Over the past several years Tulum, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, has gone from bohemian backwater to bucket-list destination for the wealthy and stylish. Some would say it’s now literally so hip it hurts, leading New York magazine to ask in 2019, “Who Killed Tulum?” Brendon Leach, CEO of Colibri Boutique Hotels, Tulum’s most admired collection of boutique luxury properties and a part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) network, has seen it all unfold. Mr. Leach, who hails from Hamilton, New Zealand, first visited Tulum in 1996 while backpacking around Central America, and “instantly knew there was something magical about the place.” So when he got a call in 2003 asking if he’d be interested in getting involved in a new beachfront hospitality project there, he immediately said yes. Mr. Leach subsequently helped create what is now Mezzanine, one of the jewels in Colibri’s crown and a trendsetting Tulum landmark against which all others are measured.
The nine-room (originally four), adults-only hotel focuses on style and DJ-curated lounge music, and features a plunge pool and an adjacent beach, of which it enjoys unparalleled views. Mezzanine's restaurant meanwhile one of the most popular in town, specializes in authentic Thai cuisine. In 2006 Colibri opened its second hotel in Tulum; La Zebra, completely dedicated to Mexican culture, from its design and decor to cuisine; followed by El Pez in 2008, tucked away on secluded Turtle bay, the perfect place to reconnect with nature. Mr. Leach managed Mezzanine for five years before returning to his homeland, only to be lured back once again in 2012 to be the CEO of Colibri Boutique Hotels.
In 2014, he oversaw the opening of Mi Amor, a contemporary, incredibly romantic 17-room hotel perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the coast, rounding out Colibri’s Tulum portfolio. The adults-only property offers a mix of oceanfront and garden/pool-facing rooms, a spa, swimming pool, and nearby beach, as well as a restaurant from Guadalajara, Mexico’s award-winning chef Paul Bentley. In 2017, Colibri announced its new association with SLH, a collection of more than 500 small, independently-owned, exclusive hotels in more than 90 countries, known for their elegant accommodations, award-winning spas, and acclaimed dining venues, each one utterly unique. We spoke to Mr. Leach over a delicious lunch at Mezzanine about Tulum, past present and future:
How has luxury travel changed in recent years? And how has Tulum evolved alongside it?
Luxury travel has been evolving and changing, and even pre-COVID-19 I think people were already looking for more authenticity and less flash in their experiences. Definitely more authenticity, and that's something that we at Colibri Boutique Hotels have really been about right from the beginning, that true connection with the guest. I think it's something that we have in our DNA. It starts with kindness, and then once you have that team of staff that truly are just genuinely kind, and with a passion for really wanting that guest to feel warmth, as if they were in your home, those authentic and genuine experiences for the guests just happen naturally.
We've seen Tulum grow and evolve and we've seen many new places pop up and become the hotspot, the place to be seen, or to take your Instagram photos. That's all part of the evolution, which is great, it keeps things interesting, and pushes us all. However, our team has heard me stress over and over, just good old-fashioned service delivery that's done in a genuine and caring way, will never go out of fashion because I believe that's what people really want. And it's unfortunate, I think that sometimes in some places, they can be so brilliant with what they've done from a design or a conceptual perspective, but if they miss a little bit on the genuine hospitality delivery, it can disappoint, leaving a kind of hollow feeling to the experience. And at the end of the day, we're all about hospitality, aren’t we? We're about providing a place for people to come and disconnect from their stressful worlds and enter a world of magic, to be safe, to be cared for, and to be pampered. That's our philosophy anyway.
What else has changed about Tulum in recent years? Is it getting better or worse?
I think a lot of people that have been here for a long time, and a lot of business owners that have been here a long time, all contributed in creating the famous Tulum barefoot-luxury brand, with the rustic jungle-meets-beach vibe, which really moved completely away from what was the traditional sense of luxury hotel travel. I think a lot of those people are feeling very sad about what's happening in Tulum at the moment, with new places opening that are bringing a different scene, which is less about the serenity and nature and more about a bigger party vibe. There have been multiple articles written about what or who is killing Tulum. In reality, it was always going to evolve and change, and it might be killing it for some people, and they'll go somewhere else, and other people will come because that's what they are looking for.
As with any destination, there’s a constant evolution. We opened our first property here in 2004, so I've seen a huge amount of change in Tulum over the years, and it's going through a really interesting time at the moment. And some people are upset about it and others are loving it. Without a strong vision and a government that enforces that vision, it's hard to stop the evolution of a destination, I think a lot of people like to take a snapshot in time and say, “This is what I want it to be forever,” you know? I do hope that something is done really fast to help protect the damage being done to the fragile ecosystem here though. That must take priority before further growth makes it too late. The underground aquifer that is one of the most special and unique features of this region is becoming more and more polluted every day. It's really sad.
I get the feeling that you’ve seen this movie before.
When I was backpacking in the mid-to-late 1990s, I worked in Ibiza for a few years, and I remember every year people would come and say, "Ibiza's dead." Every year more people would come and say, "It's not like it used to be." And I think that's sort of what happens in any destination. So for me, it's been fascinating to see the evolution of Tulum and what's happening, and, there are new businesses coming in with a whole different approach now. Many new restaurants and beach clubs, and they have found a niche that was not here before, for a profile of guest that was not here before. Tulum is booming!
How did you get started in hospitality and how has that informed the way you operate now?
I always just tie it back to the training I had at home with my parents, my mother especially was the “hostess with the mostest,” and we were always hosting friends and family. I just grew up in that environment. I mean, there was hardly ever a weekend that would go by that we didn't have someone in the house who was visiting and staying. And my parents were the masters at the small details that make the difference. The standards were always high. Even my father, who used to drive a lot for his work, used to bring home hitchhikers that he would pick up along the way, and they'd sometimes stay for a week because they just felt so good, and we wouldn't mind, my parents would take them around all the tourist sites and just really look after them.
It was that genuine care, nothing expected back for kindness, that just comes from the heart. And I think that's the core of what drives me. My mother would be horrified if someone came into the house and the silverware was not polished, or the house wasn't clean. And so it was quite a stressful environment before the guests arrived, which is what hospitality is, right? Getting all the groundwork done offstage so that the show is as close to perfection as you can try and make it. So I think the core of what we are at Colibri is just old-fashioned, homespun hospitality, [and] I think our guests see it and appreciate it.
Tell us about Colibri’s collaboration with famed chef Rene Redzepi and Noma.
We had been hosting Rene, Nadine and their beautiful family in our hotels for a number of years. They used to love coming to Tulum, and they always loved staying with us. They liked the secluded quietness of the rooms at El Pez, just spilling out onto the beach, and the privacy that the hotel provides. We became friends. And I know Rene fell in love with Mexican cuisine, especially from this region, and decided that he wanted to do his third pop-up in Mexico. And so we structured it to make a way for that to happen for them on the jungle side of La Zebra. And that was quite a hit for Tulum and even all of Mexico. It was an amazing experience to be close to such a top-class act that the Noma team are. It really was. The energy and the passion and the breaking down of barriers, the creativity, and all the rest of the Noma package. Just pure perfection in motion. Amazing. For sure it's right at the top for memorable dining experiences for me. But what was super amazing was that around 100 members of our Colibri staff were invited to the early rehearsal dinners. An experience of a lifetime for many of them. I was very thankful to Noma for creating this opportunity for them.
How has your association with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) worked out?
We are very happy and thankful for this partnership. SLH has a wonderful brand and really gives any hotel associated with them a stamp of quality. Their quality control program is rigorous and keeps us very focused on our service delivery standards. I really like their philosophy of honoring small independent hotels. Being "independently-minded" is a great catchphrase. I like how they were really open to including hotels like ours, which maybe don't fit into the more traditional sense of luxury travel, which could be measured by the marble-clad lobbies and expensive chandeliers. It was bold of them to recognize that for many “modern-day luxury travelers" these aspects became less important, and things like connection to nature, and cultures and people and creative expression, in more relaxed, barefoot-style environments became more important. They saw how luxury travel was evolving and they jumped on board. A great example of staying current with your brand. And our hotels have performed well within their framework.
What do you think will happen in the small boutique luxury segment going forward?
I think it's only going to get stronger and stronger. I think people are desperate to travel after everything they've been through with COVID-19. From a health and safety perspective, small boutique hotels and especially those in warm tropical climates like ours provide a really nice environment for guests to feel safer. It's a real advantage. We don't have confined public spaces, or elevators, or large buffet halls. Our properties have open outdoor spaces with nice breezes, and fewer guests around. Small boutique hotels also provide the environment for a lot of staff-to-guest contact, which leads to more personalized service. Our guests really enjoy this. I think they're more hungry than ever for meaning and connection with their travel, and I think the boutique hotel landscape provides that. So the future looks really bright for us in the small boutique hotel segment.