Contactless Interactions: Social distancing and the need for contactless check in, check out, and communication may wane as the pandemic clears. However, I think the need for those options and guests’ expectations of them will remain. It will be a challenge to find ways to provide high-quality personalized services in a contactless environment, maintaining a personal connection and while staying physically distant.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Montgomery.
Brian Montgomery and his wife, Brenda, began their venture as the proprietors of Sirenian Bay Resort & Villas, located in Placencia, Belize, as a retirement project. What started as a dream to build a vacation home for his family and friends to enjoy quickly bloomed into a much larger vision. Today, Sirenian Bay is a boutique, luxury all-inclusive resort featuring villas and bungalows that offers hospitality not just to their friends and family, but to guests from all over the globe.
Brian attributes the success of the Resort to his commitment to his employees and the culture of the Resort. Working from the belief that happy employees make happy guests, Montgomery has focused on recruiting and training the right people. Time and again, guests comment on the smiles and attitudes of the Resort’s employees — something Brian is very proud of.
Brian obtained an Associate’s Degree in Electronics from Pearl River Community College in 1985. After working in healthcare technology management for several years, Montgomery started his own medical equipment repair company. He and Brenda built that company from the ground up, to be a leader in the industry — all based on their commitment to employees and customers. Brian found his passion for hospitality later in life, an offshoot of his passion for leadership and service. He hopes to eventually relinquish his responsibilities at Sirenian Bay Resort and Villas to his children for a second try at retirement. He was honored by his alma mater with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I spent more than 28 years in the medical equipment service field. In 2003, I was just getting my own business in that field off the ground when I was diagnosed with late Stage 4 of a rare form of a blood cancer, like leukemia. The doctors gave me about six months to live.
During that long battle with cancer, Brenda and I made plans for when I recovered (never *if* I recovered), including a lot of travel and a beach home to share with family and friends. Our plans became real after a successful bone marrow transplant put my cancer in remission. As I approached 50, Brenda and I decided the time was right to sell our company with plans to retire to Belize. We built that vacation home we had dreamed about on the Placencia Peninsula in southern Belize, right on the Caribbean Sea — with spectacular views and plenty of room to share.
Once our home was finished — now called Manatee Villa and the crown jewel of Sirenian Bay Resort & Villas — we decided to dip our foot in the waters of vacation rentals. We listed the house on a few sites and started learning about the industry. As it turns out, while there are vast differences in medical equipment service and the hospitality industry, there is one key common denominator: they’re both service and people businesses, two of my passions.
Soon after opening Manatee, we acquired an existing home on an adjacent lot. We did a complete renovation, added a pool and brought it up to Sirenian Bay standards, and opened it as a rental the next year.
Over the following 24 months, we acquired the rest of the vacant land surrounding our villas along with adjacent property on the lagoon side of the peninsula. The vision of Sirenian Bay Resort began to take hold as we realized we weren’t really ready for retirement and our second careers began.
Now, three years in, we’ve just opened 12 new bungalows and introduced our all-inclusive concept. The resort is ready to welcome guests back when they’re ready to travel, whether it’s individuals ready for adventure, couples seeking a romantic getaway, multi-generational families ready to celebrate missed milestones, destination weddings, or larger groups.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
On our first trip to Belize with our two boys, we rented a golf cart from Captain Jak’s (a long-time staple in the Village of Placencia).
When we walked into the office to pick it up, the manager said, “Welcome Marauders.” That happened to be the mascot of the high school our sons attended. We quickly learned that he was from the same Texas town as us and his kids had attended the same school. We became quick friends with him and his wife.
Soon after, he was diagnosed with cancer and we became even closer by having that awful experience in common. Long story short, when it was time for them to sell Captain Jak’s we eagerly took up their legacy.
Captain Jak’s was a perfect addition to our resort family, allowing us to offer a fuller experience to our guests by adding tours, golf carts, and Village-based accommodations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Since the hospitality industry was new to us, we made many mistakes. We learned from each one of them. But one of the funniest was about adjusting to a new culture.
We were used to working in the fast-paced medical field, so our expectations were high when it came to timelines. But Belize is a laid-back culture — much like being on “island time.”
On one of our first trips we met with a builder. When I asked to set an appointment time to discuss our plans, what he said still sticks with me today: “Let’s set an appointment at 10:00. You can show up around 10:30 and I’ll see you at 11:00”. We laughed, but he wasn’t kidding. It is so indicative of the laidback nature of Belize. After being there several years now, we totally understand why he told us that, and it still remains true.
These days, we may show up a little late and everyone looks at us and says, “Now you’re true Belizeans!”
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
My best tip is slow down and enjoy the experience. Not many people get to wake up every morning and enjoy their coffee as the sun rises over the ocean. Enjoy it! And maybe that’s not your view. But wherever you are in the hospitality industry, there’s a reason hospitality exists there. Look for it. Then take a moment to sit back and enjoy what your location has to offer.
We split our time between the U.S. and Belize. When we’re in Belize, we make an effort to get out and explore the country, spending a couple of days at other resorts or going on tours to relax and enjoy our surroundings. Not only does it help us recharge, it also helps us make better recommendations and answer questions for our guests.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had people who encouraged and pushed me along the way; people who believed more in me than I believed in myself.
Outside of family, there are two people I credit with shaping my success. The first is a former boss of 15 years who I looked up to. I watched and learned from what he did and how people reacted to him, noting what worked and what didn’t. I used those lessons when I started my own company.
The second person was my wife’s boss from her career in car dealership business. After I Ieft my job of 15 years, I relied on him as a sounding board for what I should do next. He encouraged me to start my own company and convinced me I could do it. He helped me with the business side of things — the things that I was unfamiliar with. He told me I had the people skills and experience needed to succeed and encouraged me to let that be my driving force, not to get hung up on the business side because he had people who could help me with that.
He was right… I would never had started a company if not for his advice. I could never have envisioned building a company with more than 250 employees, selling it 12 years later, and then building a 5-star resort in such a beautiful location as Belize.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
I have always been a techie and this drove my business to be technology focused. When we started designing and envisioning the resort, we wanted it to be a place where guests felt at home, but in the Caribbean with all the amenities of a luxury resort. That meant having high speed internet, smart TVs in the bedrooms and living areas, extras like an Amazon Alexa in each unit, and digital communication options to go along with the comfortable furnishings and decorations in spacious living areas and bedrooms. While these uses of technology are commonplace in some areas, much of the hospitality industry in Belize has been slower to adopt new systems and technology.
Also unique to Belize is the umbrella of services we are able to offer. Through our group of companies, we can offer a completely customizable and individual guest experience. With accommodations at Sirenian Bay or Captain Jak’s, we can meet any budget and preference. Guests staying at either place enjoy the benefits of both: large open beach, pool and pool bar, and The Siren’s Spa at Sirenian Bay plus easy access to tours and golf cart rentals through Captain Jak’s. With Inky’s located right across the street from the resort, all guests have easy access to our family-friendly miniature golf and restaurant. Future expansion such as a fitness center and yoga studio, sunset martini bar and specialty restaurant, and our private island will ensure we can offer almost anything on a traveler’s Belize bucket list. These options allow us to organize the entire guest experience and, most importantly, ensure our guests consistently receive the level of service we expect.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Technology is an almost unavoidable part of daily life now. Even though most people like to disconnect to some degree while on vacation, we’ve found that doesn’t include giving up the conveniences of technology. Not only do we give people the opportunity to stay in touch, we’ve made it easy for families of online learners to incorporate travel and school. It really combines the convenience of home with the luxury of vacation.
With the phased reopening of Belize during COVID, travelers must work with Gold Standard approved resorts and tour operators. By managing our own tour company in Placencia, Captain Jak’s, and having our restaurant, Inky’s, it allows guests to experience consistent gold standard policies and procedures throughout every step of their trip and makes it easier than ever to plan a safe and enjoyable trip.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Traditionally, most accommodations in Belize are basic accommodations without the amenities and features you expect in a luxury resort. I wanted to offer true luxury, with every amenity of home (and more). This came at a cost — financial and breaking through resistance barriers — but we still had to be competitive with the surrounding resorts and hotels. Now we are seeing more and more accommodations start to offer the same types of technology we implemented from the beginning.
COVID has disrupted every status quo. The new requirements in Belize to work with Gold Standard properties has required the hospitality industry to be creative in offering services. At Sirenian Bay, guests can feel more comfortable knowing that the resort has their best interests in mind. As many people have struggled through the pandemic, we all could use a vacation. Having multiple options allows us to offer various price points and experiences to accommodate everyone. Post-COVID, we expect to see many accommodations and tour providers return to independent operations. Because of the structure of our companies, we will continue to provide a seamless guest experience even when things return to normal.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
- Contactless Interactions: Social distancing and the need for contactless check in, check out, and communication may wane as the pandemic clears. However, I think the need for those options and guests’ expectations of them will remain. It will be a challenge to find ways to provide high-quality personalized services in a contactless environment, maintaining a personal connection and while staying physically distant.
- Property Size: Large, crowded destinations will struggle for a while. Guests are looking for smaller, boutique type experiences where they can easily distance and yet not feel isolated. Larger properties will need to find innovative ways to offer social distancing and reduce their crowds.
- Family Travel: I believe travel will become even more family-oriented and guests will be looking for options where they can spend more time in activities together.
- Private accommodations amenities: Travelers will come to expect more amenities they can enjoy privately in their accommodations. From room service (without the increased cost and service charges often tacked on) to reserved beach chairs, guests will continue to expect more personalized and private ways to enjoy their vacations.
- Value of Vacation: The financial impact of COVID will be a lasting and interesting impact on travel. We know there are some travelers who will have bigger travel budgets post-COVID. But many families have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and will be looking for increased value for their vacation dollar. The hospitality industry will need to respond creatively to meet those demands without negatively impacting their own bottom line or ability to provide excellent service.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
When Brenda and I retired from our first career, we loved the beach vacations. This was the main reason we ended up in Belize. Although our recent trip to South Africa with our boys was the best vacation we ever experienced, we still favor a beach vacation.
Waking up in the morning with a hot cup of coffee with Baileys while watching the sunrise starts our perfect vacation day. A breakfast on the beach followed by nothing more than soaking up the sun and relaxing in the pool. The day is topped off by a romantic dinner on the beach then then sleep and repeat.
But it’s really the little things make our vacations special. We are down to earth people, but on vacation we liked to be spoiled and pampered. Things like addressing us by name, “Welcome Home. Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery” mean a lot. A cold towel and refreshing drink upon arrival, having a private butler available to address our needs (preferably before we even know what we need), the little notes on our bed from housekeeping, the welcome note personally written from the staff, fresh flowers on our first day, having a member from management ask how our stay is going, turndown service with a fresh treat on our pillow at bedtime, the bartender knowing our favorite drink and having it ready for us, and a “We can’t wait to see you again next year when you return”. These are the things that make a vacation memorable for us.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Brenda and I are ordinary people. We’ve taken some extraordinary risks and overcome some extraordinary obstacles. But at the end of the day, we’re ordinary people. What I like most about our success is that we’ve been able to show young people that anyone can be successful. Success doesn’t require years of college, wealthy parents, being born in a particular place. I struggled through school with dyslexia and finished my education with a two-year degree. But persistence, hard work, and doing the right thing along the way has led to success. Now, I can use my experience and my story to teach the younger generation that they too can accomplish anything they desire if they work hard and treat people with respect.
After selling our first company we were able to help our families and other people less fortunate than we have been. One of the things I’m most proud of is being able to provide college funds for all our nieces and nephews; not only could we help with their education but it’s allowed us to have deeper conversations about success and personal growth.
Another thing I’m proud of is the way we responded to the COVID pandemic. When Belize closed its borders to international guests, tourism came to a halt. Our staff pulled together and collectively agreed to take temporary pay cuts, cut back hours, and make significant changes which allowed us to keep the majority of our staff employed at some level. Several staff moved on property since the resort was closed to guests, sacrificing time with family and friends to keep everyone healthy. Although we eventually were forced to downsize our workforce, the sacrifices of our team at every level made me proud. We’re gearing up to reopen in November 2020 stronger than ever.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Young leadership is my passion. Every opportunity I get, I try to implement a youth training program. At the resort, we have a Young Leaders Academy where individually selected employees have the opportunity for small group training on leadership skills, servant leadership, working with other generations, respecting team members and guests and what that means, treating everyone as an equal, looking at things from another’s point of view, and how to be a leader at all levels of their career. Our youth truly are our future. I hope that I can give them insight that it’s taken me years to learn now, so they have years to perfect it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook and Instagram: @sirenianbayresortandvillas
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!