Growth in the Latin American region continues at a rapid clip for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. The company, which currently has 71 Latin America hotels totaling 15,300 rooms in 13 countries, aims to add seven properties in the region by the end of the year, and it has another 20 properties in the development pipeline. Ricardo Suarez, Starwood's vice president of acquisitions and development for Latin America, discussed what is driving the company's aggressive expansion with Mexico editor Gay Nagle Myers.
Q: Why is Starwood so bullish on Latin America?
A: Starwood has been in Latin America since the 1960s. We have a long-standing commitment to the region, starting with the Sheraton powerhouse brand. Latin America had the highest RevPAR [revenue per available room] growth for Starwood in 2012. In the last 10 years, we have expanded and increased our presence in the region due to the growth in the economies and fiscal policies of various countries there, coupled with the growth of the middle class. We have seen opportunities to enter markets where we already have brands and to expand our footprint with new brands. We've seen growth in gateway cities and secondary markets and resorts that reflects the diversity of the market. As business becomes more global, Latin America offers many opportunities for investment.
Q: What is the hottest destination in that region in terms of expansion?
A: Mexico is the country where we have the most robust footprint and hotels in development. Starwood currently has 24 properties and seven in the pipeline. Four are in the luxury segment, and three are in the specialty select category: St. Regis Kanai Riviera Maya; W Retreat Kanai Riviera Maya; W Santa Fe, Mexico City; Luxury Collection Guadalajara; Aloft Guadalajara; Aloft Merida; and Four Points Cancun Centro.
Q: What about Brazil? Where does that fit in?
A: Brazil is an interesting market and our second most important tourist destination. It has its challenges, but demand for hotel products is strong, and there's a gap in supply. We have eight properties now -- six Sheratons and two Four Points -- including the Sheraton da Bahia in Salvador, which opened March 7. A lot of hotel companies haven't figured out Brazil yet, but it's just a matter of time.
Q: Does Starwood plan to expand its all-inclusive line beyond the Westin Playa Conchal Resort & Spa in Costa Rica?
A: Our experience has been outstanding for the resort's guests, owners and for Starwood as the operator since the Westin opened in 2011. We've now established a track record with the all-inclusive concept, where most U.S. hotel brands have not. We will continue to expand this, probably under the Westin brand.
Q: How does Starwood decide where to plant its flag?
A: We go where the most opportunities are. We're focused on growing our brands if the destination is the right fit regarding growth, demand from business and leisure travelers, travel patterns and travel markets. We're concentrating on the luxury traveler through our St. Regis and W brands. We're focused on secondary markets, as well, such as Guadalajara in Mexico. We see plenty of opportunities in Panama, Peru, Colombia as well as Brazil.
Q: How often are you on the road?
A: A lot; just ask my wife. It helps to have great teams in each country that do the groundwork and know the market.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.
This article has been updated to reflect that Starwood operates eight properties in Brazil -- six Sheratons and two Four Points by Sheraton; an earlier version of this article had an incorrect number of properties.