One of the most well-preserved Spanish Colonial cities in the Americas is Merida, located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula three hours west of Cancun. Founded in 1542, the fortified central district is only surpassed in size by the historic zones in Mexico City and Havana.
By the turn of the 20th century, the area was briefly home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the world, based on the booming hemp and livestock industry. Many of the well-to-do ranchers lived in outlying estancias—sprawling grand estates anchored by elegant haciendas—five of which are now part of the Starwood Luxury Collection.
The reason to bring your group here is to experience an authentic slice of rural Mexico with unmatched hospitality, exquisite food and refined accommodations. Furthermore, the area DMCs and staff at the historic haciendas can create some powerful cultural exchange opportunities through group experiences that give back to the local Mayan community. These events are especially popular with small medical, pharma, tech, media and fashion groups flying in direct from Houston and Miami, explains Cristina Arróyave, Director of Sales/Marketing for The Haciendas/Starwood Luxury Collection.
“We try to create an experience that you can’t have anywhere else in Mexico,” she says. “One of the ways we do that is we work with Mayan people who have never worked in big hotels, who are from the community. It’s like, when you come here and visit us, you live the experience of Mexico.”
Groups can go into the local Mayan communities to tour the health and education facilities, followed by lunch and/or cooking classes with the elders, although the children always seem to wrangle their way into these events too. Arróyave says attendees like to prepare cochinita pibil, a slow roasted pork dish marinated in citrus and wrapped in banana leaves.
Oftentimes, and this is so easy for planners to arrange, groups will donate Spanish-speaking books, help out in the gardens and shop at the studios of local artisans.
“They are very proud of their traditions and they want to share them,” says Arróyave. “People here used to be in bad shape. They remember what it was like when no one could find jobs so they really value everything we are doing.”
In 2007, Harvard University produced a seminal white paper called The Role of the Tourism Sector in Expanding Economic Opportunity. One of the nine global case studies in the report discusses the responsible development of this region by Starwood Hotels and their Mexican hotel partner, Grupo Plan, which owns 15 haciendas in the region including the five Luxury Collection properties.
Starwood offers staff training in English comprehension, computer skills and hospitality, and it provides health benefits for all staff and their families. Top employees can advance to other Starwood resorts in Mexico. And over 90% of fruits and veggies and 100% of poultry and pork are sourced from local farms.
The Harvard paper states: Starwood’s Haciendas project is a viable business model that supports at-risk cultural heritage…. These authentic heritage experiences are enabling Starwood to deliver a differentiated product.
“The haciendas are inspiring,” says Arróyave, “for those people who want to be in an environment where you feel more creative, you know, more aware of new ideas.”