How Two Female Entrepreneurs Are Planning to Revamp Haiti’s Hospitality Industry
Haiti’s hospitality and tourism industry will be flourishing if Martine Stephenson and Gabrielle Rigaud have the last word. Stephenson and Rigaud have teamed up to create Perle Hospitality, a venture in which they are placing their respective power, clout, experience and investment to lend a hand in strengthening Haiti’s fledging hospitality offerings. In addition to the entrepreneurs’ investments, Perle Hospitality is being backed by Haiti Ventures, a private seed financing company based in Boston.
Stephenson, who was born in the United States, went to live in Haiti when she was nine years old. She immediately fell in love with Haiti’s rich culture and vibrancy. Years later, when she moved back to the USA, she promised herself that she would one day return to do something of value there. A married mother of two, Stephenson says she is grateful to her husband who wholly supports her entrepreneurial dreams.
A graduate of Marylhurst University, with an MBA from that University and a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Information Systems, Stephenson is using her business know-how and her whopping twelve years of experience in sales and marketing to help leverage Perle Hospitality at the upper echelons of the hospitality and tourism industry in the Caribbean.
As for Rigaud, she was born and raised in Haiti (she is an alumni of Haiti’s Institution du Sacré-Coeur) and has been living in the United States for over a decade. She earned degrees in Civil Engineering and Geotechnical Engineering from Tufts University, and participated in a study abroad program with the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in France. Rigaud is an ardent believer in volunteerism and presides over Coops4Haiti, a non-profit organization whose aim is to assist the fishermen and farmers of Haiti in increasing their production of locally-produced food and lessening reliance on imported food products.
The dynamic ladies discussed their venture with Kreyolicious.
How did you and Gabrielle Rigaud connect? STEPHENSON: We grew up in Haiti together as children and were very close. We then parted ways when I moved back to the States. Years later, we crossed each other’s paths and reconnected. Gabrielle and I have very similar characteristics – we’re both very passionate, ambitious, and deeply rooted in our Haitian heritage. It’s our love for Haiti that drives us to keep doing more. So it was only natural for us to come together for this joint venture, Perle Hospitality, which makes traveling to Haiti more convenient, safe, comfortable, accessible, and most assuredly memorable.
Perle Group Homes is another venture of your company. RIGAUD: Perle Hospitality, formerly Perle Hotels, is not the only project under Perle Group’s umbrella. We intend to launch other ventures where we can utilize our skills and experience in marketing, real estate and engineering as well as what we learn from Perle Hospitality. Our goal is explore the feasibility of a resort and mixed use development where eco-tourism and living would be dominant. Perle Hospitality and Perle Resorts would cater to both tourists and residents looking for a unique and sustainable experience.
Now the name of your company Perle Hospitality is practically a no-brainer. Is it a reference to Haiti being the pearl of the Caribbean? STEPHENSON: Absolutely. Haiti is, after all, La Perle des Antilles—the Caribbean Pearl. To know Haiti, is to know how beautiful this island truly is and how rich we are in our culture, history, cuisine, and traditions. Haiti is more than a location. It’s who we are – it’s our way of thinking. It’s a culture that has not been shared for the most part with the world and this is us sharing the “perle” with the rest of the world. There’s a peace of mind that comes from a rich culture, and deep pride in knowing who we are and where we come from. It’s this rich history and culture that we intend to share with the world. Haiti is the only country that has lead a successful slave revolt and has held its independence until this date. And that’s something that cannot be said for any other country in this world. We want to keep that momentum going and help change Haiti’s image into a positive one as one of the most beautiful Caribbean island that it truly is.
As the co-founder of Perle Hospitality, which is under the umbrella of your main company The Perle Group, did you come across any obstacles as you took upon this entrepreneurship venture? RIGAUD: Our main obstacle when starting was acquiring information during our research and due diligence as well as registration phase. Haiti’s infrastructures and agencies are nowhere near the efficiency of those in the U.S. where one can call, go online or walk in to request certain information. That was the main issue, especially starting our initial studies from the U.S. The second obstacle once our concept was in place was separating ourselves from newly formed companies trying to copy our vision but are not able to execute it properly. We’ve been successful in partnering with the right people to deliver the high level of standards and quality that is signature to our brand Perle Hospitality.
Now the way Haiti was perceived from the 1940s up to the mid-1980s has changed considerably in the minds of potential tourists. What initiatives and strategies do you have in place to reverse that perception? STEPHENSON: Our goal is to promote the other side of Haiti that has been overshadowed by negative media. Our initiatives promote travelers on business or leisure to visit Haiti more frequently and accessibly by facilitating modern and comfortable accommodations in desirable guest homes throughout the country. We offer each guest the opportunity to experience Haiti with the highest level of quality, service, amenities and excellence. To illustrate, from the moment you arrive in Haiti, Perle Hospitality is there throughout your stay to pick you up from the airport, take you to your living quarters where you’re greeted by our professional, courteous, uniformed staff to care for all of your essential needs. We provide all the conveniences of a hotel in the comfort of an island home from free Wi-fi Internet, housekeeping, personal chef services, security, transportation, and concierge service that can assist our clients with their travel needs. We make it easier and possible for travelers to have access to their point of interest and travel from one destination to the next seamlessly.
Perle Group Hotels Hospitality aims to transform private homes into hotels. Are the homes you’re planning on renovating homes of historical significance? RIGAUD: Not necessarily. There are areas in Haiti that we are considering and are very interested in for their historical significance, but also their uniquely preserved architecture, way of life and welcoming communities. Renovation of historical properties is something that we will consider should the right partnership and opportunity arise.
How do you plan on making Perle Resorts stand out from other resorts in the Caribbean? STEPHENSON: Location, location, location. This undisclosed location is the key to Perle Resorts. We’ve found Paradise in places that many people would not think to look. You’ll hear more about our development with Perle Resorts in the future. For now, our focus is on Perle Hospitality, which provides a network of guesthouses throughout Haiti. We’re offering various amenities that are not offered elsewhere. We set our standards high when it comes to offering quality, hospitality, and services. We believe that our model will promote repeat business into the country and boost the economy through job creation in a sustainable manner. We source all of our products in Haiti and pour money back into the economy in support of Haitian manufacturers.
Since the 2010 earthquake, there has been considerable feeling about how too many things, including hotels and amenities were centralized in Port-au-Prince. Does that have, or would you say that has had an effect on your plans for the resorts, the homes, and the group hotels? RIGAUD: As Haitian-Americans, having lived in Haiti, we experienced and felt the centralization of Haiti first-hand long before the earthquake. Though this project materialized in 2011 and 2012, we had recognized the need for such a venture before that. Following the earthquake and the push for decentralization, there is a better understanding of the value of this project. That is why we decided to take this opportunity to be pioneers in creating such a network with Perle Hospitality. Our hope is to enable travel into Haiti to become more frequent and accessible and provide lodging in various places through our network of guesthouses.
Where do you hope to take the company? STEPHENSON: Our parent company Perle Group will have a number of projects, which includes Perle Hospitality. Clients can book stays at any of our guesthouses located in some of the best places in Haiti. Perle Resorts will be an extension of our high quality hospitality standards in a bigger market that attracts tourism and leisure travelers. Haitian people are known for their hospitality. A visit to Haiti, and one can see how friendly, and hospitable we are as a people. We are bringing a great level of care and attention to the needs of our clients with the launch of Perle Hospitality in an effort to promote frequent travel into Haiti. We’ve already gained considerable interest in our company from people who are looking for better and convenient lodging and amenities in Haiti so this is a very exciting time for us.