By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
CHOW Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE) Bahamas President Graeme Davis has hit back at critics of the company's decision to conduct a 'soft opening' of Baha Mar before accepting guest reservations, saying "they're not in the lodging business - we are."
However, Mr Davis did not give a definitive answer on when guest reservations will be accepted, instead insisting that CTFE is proceeding "thoughtfully" so that "we don't end up as was in the past, where we're disappointing and ruining people's vacations and costing millions in lost business, in lost dreams and vacations".
Seeking to allay public concern that the April 21 soft opening may be a "sham" because of a lack of guest reservations, Mr Davis insisted that CTFE is "a lodging company that has experience" that will "open in the right fashion" to ensure that "every guest walks away with an exceptional experience and tells that in order to regain the trust that was lost in the past".
Mr Davis commented on Friday during a public Gaming Board hearing at the British Colonial Hilton on Sky Warrior's casino licence application for Baha Mar.
Earlier this month, Baha Mar was officially "transferred" to Hong Kong-based CTFE, despite the absence of a casino operator licence and no definite answers on when guest reservations will be accepted.
At the time, Mr Davis said guest reservations would commence "very, very soon" with the launch of Baha Mar's advertising campaign.
He went on to suggest that non-paying guests would "fill" the resort on its first day of operation, explaining that guests were "invited" for Baha Mar's celebration and ribbon cutting to commemorate its opening.
However, the "transfer" has prompted criticism, particularly from Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr Hubert Minnis, who previously questioned the Christie administration's "election year optimism" over Baha Mar's expected soft opening while the resort "has yet to engage in any significant marketing to draw people to the new resort".
Dr Minnis also questioned why, with less than a month until the soft opening, the new resort's new owners have failed to acquire a casino licence.
"There's been speculation and talk in the papers - I don't try to play politics, I can tell you that," Mr Davis said on Friday. "But I can tell you that I'm a lodging executive for 30 years. And I do know how to open a hotel. And when some people say that there are no reservations and how can we be opening, they're not in the lodging business - we are.
"And when it comes to the past experiences of opening and not opening and missing your opening dates, anyone that's been in the lodging business knows you don't open until the experience, your details are exceptional in every way. And if that means you open with 10 rooms, you open with 10 rooms.
"That is the way we do it in the lodging business, not when you're in a business to need it open for financial reasons immediately. We are sustainable, we have great depths and resources to open this project in a thoughtful way, in a way that we as lodging executives do.
"And it's going to ensure that we have a preview period, that we thoughtfully open, so we don't end up as was in the past, where we're disappointing and ruining people's vacations and costing millions in lost business, in lost dreams and vacations."
He added: "We only have one more chance to get it right, and we're not going to take risks. We're going to open in a thoughtful way and I can assure you that it is real, and that we will be opening and our guests will be enjoying it. And we will start with invited guests which we're full already, and we will continue as the days progress, to open up those reservations beyond."
Mr Davis' contributions during the public hearing, as well as during his subsequent interview with reporters, were devoid of details. However, he stated that guest reservations would take place in the coming days.
"Like I said, we only have one chance to get it right, and that's to ensure that we open thoughtfully, that we open in a phased manner, that we can ensure the experience is exceptional on day one," he said. "That means to ensure that our associates are trained, that we have everything working, and we're confident that we will be.
"But we want to make sure that when those first guests arrive, which we have a tremendous amount of invited guests already, that we're full in the first days, we'll open that reservation system. Rest assured, we'll open those reservations.
"This is not a sham. This is not anything other than a lodging company that has experience, that will open on our terms, that will open in the right fashion, that will ensure that every guest walks away with an exceptional experience and tells that in order to regain the trust that was lost in the past.
"So rest assured if you're concerned about advertising or you're concerned about not seeing reservations online, we know what we're doing. We're experienced lodging executives, we have a company with a great depth of resources to ensure that we open thoughtfully and there will be guests coming in here in the very near future."
When asked if CTFE feels confident it will receive a casino operator licence from the Gaming Board, Mr Davis said: "We've done a tremendous amount of work, we have hired a world class executive team, we have provided and will provide any documentation or any request from the Gaming Board to ensure that the Gaming Board is comfortable with us being the operator of the Baha Mar casino.
"But we're very confident that we've addressed any concerns, all issues, and we're excited to get opened in 21 days."
Prime Minister Perry Christie announced Baha Mar's sale to CTFE last December. Its April 21 opening has been branded "an election gimmick" by opposition members after it was confirmed that the acquisition by CTFE will not close until all construction work is completed.
Last month, Robert Sands, Baha Mar's senior vice-president of government and external affairs, told Tribune Business that CTFE had agreed "to take possession and operate portions of the resort" until its deal with the China Export-Import Bank could close.
Mr Sands' comments came after Mr Davis triggered a renewed onslaught from Opposition politicians by confirming that Baha Mar will open without its sale being completed.