Building a boutique hotel? Wait… Don’t call the architect quite yet!

When we get called by property owners or developers to offer our services as a hospitality management company, one of the first and most common requests to us is: “can you recommend an architect?”  Or many times the owners or developers have already started to design the hotel with an architect of their choice. 

And while architects certainly play a very important and prominent role in the development of boutique hotels, we always recommend talking to a master planner first.   This is especially important if they are looking to develop a property in a remote and natural beach, forest, or mountain setting.  We know from experience that by investing in this first step, as a developer or owner of a hotel project, you will save lots of money, headaches and avoid making mistakes that many others have committed before. 

A master plan is a dynamic long-term planning document that provides a conceptual layout to guide future growth and development. Master planning is about making the connection between buildings, social settings, and their surrounding environments”.                                 Source:  The World Bank

Our preferred partner for working this master planning process is a company called Vida.  Their studio is located just down the road from our office in Escazu, Costa Rica.  We have done more than a dozen master planning and development workshops with them.  We have worked with them in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, untouched beaches in Nicaragua, an island in Panama, and most recently in a remote and undeveloped area of the Dominican Republic. 

One of our Cayuga Collection Hotels, which was a result of one of our workshops with Vida, is Isla Palenque in the Golfo of Chiriqui in Panama.  We have also done several renovations or are working on expansions such as in the case of Arenas del Mar in Manuel Antonio. 

But of course, we are open to working with other master planners from around the world.  In the past, we have worked on great projects with Gensler Architects and HM Design (our friend Hitesh Mehta who specializes in Eco Lodges).

The workshops that we have participated in typically take 2 to 3 days and bring together the projects’ key decision-makers to understand the site, the business case, the people, place and context, the history and the trends, the market, potential risks, programming, and phasing.

As operators, we have found that when we are present from the very beginning we can significantly improve the guest experience, reduce operational costs and therefore increase financial sustainability for everybody involved.  We are also able to raise our concerns, observations, and recommendations for building and running the planned hotel in a sustainable way. 

To illustrate this master planning process, we are sharing some pictures of our most recent workshop.  The owners and developers of this project visited three of the Cayuga Collection Hotels in Costa Rica in September and a couple of months later they hired Vida and Cayuga to help them develop a master plan. 

The first day of the workshop involves a lot of hiking around the property. We look for views and other natural attractions. It helps a lot, if the owners have lived on the property for a few years to learn about wind, weather and rain patterns as well as other opportunities.
Hanging out at a tropical beach with a cocktail in your hand is what our guest enjoy… Walking the property at midday another. It can get quite hot…
We often find the best opportunities where there are no trails yet. So sometimes we need machetes and get into some serious bushwhacking.
And to see the property from all angles, we even make the sacrifice to put on our bathing suits and look back at the property from calm tropical waters.
Then is it back to the first preliminary drawings. We look to create “bubbles” that define the activities in different parts of the property and the connections between those areas. Matt Flynn, co-owner of Vida (on the right) is a real master in this process and few people that we know have the capacity like him to see the “big picture”.
After that, we head back out to the property to see if what we imagined on paper actually makes sense. In some cases, we had to start from scratch again and throw out all previous ideas. But that is part of the value of this process.
Analyzing breezes and views from a hammock is a crucial part of the process and can only be done by the very senior members of the team.
Part of the exercise involves checking out activities and nearby destinations. In many cases, those places can only be reached by water.
No caption is necessary for this picture…
Back to the drawing board. By the end of day two, we typically have a solid master plan that then goes into a more detailed review.
It is done! From left to right: Marie and Matt, Vida master planners. Then Hans and Andrea, the Cayuga Collection.

When Matt and his Vida team deliver the masterplan booklet, we get to work at Cayuga to deliver a hospitality concept with a preliminary market analysis as well as financial operations projections (Profit and Loss Proforma) to the clients. Interested in learning more. Contact Andrea Bonilla at

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Hans Pfister

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