Last week I had the opportunity to present at Expectations 2012 in Acapulco – a wedding conference for professionals in Mexico and Latin America at large. Certainly, I was inspired by the ever-brilliant design and business mind of Todd Fiscus and the hyper-creative Ed Libby. But I was equally moved by the size and breadth of talent most of us in the United States have never heard of, like Susanna Palazuelos and Eduardo Kohlmann. Ligia Cortes and Gabriel Garza ought to be ever commended for organizing Expectations and allowing me to learn as much from them as they do from me.
However, the most profound part of the experience was sitting next to Ricardo Suarez, the General Manager of the Banyan Tree Cabo Marques at the final dinner on Tuesday evening. Yes, the hotel is beyond amazing – each villa with a private pool — sitting on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. What sets the hotel apart though is Ricardo’s attitude about service. Ricardo came in last year to help the new hotel find its sea legs. I was fascinated to know that, other than Engineering, no one at the hotel had any significant hotel experience before joining the Banyan Tree. Ricardo hires based on attitude and intrinsic characteristics rather than experience and education. For example, one of Ricardo’s stars at the front desk he found at Burger King. The way she attended to diners – the genuine care she showed to everyone who walked in the door (including Ricardo and his two young sons) – is why Ricardo handed her his card and begged her to call him. For Ricardo, it is about culture first, perfection second. Is the hotel perfect? Of course not. Did I forgive them because of the attitude of every employee? Always. And, for those in the wedding business, the hotel has a Director of Romance, but Ricardo personally meets with each bride and groom to make sure that he knows all details for the wedding and offers his personal assurance that the hotel will exceed their expectations.
Ricardo only reinforced to me that culture matters more than perfection. Something we so often forget in the United States. Process supports culture, not the other way around.
And then there was Eduardo and Susanna. Both of them run enormous catering operations. For instance, Eduardo did 820 events last year and hopes to do 900 this year. Susanna is the largest caterer in Acapulco by far. From a business perspective, they show what happens when the cost of production is so low. It becomes a bubble gum problem. You might make 75% on a piece of gum (as Wrigley’s does) but you can only charge five cents. So you have to sell A LOT of gum to make enough money to survive. This creates an environment that is ripe for monopoly (or at least significant oligopoly). So, like the U.S. candy market, the Mexican wedding market is dominated by a few key huge players in each segment (floral, catering, rentals, etc.). Fringe players surround them and inroads are made with ideas and creativity far more than they are with making something for less. Simply, there is a zero bound to the cost of production. Charging four cents instead of five does not make much of a difference. Ironically, the environment in Mexico supports collaboration among vendors far more than it does in the United States.
Take the dessert table for instance. With all due deference to Amy Atlas, whose work is wonderfully amazing, we are talking about something else entirely when we talk about a dessert table for a traditional Mexican (or more broadly Latin American) wedding. The dessert table represents the sweetness wedded life will bring to a couple. I saw images of tables literally 100 feet long with structures at least 6 feet tall. Equal parts catering and event design. In the U.S., the collaboration is difficult – who is responsible – the Caterer? Designer? Planner? In Mexico, it is much easier so that there are those who, like Amy, design, but do not necessarily produce the table. So, in the sense of being able to stretch further through collaboration, the Mexican/Latin wedding market I believe is actually ahead of the United States. Still shocking to me that, given the size of the Latin American market in the U.S., no one has figured out how to offer what is so common in Mexico.
Where Mexico and Latin America lag significantly behind is in the sophistication of marketing/social media and all things technology. Yes, everyone has a smartphone and IPad, but I was handed only CDs of work as marketing pieces. The Style Me Pretty of Mexico/Latin America does not exist yet. I am sure they will get there and maybe those reading this post might see the opportunity that awaits them in Mexico.
Our world is indeed a global village and I am most grateful to those like Ricardo, Susanna and Eduardo who have allowed me to see the world as they do. More than anything, they have all reinforced the idea that innovation only matters if the community uses it to go forward. In all ways, the goal has to be to turn competition into collaborators. We might be a ways off until that ethos is in the fabric of our creative business mindset, but hopefully closer than we think.