Mukul Kanabar (l.), his wife Kelly McDermott, and Mark Maggiotto in front of The Phoenix, the Belize resort they worked together to build.
Mukul Kanabar and Mark Maggioto, ’00
Ambergris Caye, Belize
When Mukul Kanabar moved to Ambergris Caye, a tiny island off the coast of Belize in 2003, friends and family were aghast. “They said, what are you doing? You can’t possibly do anything serious there,” Kanabar recalls.
But Kanabar, an economics major, made the move for love. His soon-to-be wife, Kelly McDermott, a native of Ambergris Caye, had returned home to open a restaurant called the Blue Water Grill. As it happened, her father was a pioneer of tourism on the island and the builder of one of its first hotels and he was looking to retire from the real estate development company he’d built.
Kanabar took over the reins, and in 2004 began construction of The Phonenix, a full service resort comprising 30 condominiums, two pools, a restaurant, bar and spa. General manager of the project is Kanabar’s best friend and fellow Haverfordian Mark Maggiotto.
The two had worked together for a time at a Boston consulting company, analyzing emerging business and technology issues. “We’d had a couple of years in business and had a sense of what makes companies successful and what makes companies fail,” says Maggiotto, who was teaching English in Prague when Kanabar extended the job offer.
Kanabar, who, with his wife, now owns a second restaurant as well as the largest distributor of wine and gourmet foods in Belize, describes The Phoenix as one of the first high-end luxury developments on the island. “All of the condominiums are individually owned, but when the owners aren’t using them, they can put them into a rental pool, which we manage,” he says. “That allows us to run the place like a resort.”
At press time, Maggiotto expected the resort, which was in the final stages of completion, to be fully operational by December. “It’s been complicated,” he says. “We’ve had to set up software for a booking system that allows owners to mark off the days they want to come. In theory, we do everything. We advertise, clean the rooms, pay the bills and share in the rental revenue.”
Besides luring his old roommate to the island, Kanabar says The Phoenix, whose distinctive design utilizes local materials, has other ties to his days at Haverford. “Three Haverford alumni have purchased condos at the Phoenix and another two families with Haverford connections are investors in the project itself,” he says.
Kanabar says he’s grown to love the hospitality business. “Because this is such a tourist town, you get to meet lots of interesting people doing neat things,” he says. “But work is work no matter where you are, and you still can get stressed out. The difference is, this place is so beautiful and the climate is so terrific. When you’ve had a bad day you can go home, sit on your veranda and look at the ocean.”
“I never could have imagined this when I was at Haverford,” says Maggiotto. “I used to get a lot of jokes about being an English major and all the great job options that was going to give me. But I feel really fortunate. I live on a Caribbean island, I never have to wear a tie to work, I work with my best friends and it’s never been boring for one day in the last four years.”
More information: www.thephoenixbelize.com
Boyd “Skip” Ralph ‘58
The 1708 House
Southampton, New York
Skip Ralph, who runs the 1708 House, a bed and breakfast in the beachfront town of Southampton, on Long Island, got into the hotel business via a career in real estate. For Ralph, the stage was set back in 1960, when he talked his parents into buying an old Pittsburgh mansion built by one of Andrew Carnegie’s partners. “We saved it from the wrecking ball,” says Ralph, whose mother ran a dance school as well as a theatrical and dance supply business out of the vast home. She used the upstairs hallway, which was as big as a ballroom, to stage recitals.
Fast forward 30 years. Ralph, by then well established as a real estate consultant, was charged with selling that huge old house. When this proved no easy task, he and his brother decided to fix the place up and run it as a bed and breakfast. It was purely a marketing device, but Ralph found he enjoyed the venture. “It was fun,” he says. “We got into buying furniture for the place and we found all this stuff at auction. We ran it for a little over a year and it was getting very, very popular when we found a young guy to buy it.”
Ralph knew, then, what he wanted to do next. In 1993, he and his wife Lorraine, an antiques dealer, found the home in the center of Southampton that would become the 1708 House. After a three-year renovation, the bed and breakfast opened with 12 rooms and three two-bedroom cottages, all decorated with fine antiques, “It was quite a struggle,” he says of the renovation process, which required balancing his keen desire to preserve some of the home’s 18th and 19th century structural elements with the demands of contemporary building codes. Also transformed in the renovation was the cellar (now a cozy sitting room), whose massive oak beams, stone walls and brick fireplace date to 1648.
These days, Ralph and his wife live on the premises and run the place with the help of a full-time manager, a housekeeping staff, plus some extra hired hands in the busy summers. “We put up a full breakfast buffet,” says Ralph. “We can set up the dining room for 22 people and we also seat on the patio in the summer. Sometimes, when everyone comes at once, you really have to hustle.”
What’s his formula for B&B success? A stellar location, a building with some history, and “proximity to a selection of good restaurants,” says Ralph. Also key is size. “People get burned out when they have only five or six rooms because that won’t generate enough income to hire help.”
Says Ralph, “People always ask me what it’s like to run a bed and breakfast and I tell them, “it’s not a job, it’s not a business, it’s a way of life. And it’s a very pleasant one. The reason is, you are meeting people under the best possible circumstances. They don’t have anything on their plate. They want to relax, shop a bit, go to the beach. They have set out to have a good time. They’re intent on having a good time and, unless you do something stupid, they will.”
For more information: www.1708house.com
Hunter Lowder ’02
Carmel Valley, California
After graduating from Haverford, Hunter Lowder, who majored in sociology and minored in Spanish, went on to study French at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She thought she’d become an interpreter, but soon changed her mind. “I had always loved food and wine and I had this itch to open my own restaurant,” says Lowder, now sales manager for weddings and events at picturesque Holman Ranch in Carmel Valley, California.
So, she trooped back across the country to Philadelphia and enrolled in the Restaurant School. “My family has always been epicurean,” says Lowder. “We would go on a lot of these Butterfield and Robinson guided tours, where we’d go to these small towns in England or Spain or Italy, eat these extravagant meals and then walk or bike the next day. So it was a great combination of health and gluttony. Also, my dad always had a huge wine collection and he loves to cook.”
The Restaurant School, where she learned both cooking and restaurant management skills, was like real world boot camp after the “cerebral intellectual” world of Haverford, says Lowder. After finishing the program in 2004, Lowder got married, and she and her new husband, Nick Elliott, moved to Carmel where she found a job as a restaurant manager.
“It was like being dropped in the deep end of the pool and trying to learn how to swim,” says Lowder about that restaurant, a Carmel landmark that could serve upwards of 400 dinners on a busy night. “That experience really taught me a lot about hospitality service. The owners were really old school. For them, the customer was always right. If they say the steak is overcooked, you don’t argue with them, you get them another one. That’s very rare nowadays. Everything’s very bottom line, but what [many restaurant owners today] don’t realize is that turning away an unsatisfied customer costs a lot more than cooking them a new steak.”
Meanwhile, her mother and father, who’d retired from the commercial real estate business, were living in a small home they’d bought in the Carmel Valley and were looking for a bigger place. One day Lowder attended a wedding at Holman Ranch, a historic 392-acre estate-turned-event facility. She was charmed by the setting and when she learned the ranch was up for sale, she saw a unique business opportunity.
“I told my parents about it and they laughed at me for five minutes,” she says. “They were looking for five or 10 acres. But then they saw it and they just fell in love with the views.
“Also, my father and his brothers had worked in a family business. My grandfather started a commercial real estate company and gave them the opportunity to build it. My father saw this as the same kind of chance for me.”
Now, after two years of renovations, Holman Ranch features a newly restored main house and carriage house, where meetings and conferences can be accommodated, as well as lush lawns, gardens, terraces and courtyards where outdoor dining and dancing can be set up. A stable offers riding lessons, trail-rides and boarding, and a small vineyard has begun to produce wine. A hacienda on the property is being restored and will soon provide eight guest rooms.
While her husband acts as event manager, Lowder’s niche is in sales. “I learned that I really loved the salesmanship side of hospitality,” says Lowder, who has found her Haverford education a real boon to selling potential clients on booking their event at the ranch. “We are selling an experience,” she says. “And I think my study of sociology has helped me tremendously with that. It has helped me to understand people, what makes them tick, and what might make them want to buy my product instead of someone else’s.”
For more information: www.holmanranch.com
Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, ’99
Christchurch, New Zealand
In 2005, Hall Cannon and Miles Refo decided it was time for a change. The couple, together since their days at Haverford, had been living in New York City. Cannon was a developer who specialized in converting commercial properties into residential lofts. Refo was the marketing manager for Nature Magazine. But they wanted something different.“We wanted to go someplace that was less frenetic,” says Cannon. “We wanted a smaller community where we’d be less anonymous.”
They gave themselves a year to travel and decide their next step. They looked at vineyards and farms, and spent time on the West Coast and in British Columbia. But on a three-month driving tour of New Zealand they spotted Otahuna Lodge. Built in 1895 by a prominent New Zealand politician, it had been the largest private historic residence in the country and was a lavish example of Queen Anne architecture, with 15 fireplaces and a hand-carved staircase.
Cannon and Refo bought the lodge in 2006 and spent four months working there and learning the ropes before embarking on a major renovation. Otahuna re-opened in 2007 and its spectacular redesign, which employed local materials, craftsmen and manufacturers as much as possible, was featured in the pages of Architectural Digest. Their goal, says Cannon: “To run the finest lodge destination in New Zealand.”
Otahuna has seven lavish suites (including one that features a 30-foot long veranda), a library and a ballroom for private events. The public rooms are a showcase for New Zealand art, with 28 works specially commissioned for the lodge. The 30-acre grounds, which Cannon and Refo employed six gardeners to restore, feature orchards and vegetable gardens, along with lush flower gardens. Among them: the Dutch Garden, which blooms with millions of daffodils in September.
“The model for what we do here doesn’t exist in the United States,” says Cannon. “With seven rooms, we would be more of a B & B there. But we are not. We are a completely hosted experience. Our guests have breakfast and dinner here and they can have lunch as well.
“People who travel at our level are looking to have experiences they can’t have anywhere else. We can charter a helicopter for guests to go heli-skiing. We can arrange a tour of extinct volcanoes that are about 40 minutes away. We’re located in Canterbury, a province that is known as New Zealand’s top food and wine destination, so we also organize culinary tours-- to vineyards, walnut orchards and honey farms.”
Cannon and Refo employ a staff of 16 at the lodge, including a chef who each night creates meals whose five-courses are each paired with New Zealand wines. “They are doing the real hospitality work,” says Cannon, who shares the crucial job of marketing the lodge with Refo.
Asked if there was anything from his Haverford experience that has helped him in running Otahuna, Cannon says, “I think it’s the management of people. One thing Haverford stresses is the value of equity and fairness and doing what’s right. That becomes very important and interesting as you try to apply those values in a small work environment. You have staff coming to you with problems. How do you manage those fairly? And how do you make sure they are doing the job you want them to do?
“I don’t know many businesses that run on consensus, but we are one hotel where everyone on the staff sits down and has a meal every day. We try to ensure we have a friendly and equitable environment. A happy staff makes happy guests.”
More information: www.otahuna.co.nz
This article first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Haverford: The Alumni Magazine of Haverford College.