The Deja Resort story – Jamaica Observer

IT has been seven years since the Deja Resort hotel, owned and operated by the Russell family in Montego Bay, St James, opened on Gloucester Avenue in the tourism capital of Jamaica. The 92-room hotel’s inception represented a departure from the family’s core business, the Pier One restaurant and nightclub. Its establishment as a successful tourism enterprise defied the scepticism and doubt encountered by the Russells as they worked years ago to convert their vision to reality.
“It was difficult, to say the least,” recalls Robin Russell, general manager of the property and one of five siblings now running the family business. “It was the first time we were going into the hotel business and nobody had confidence in us.
“We saw where the hotel was up for sale and it took us over a year to negotiate and purchase the hotel,” he said. “We had to hire consultants. Many different banks and many different lending institutions later, we were able to finally secure a deal with Exim and Sagicor. And when we started, we started at zero with very little knowledge of how to get people in the hotel. Many sleepless nights, lots of advice.”
It was a steep learning curve but the Russells had enough experience from their core business to not just assist them in their new venture, but also provide them with a helpful network that they had built over the years.
Despite the fact that Pier One was a restaurant and nightclub enterprise, it had still given them access over the years to a range of hospitality professionals and organisations with whom they had done business that they were able to count on for guidance in the new venture.
“I would say we received lots of goodwill from people that we had worked with in the market that were really looking out for us as a new local hotel,” Russell said. “Even within the Jamaica Tourist Board there were people that we had forged relationships with through Pier One.”
This did not negate all the scepticism regarding the project as they established relationships with the various entities they would have to work with. But the family met the challenge head-on.
“What we were was bold,” the general manager stated. “We never said that we were smaller than anybody else and didn’t deserve to be in the room. So, many times we were told that we were just too small for the larger tour operators to take up, but we still forged relationships and we still pushed through to where, after about six to eight months, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel to get the bookings up to where we needed.”
Indeed the property, which does not sit directly on a beach, was seen as too small by many to be a successful all-inclusive resort.
However, its position on Gloucester Avenue (dubbed the Hip Strip for all its resort-related activities) put it in close proximity to a variety of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shops. Also, the world-famous Doctor’s Cave Beach is just across the street, open daily to the public. This makes the hotel uniquely attractive to guests travelling to Jamaica for an immersive experience in the island’s activities and culture.
“A lot of our marketing is that you can come and stay at Deja but to really experience Jamaica you have to go out,” Russell explained. “So, there is the security that you can eat at Deja, you can drink at Deja, but it also gives you the option of going out on the street and really experiencing what Jamaica is about.”
This has made the hotel a hot destination for both local and foreign travellers. Most of their foreign guests are from the USA while Jamaican guests include visitors from the Diaspora, local Jamaicans, and corporate guests from various parts of the island.
“We are definitely attractive to that Diaspora coming back home — whether it is for reunions or weddings etc — because we have priced ourselves in that market to be reasonably priced with a good product,” the hotelier revealed. “So, people are getting good value for their money and we are catering to that market. We never wanted to be a high-end, five-star property; we just wanted to be a good three-star property with four-star service and amenities.”
For Jamaican corporate guests the location is also an advantage, being in close proximity to Montego Bay’s commercial and business centres while the hotel itself can host business-related activities.
“We have a small conference room that holds about 50 people and we have a small meeting room that holds about 12 people,” Russell said. “And then we do have other facilities and spaces in the hotel where we do weddings and private dinners, and things of that nature.”
Refurbishing and creating a 92-room property — which includes an outdoor pool; spa and wellness centre; fitness centre; restaurant, bar and lounge; as well as conference and meeting rooms — was part of the challenge facing the professionals coming from a restaurant and nightclub background.
The general manager and his sister Sharri Russell, the hotel’s rooms division manager, were the two siblings leading the project.
“Sharri pays attention to the rates, rooms, bookings, reservations, and now she’s taking up a design aspect of the hotel as well,” Russel revealed. “But she works hard at making sure the hotel is full and that everything is okay when people get here.
“When we first opened, many nights you worked until three, four o’clock and ended up sleeping at the hotel and just working again the next morning,” he recalled.
As newcomers to the all-inclusive hotel business the Russells’ challenges would not just be limited to the intensity of the work and learning much of the business on the fly. Four years after the opening of the resort Jamaica found itself in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which smothered the island’s hospitality industry more than any other economic sector of the country.
“COVID was challenging because nobody knew what to do,” Russell said. “There was no playbook. You just didn’t know what was going to happen next.
“We operated from a place of safety, though, where we did our best to protect ourselves and the staff, and even our guests, but we were able to reopen a little earlier than everybody else because of our corporate responsibility to customers that needed to come down to do things,” he related. “But, it wasn’t easy. As you know, anything below a certain occupancy, you lose. But it was important for us to keep all our staff, I would say if not fully employed [then at least] just to have some kind of income.”
Russell expressed gratitude for government subsidies, which he said went a long way in taking care of staff.
“We slowly got ourselves out of COVID, following the protocols, establishing them early, and keeping people safe,” he said. “We finally saw a break at the end of 2021 but then Omicron hit and we were back into a serious lull until the middle of 2022, and then things picked up. We had a really good close of 2022 and then, so far, 2023 looks very positive.”
It was another challenge to overcome for the fledgling enterprise, and Russell is happy with Deja’s performance to date.
“Apart from the slow [seasonal] periods — which of course you do plan for and you budget for — we have experienced, I would say, on par or slightly above par of what the industry standard across Jamaica is,” he informed. “So I would say we have consistently done well with Deja because of how we have placed our product.”
The placement of this product which encourages guests to go out and experience Jamaica has created a symbiotic relationship between the hotel and its immediate environment, with local businesses benefiting from Deja’s success that is in turn fuelled by these businesses.
As a result, the Russell family is very optimistic about tourism.
“We are feeling more comfortable now after COVID, after a year of positive growth, and any opportunity that we can afford we are going to seriously look at it in terms of other hotels to increase our room count,” the general manager stated.
He said that such expansion does not have to be limited to Montego Bay and added that he thinks the family has “garnered enough experience and enough business that if we were to have another property we would be able to fill the rooms”.
Russell’s growth has not just seen him develop as a hotelier as he has also risen as a key stakeholder in the industry, being elected as president of the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association (JHTA) in 2022.
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