Sol Melia Elevates Dominican Luxury Stakes

Spanish hotelier rolls out upscale 'Reserve' concept as Westin, high-end resorts loom.

The Dominican Republic, namely Punta Cana and Cap Cana, has seen an upmarket hospitality push beyond its bargain all-inclusive roots in recent years. That transformation, propelled by foreign investment, should reach critical mass upon the arrivals of luxury resorts by Westin, Ritz-Carlton, Trump, and Four Seasons starting this year.

The oncoming rush of high-end U.S. and Canadian chains to the D.R. market, with their brand-name familiarity to U.S. meeting planners, has not been lost on incumbent Spanish hoteliers like Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts, which introduced the luxury all-inclusive Paradisus Palma Real resort in Punta Cana in 2005. Even though the 554-suite Palma Real has earned membership in the Leading Hotels of the World, Sol Melia knows the stakes are now higher and is upping the ante with an exclusive resort-within-resort concept called the Reserve.

Whereas the Palma Real—whose business is 25 percent groups and 80 percent U.S.-based—represents the new generation of Sol Melia's Paradisus Resorts brand, the Reserve—with its 807- and 1,077-sf suites and uber-service—is the company's top-echelon product.

Launched just before Christmas, the 190-suite Reserve at Palma Real follows upon a sister Reserve property located within the older, nearby Paradisus Punta Cana resort. "Exclusivity, luxury service, secludedness, and modern elegance are the selling points," said Joseph de Leon, director of groups and conventions, during a property tour by MeetingNews.While all 12,500 sf of resort meeting space (including a 9,367-sf ballroom) is at Palma Real, the Reserve is a five-minute transfer by resort trolley shuttle. Attendees at the Reserve have access to Palma Real's seven restaurants, Bavaro Beach, casino, recreational facilities, and 8,600-sf YHI Spa.

The Reserve has oversized suites that feature dark mahogany furniture, marble floors, bathrooms with dual bowl sinks and European showers, two flat-screen TVs, two Jacuzzis (indoor and outdoor), and a private terrace and garden that abuts a communal swimming pool.

The suites are one feature Palma Real officials said will keep Sol Melia a step ahead of the Westin Roko Ki Beach & Golf Resort (opening in 2010 and geographically closest to Palma Real out of the North American properties in construction).

"I don't know if any property has that," said resident manager Frank Peeters, of the "swim-up suites." (Reserve guests literally can swim back to their rooms from the swim-up bar at the Gabi Club restaurant.)

Another feature is a sprawling, 24,400-sf YHI Spa, themed after Hindu deities and featuring atrium architecture with 10 treatment rooms with outdoor rain showers, a salon, hydrotherapy facilities, and an attached fitness club. The full-service spa offers full-day rituals and long rosters of facials and massages, such as the Mandala Experience that combines aromatherapy and stone muscle treatment.

In March, a splash pool will join the sizeable 7,800-sf Kids Zone as part of the Reserve's children's amenities accommodating family-oriented meetings and incentives. The staffed Kids Zone, which itself is adding a playground, is a "mini-compound" with Internet terminals, PlayStation 3 consoles, board games, and a big-screen TV. Additional, personalized assistance is provided by the "Family Concierge," private butlers who can coordinate kids' activities and set up turndown touches like a balloon-filled Jacuzzi.

The Reserve does personal welcomes/check-ins for attendees, and its restaurants—Gabi Club, the Mediterranean-themed Aqua, and the Japanese teppanyaki Mizu—are staffed by proactive, choreographed servers. And verandas that connect the Reserve's three-story room blocks are staffed with help desks to ensure service is never far.

Noted Reserve director Jaime Piedras, "It's a new concept for Sol Melia," but one that attendees "could get used to."

Originally published Feb. 16, 2009