A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, A GOOD NIGHT’S REST

Costa Rica 2017 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Gustavo Araya, President of Costa Rican Hotels Chamber (CCH), on improving security, building public-private coalitions, and dealing with structural changes

Gustavo Araya
BIOGRAPHY
A professional lawyer with an emphasis on corporate law, Araya studied at Cornell University. Since the beginning of his career he has been very focused on developing tourism projects as a member of a prestigious law firm on projects in Costa Rica such as Los Sueños and Pinilla. He has more than 12 years of experience in hotel operations and actively participates in chambers and associations such as the Costa Rican Chamber of Hotels and the Costa Rica Convention Bureau, as well as ICCA. One of his most recent ventures in project development was the opening of Costa Rica's first Hard Rock Café in San Jose and later in Guanacaste.

The chamber comprises almost 300 associates in Costa Rica. Please tell us about the evolution of CCH in CR, and which areas CCH is focusing on to boost the hotel sector?

Right now we have more than 280 hotels and represent more than 60% of hotel rooms. If we go by GOP, we represent more than 50% of the tourism industry, which means that the Chamber of Hoteliers is the most important association in terms of GOP representation in the country. The main thrust of our association is to be a counterpart to the ICT, but the good part about the tourism sector in Costa Rica is that even as counterparts, more than 90% of the time we are also part of it. One of the reasons why the tourism industry in Costa Rica has risen to such great heights is because we have come to understand since 1985 the importance of building a strong coalition between the private and public sector. Even though ICT is a part of the public sector, you have to understand and remember that it is headed by a board of directors composed of the minister and six other members proposed by the private sector. Hence, the direction of the ICT is from the private sector, something we understood in the past and have worked well with since.

The new Convention Center is expected to bring more than 100,000 business tourists. How do you foresee this area and how is the CCH working in this regard?

We have taken an active role in this because the first thing was to convince the government, which meant we had to first convince ICT that the deal was important for the entire MICE sector. They were not aware of the sector, and there was no support whatsoever either from the public or private sector in recent years. Only a few scattered or secretive people were trying to organize events or bring people in.

How is the chamber working to resolve impediments to growth such as seasonality?

Certainly that is not our biggest concern right now. Costa Rica first positioned itself with having two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. However, we got this wrong, for we truly only have one season: the green season, so this was a mistake. For example, the rainy season is the best moment to go to the rainforest; it is one of the things we promote the most. We are changing that strategy, or the ICT is changing that strategy. The other way to do so is through the MICE sector, which the ICT is finally doing. This is an especially good opportunity, since MICE activities are counter-seasonal and most meetings and conventions overlap with our low season. This is something we only recently realized. Now, my chamber has been proactive and was probably the one that first took up the flag to convince the ICT to finally embrace MICE tourism. Apart from this, security is another challenge and has probably worsened a little in the past two years, and infrastructure is another challenge that needs to be seriously addressed. We must always remember that the tourism industry takes two or three years to react to broader, structural changes.

What are the chamber's goals for 2017?

The focus is to continue to convince the government that we should invest in the MICE industry. To do so, we need to finalize the construction of the convention center—not because we need it—but to use it as a tool for making the government understand that MICE is important.