The true meaning of boutique: Robert van Eerde, STEM Hotels

Amy Horsfield By Amy Horsfield
Uploaded 21 February 2019

Former Gansevoort and Balazs Hotels director Robert van Eerde talks to BHN about STEM Hotels,the reimagining of Belize Ocean Club, and the true meaning of boutique.

  • What can you tell us about STEM Hotels?    

We are a niche hotel management company focusing on what we call "true boutique" hotels. We work closely with owners on meeting their investment goals and the hotels we work with are never larger than 100 rooms. We believe the word "boutique" is often used inappropriately and believe in individuality. We are not looking to have a big STEM flag on each property as we firmly believe that "true boutique" also means hotels have their own identity and culture. The company understands that running boutique hotels is not easy and by having multiple properties, it can relieve overhead costs for those hotels it manages. The company has very recently re-focused its vision after spending many years focusing on hotels and resorts in the East as well as Miami. We're now expanding into Central America, the Caribbean and northern regions of South America, as we see great opportunity for growth. STEM has established a solid team to be able to meet this challenge. 

  • It's recently been announced that Belize Ocean Club is being reimagined by STEM - what is your vision for this new move into Placencia with Belize Ocean Club? 

The vision is to bring a much more culturally rich resort experience to the customer in a destination which is starting to blossom by offering all the services you expect to have at a quality resort.  Belizean culture varies widely, allowing us to introduce aspects of the ancient Mayan Traditions to the Caribbean, bring local Garifuna influence and more recent colonial diversity into the resort. Our work has started by upgrading public areas, bringing in local craft and art, introducing new Belizean food concepts in both restaurants by using local cooking techniques and ingredients. We've also upgraded and expanded our own garden for produce.  The rooms will also be upgraded, and we'll be offering additional services such as beach service, enhanced room service, and private dining. The resort has upgraded its event spaces as weddings are very popular. We have the ability to organise sunset weddings overlooking the lagoon and Mayan mountains or on the Caribbean beach.

  • This involves a transition into Central America and the Caribbean from global work in Asia. What inspired you to do this? 

I was inspired because it is clear that many parts of these regions are changing dramatically in various ways. Central America is in a serious expansion phase and the area is relatively raw in terms of tourism and hotel development. Many things are going on and to be here at this early stage when we can see that STEM can play a good part in assisting an area, or develop people and properties on behalf of ownership is hugely rewarding but also fun.  Much quicker than in many parts of China, for example where ownership and hotel management relationships take a long time to be established, the Caribbean differs as a more mature market but it needs to reinvent itself my opinion, especially in the boutique hotel world. STEM focuses not only on service standards, but in bringing that extra angle required in terms of culture and style to reposition or reinvent properties to be financially sound. This is very exciting to STEM as there is so much opportunity!

  • Can you tell us about your new food and beverage concepts for the Belize Ocean Club? 

We have two new restaurant concepts. The first restaurant is "Fyah" meaning fire in local dialect, and the second is The Clubhouse with a sunset terrace. The Fyah concept is about food being cooked and served in a super simple manner. All food is going to be cooked in front of the customer on flames. We have imported a tandoor grill, an Argentinian-style grill, a BBQ, and we built fire pits for cooking in the sand like a clam bake for roasting a whole hog in special occasions.  Our chef has made his own hot sauces and dips in classic Belizean style and no need to be embarrassed when eating this with your hands. All this is happening with the backdrop of a classic casual Caribbean beach bar at times with live entrainment. The Clubhouse is on the lagoon site, and it's the only terrace in Placencia where you could have a drink or a meal watching the sun go down. The restaurant will serve family-style Belizean food where you can try out various Belizean dishes not often found elsewhere. Dishes vary in size and can be shared or not, but we look at this as a somewhat educational experience for guests to understand Belize a bit more. Our own garden is being expanded and we are doing research on native vegetables and herbs.

  • You are also planning to unveil an on-site dive school where guests can experience the world's largest living barrier reef. Alongside being an experence for guests, do you hope this might also raise awareness about the current threats to coral reefs around the world? 

We are in the process of setting up this dive school and we've already set a goal to become a Padi Green star resort and to fully support the Project Aware scheme it has in place. Belize as a whole is very much focused on preserving what it currently has. It is a fine balance of bringing in tourists and not spoiling what is already there. STEM as part of its "true boutique" hotel vision has a policy that guests must be educated, which we know in turn will bring absolute awareness on things that we have a responsibility to protect. We are also in communication with other resorts in Belize such as Long Caye in order to possibly team up with people that have a long-standing reputation of conservation and awareness in order to learn as this is new to us.

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