forced us to more fully educate our third-party owners on how our business works. This has required a lot of personal communication by me, one on one, with owners. The result has been that where we had trust before, this trust has been enhanced greatly. This has reminded me that when you involve smart, accomplished people in the solution, they often rise to the occasion.

There are many other examples where the severe nature of the challenge has forced us to amend our processes in ways we would never have considered before. I liken the process to having a car that you know how to fix but you really never had to look under the hood much when times were good. Now, it is forcing us all to look closer at those components to our engine (our business) and give them some grease, or change them, modify them, or simply maintain them better.

When things return to normalcy, we will be leaner and smarter, and it is likely some of the relationships we enjoyed previously will have been improved.

The adults-only pool at the Grace Bay Club.

How do you think things will look in your industry a year from now?

We will try many different approaches and see what our guests truly respond to. As an independent operator and brand, we have agility and flexibility so we will be able to make changes quickly to respond to our customer. Luxuries like room service, buffet breakfasts, and turn-down service may be reviewed or changed depending on guest comfort levels.

What have you learned from other difficult times in the past? 

We have to deal with hurricanes often in the Caribbean and those times have taught me many lessons that I apply in this instance. Such crises teach you about taking care of one another. This drove my early thinking in dealing with the COVID crisis. The early message had to be that we are in this together and if we stick together, we will get through it. It has served us well in the past.

With this crisis, which is prolonged and severe like no other, we are adjusting this approach to make sure that the limited resources we have can last us and serve as many people as possible. Make no mistake, this has forced us to leverage our future, much like others, and we will have to give away something to ensure we survive. But that is the nature of crises. We are lucky to have partners and financial institutions who believe in us and have made this possible.

A villa at Grace Bay.

Safe–and entertained–at home: What business leaders are doing with their downtime

 

Morning routine?
For more than 20 years I would rise around 6 a.m. Now I rise around 4 or 5 a.m. without an alarm. Sleep seems to be a luxury these days and doesn’t come easy. Once awake, I swim in the legendary oceans of Turks and Caicos, plus some pushups and exercise on the beach—something I have done for 20 years. Now instead of the office, it’s the makeshift home office on a table that I borrowed from our restaurant. It sits at the end of a bed in our guest room and looks awful. Papers all over the place—my wife hates it!

Emails and financial analysis start by 6 a.m. and I make my list of three key things for the day (plus the other 20 things I need to do, but can wait) and then my 7-year-old wakes up. That is when it becomes a bit more complicated. He usually creeps in around 6:30 a.m. I have to keep him busy for an hour before online schooling starts, when his mother takes over. I have a ritual of waking my wife and delivering coffee to her in bed. We have kept this routine since March 25 (the day we closed), and it keeps us sane and happy.

Currently binging?
Seems my wife and I have watched way too much Family Feud, for the simple reason that we are Steve Harvey fans and like to compete with each other. Other than that, I have watched the Mission Impossible series a bunch of times. My wife has crushes on Jason Statham and Daniel Craig, so we have every James Bond film and Statham’s seemingly endless movies. I have also seen some of the go-to Netflix phenomenon shows like Tiger King, Unorthodox, and The Last Dance. The BBC is our go-to for news. We have found that CNN only depresses us, and the world needs simple news without all the rhetoric. BBC does that well.

Currently reading?
I read Bloomberg online all the time as well as the Wall Street Journal online. I also just finished a famous South African book, The Power of One, and am reading Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the WorldRolling Stone online is cool from time to time and the BBC app is great also. I don’t participate much in social media. I don’t have a Twitter account or Facebook account and only have an Instagram account to see what photos are worth seeing. I follow other resorts and design-driven accounts.

What are you doing to spend quality time with those you’re sheltering with?
My 7-year-old and I have been able to spend lots of time together. I swim with him every afternoon. At 5:30 p.m., my wife and I have a ritual that we keep. Stop working, stop stressing, and have a cool drink on our terrace. We talk about the day and help each other de-stress and try to laugh. My wife’s business, media strategist/coach for celebrities, CEOs, etc., has gotten much busier, so we definitely have to de-stress. We have done this ritual nearly 100 days in a row. We only were able to do this from time to time before and it has been great. We both look forward to it.

I’ve also been able to spend time and learn more about my two older stepsons who are 17 and 21. The COVID situation has been pretty unfair to their generation. One was pulled from college (I would have been upset at that!) and the other was pulled from his sports boarding school. That was a shock to them, and they had to move back in with my wife and me. That took some getting used to for all of us!

What are you doing to stay healthy mentally and physically?
The morning swimming is essential to me for staying physically fit, although with this level of uncertainty and stress I have found it hard to really get into it like I normally do. To stay fit mentally, I speak a lot to my mentors, business partners, my father (who has been the best mentor in my life), and others who work in other industries and who can offer objectivity and some sense of normalcy, as much as that still exists.

Where are you dreaming of visiting once things are back to normal?
My wife and I will be on a plane to Paris in the blink of an eye. That is where we were married, and France is our favorite place to hang out. The Ritz Paris is our ultimate go-to hotel.