Seis Continentes / Summer 2001
By Larry Luxner
The pyramid-shaped Hotel Inter-Continental Managua -- perhaps the best-known landmark of Managua since an earthquake devastated the city in 1972 -- is now part of a huge modern complex that includes not only the 5-star hotel but also a convention center and the Plaza Inter shopping mall.
The complex is owned by Nica Eastern Investment, a Taiwanese-owned holding company that ranks as one of the largest foreign investors in Nicaragua.
Zvonko Siroki, general manager of the Inter-Continental Managua, says Nica Eastern spent $15 million on the hotel, $12 million on the shopping mall and $13 million on the convention center, for a total of $40 million. The hotel was previously owned by the Nicaraguan government but was sold to the Taiwanese group in a 1991 privatization.
"This hotel is still the symbol of Managua. It's a reference for many addresses," says Siroki. "It's been here for 31 years and is one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake, thanks to its unique design."
Siroki, who was born in Venezuela of Croatian-Spanish heritage, has been with the Inter-Continental chain for 15 years. He worked at the Hotel Inter-Continental Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela for three years as resident manager, came to Miami in 1999 and last August was sent to Nicaragua as general manager of the Inter-Continental Managua, which is managed by Bass under a contract that's up for renewal in 2003.
"We have 160 rooms and 200 employees, half of whom have been here for 15 years or more. They know many of the guests by name," he says.
Nicaragua, with a population of around 4.4 million, is Central America's poorest country, and the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. Nevertheless, its tourism industry is growing, and many outsiders view Nicaragua as the next Costa Rica -- a potential paradise for ecotourism and foreign investment.
"I came here for the first time in 1991," Siroki recalled. "The hotel looked very tropical, with everyone dressed in guayaberas. I remember the drinking water was imported from some other Central American country, because there wasn't enough water here."
Times have changed, and although Nicaragua is still poor, new buildings seem to be popping up all over Managua, gradually replacing the ruined shells of buildings destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. And with the return of free-market capitalism following years of state control under the Sandinistas, the Nicaraguan hotel industry has become more fiercely competitive than ever before.
Last year, the Inter-Continental Managua reported $6 million in sales. Approximately 70% of the Inter-Continental's guests are business executives and 30% tourists. Siroki says roughly 50% of all hotel guests come from Central America, 40% from the United States and Canada, and the remaining 10% from Asia and elsewhere.
"Managua has gone from 300 five-star hotel rooms to 800 in less than six months, therefore behaving like Paris but without the infrastructure," he noted. "From an investor's point of view, you either wait until an area booms, or you invest ahead of time. Investors feel there's potential.
Siroki is leading a $1.5 million renovation of the Inter-Continental. Among other things, the 7th and 8th floors will become Club Inter-Continental floors; this involves converting every two rooms into one. In addition, the 8th floor will feature a lounge offering spectacular views of Lake Managua through glass walls -- a project expected to begin this March and finish around September.
In addition, all hotel lobby furniture is being replaced, and the hotel kitchen will be completely refurbished.
As part of its overall investment, Nica Eastern also opened the Inter-Continental Convention Center in October. Located right in front of the hotel, and adjacent to the shopping mall, the convention center -- the largest of its kind in Nicaragua -- is a 4,000-square-meter structure which can hold up to 2,000 people. It features 12 multi-partitioned meeting rooms with direct connections to multimedia, ISDN phone lines, videoconferencing, kitchen and sound and video control room.
Events that have been held here since its inauguration include the Miss Latin America beauty pageant, the Latin American Anesthesiology Congress and the Central American and Caribbean Construction Congress. The Latin American Exchange and Travel Congress (TREX) is also planned.
The hotel also plans to open a 400-square-meter casino with 50 slot machines and 40 gaming tables. Siroki says he hopes to lure Panamanian gamblers with a three-day weekend package costing only $600, including airfare.