Marriott staff is the real attraction at Haiti’s newest hotel

Sharon Sylhomme is a Haitian-American who left a job in Florida to become the finance director for the new Marriott Port-au-Prince. Photo by Bill Forry

There’s a lot to love about the newest hotel to open in Haiti.

The Marriott Port-au-Prince is sophisticated and yet firmly connected to roots culture, with handcrafted Vévé flags and Croix-des-Bouquets crafted ironwork that adorn the public spaces and guest rooms. Even the drink menus at the swanky La Sirene Bar and Restaurant—now a choice meeting spot in the capital city— accentuate Ayiti.

Of course, there are many other assets that will make this venture a success. Marriott’s affordable rates — starting around $125 a night— are competitive and benefit from a top-flight reservation system with a huge pool of clients devoted to the Marriott brand. Its central location puts business travelers and tourists in close proximity to government offices, as well as Champ de Mars, museums and other downtown attractions. It boasts a beautiful pool and outdoor terrace and well-appointed guest suites that would be the envy of any American city. And, critically, it’s typically just a quick 15 minute ride to and from the airport.

But the key to the Marriott’s success in Haiti, it is already very clear, will be the people who work there. Will they rise to challenge and create a hotel experience that Haitian-Americans, ex-pats and visitors from around the globe will find appealing enough to return to? Judging from two recent stays here by the Reporter, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes.’

Denis O’Brien, the Digicel founder who is the chief financier of the Marriott project (which is the largest single private piece of direct investment in the country today), said that the buzz he is hearing from Haitian people is all very positive. And that’s what counts most in his book.

“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.”

Manoushka Pressoir: Employment at the new Marriott Port-au-Prince has been a ticket out of a nearby tent city for the mom and her 14 year-old son. Photo by Bill ForryManoushka Pressoir: Employment at the new Marriott Port-au-Prince has been a ticket out of a nearby tent city for the mom and her 14 year-old son. Photo by Bill ForryA case in point is Manoushka Pressoir, who works at the Marriott as a housekeeper. She was living in a nearby tent city when the hotel began its arduous process of hiring Haitian locals. A mother of a 14 year-old son, Pressoir has struggled to survive after losing everything in the 2010 earthquake. Last year, her son came to her with surprising news: “Mommy, come see, a bunch of white guys are here and want to talk to you.”

The white guys turned out to be a team from Marriott led by general manager Peter Antinoph, a 48 year-old veteran hotelier who left the Champs-Elysee Marriott — the brand’s Parish flagship— to take on the Haiti project. A cancer survivor whose close encounter with mortality a few years ago changed his professional trajectory, Antinoph was looking for the right place to have a personal impact.

Marriott PAP general manager Peter Antinoph with Donna Karan at the hotel's opening reception on June 18: Photo by Foto AyitiMarriott PAP general manager Peter Antinoph with Donna Karan at the hotel's opening reception on June 18: Photo by Foto AyitiThe Haiti project is right in his wheelhouse. After weeks of driving past a tent city on his way to the new hotel each day, Peter made it a point to visit, and not just to pass out water or bread. He was intent on hiring Haitians. Pressoir signed on that day— and despite having no hospitality experience until her training last year— has thrived at the Marriott. Antinoph now considers Pressoir his star employee.

She’s emblematic of the Marriott ethos that O’Brien referenced— and which Antinoph drills into his team: “The whole key behind this hotel and what we tell all our staff since day one is diversity— we don’t care about your religion, color, sexuality— we only care that you do a good job, and smile at the guests and you’re happy.”

Antinoph is ably assisted by a team that includes Haitian-American executives who have been brought in to help launch the hotel and train the rookies.

Edwidge Solage left for Africa and later France at age 12. Most recently, she had worked her way up to a top administrative job at the Marriott Harbour Beach in Florida. When the Port-au-Prince opportunity came up, Solage lept at the chance to “come home.”

“I am very happy to be part of this adventure. Being here is not so different than we imagine. These challenges exist everywhere,” said Solage. “Haiti, its poverty and its problems were just more exposed since the quake. “

At just 31, Sharon Sylhomme is the Marriott PAP’s director of finance. Raised in Florida to Haitian emigrant parents, Sharon’s folks at first discouraged her from moving to Haiti. But when she visited Port-au-Prince last year to inspect the property, she knew she had to do it. Now, her parents have come to visit her in her new role.

“They have changed their opinion,” said Sylhomme. “What I like about my job is to help people to grow, to develop their skills. The employees are so proud and happy to give the maximum. I hope that in two years somebody can do it here in my place!”

Aside from the 200-plus employees, Antinoph’s spirits are also lifted by the feel of the hotel. There are security gates outside— as there are in most Haitian institutions. But the hotel is frequented not only by foreigners, but by Haitians, many of whom are eager to taste the food and drink, lounge by the pool and enjoy their city’s latest and greatest addition.

“The community is starting to feel the effect of having this nice big brother in the neighborhood, because we’re not exclusive. It’s our nature. It’s who we are,” explains Antinoph. “We’re not a private club, we’re a hotel and we’re here for everyone to use.”

WATCH: A video from the opening reception of the Marriott Port-au-Prince on June 18, 2015: