After nine years helping the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman grow to an award-winning resort globally, its hotel manager Roger Ponce is leaving Cayman for new pastures. Ponce has been one of the motivating forces behind the resort’s integration with local culture, working alongside Chris Christian from Cayman Traditional Arts to ensure that guests appreciate and understand a little of the “real” Cayman Islands.
It all started in 2005 when Ponce, a hospitality professional from Mexico, was brought to Grand Cayman by then-vice president and general manager Jean Cohen as part of a “dream team” of hand-selected individuals who had the ability to get the massive hotel project off the ground. Ponce came from a background of event planning and was charged with organizing the launch of the resort, with singers Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett the stars of the show, which remains in the minds of many who attended as one of the greatest entertainment events to take place in Cayman.
“Jean hand-picked me because she knew I could think outside the box,” Ponce recalls.
An example of this forward thinking was highlighted when Seamus Tivenan, who at the time was chairman of the Insurance Managers Association, approached Ponce to see if he could hold an industry reception for 150 guests in late 2005.
“We hadn’t even opened the resort at that point, so my initial response was no! But then I thought about it and rose to the challenge. Seamus was keen to hold the first event at the Ritz-Carlton, and we made it happen,” Ponce says. “We’ve had an excellent working relationship ever since.”
In his new position, Ponce says he realized immediately the importance of ensuring that the Ritz-Carlton embraced local culture.
“The Ritz-Carlton came to Grand Cayman, not the other way around,” he says. “I felt it would be productive to engage with the local community, to embrace Caymanian culture and to understand its beauty.”
At the outset, Ponce says, he read as much as he could about local history and culture and was keen to create relationships with local people who would assist him in his mission, one of whom was Christian, who runs Cayman Traditional Arts, which leads the way in teaching local arts and culture, as well as showcasing contemporary local art.
Christian notes: “It was exciting for me as a promoter of local art and culture to meet Roger and understand his perspective. Roger has been tremendously important in helping to develop local art and ensure that the Ritz-Carlton fully embraces the richness and beauty of our culture. It’s been a real pleasure to work alongside him for so many years.”
Ponce knew straight away that he needed to partner with local artists and architects to help him develop ideas.
“To begin with, I read a great deal about the Cayman catboat and I found the entire history of the vessel intriguing,” he says.
Ponce says he discussed how to bring this important Caymanian icon into the Ritz-Carlton. After discussions with Christian, he says, they came up with a plan to christen the resort’s very own catboat, the Lady Ellen, after Christian’s grandmother. The catboat would make an appearance at the water’s edge for banquets and special occasions when the executive chef would walk down to the boat and take the “catch,” which he would proceed to clean, filet and cook in front of guests.
“The guests loved it and thought it was so original,” Ponce says. “They would get to appreciate the importance of the catboat to the Cayman community and also enjoy fish that was literally from boat to table in a matter of minutes. A true Caymanian experience.”
Christian went one step further and erected a caboose (an old-style Caymanian oven) on the beach to further enhance the experience.
“Chris is someone who I have the greatest respect for,” Ponce says. “He is highly knowledgeable and service-orientated and really understands the Ritz-Carlton philosophy. He is one of a handful of local partners with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, and I really admire his responsible focus.”
Since the catboat had been such a success with guests, Ponce decided to have postcards created with a photo of the Lady Ellen.
“We held a campaign among staff last year to see how we could personalize our service for our guests. We decided to hand-write a welcome message for each of our guests on the postcard,” he says. “Our campaign helped us become the top Ritz-Carlton resort offering a personalized service.”
Next on Ponce’s agenda was to erect a Caymanian cottage in the foyer of the resort.
“I had spent some time touring the island, enjoying the Caymanian cottages in South Sound, West Bay and North Side,” he says. “I admired the intricate detail of their architecture and really wanted to showcase them at the resort.”
Again, with the assistance of Christian, Ponce was able to erect in the foyer a small Caymanian cottage, which was on wheels. From this cottage a local employee, Ms. Ivy, wearing Caymanian dress complete with straw hat, would offer arriving guests cookies, pineapple juice and rum punch.
“In this way, our guests were introduced into the Caymanian culture as soon as they arrived,” he says.
Highlighting Cayman art
With regard to embracing local art and culture, Ponce’s biggest venture by far, was to further enhance Jean Cohen’s vision of establishing The Gallery at the Ritz-Carlton, an excellent venue for showcasing local artwork.
The Gallery spans the bridge across West Bay Road that links the resort side of the property with the private residences on the ocean side. It hosts plenty of foot traffic as guests walk to and from the beach and restaurants at the ocean side of the resort, affording local artists continuous exposure to their work.
“Since the Gallery’s inception a few years ago, it’s had around US$1 million in sales,” Ponce says. “This figure alone is a testament to The Gallery’s success.”
Christian recently hired full-time staff who now man the location most of the day, and this has helped to increase sales figures even more.
“Guests are blown away by the creativity and quality of the local art on show,” Ponce says. “One guest bought $40,000 worth of art on the spot. I believe that The Gallery has really enhanced the resort.”
The Gallery periodically holds exhibitions for local artists and even for younger artists who have taken art classes through Cayman Traditional Arts.
“We are again taking this a stage further and have extended our Ambassadors of the Environment program for youngsters to include art classes. We will also be including adult art classes as well in the coming weeks,” Ponce says. Ponce says his time in Cayman is the longest he has ever spent at any one property.
“I really identify with the ocean,” he says. “I love it. It gives energy and breathes life, so this location was a huge draw for me. I’ve loved working at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and I’ve especially loved the way people have welcomed me to their island and into their homes. These were the reasons that I decided to stay for so long in this awesome paradise.”