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Grupo Poma Takes The Fast Track In Central America
Hotels / November 2000

By Larry Luxner

Every few months, it seems, El Salvador-based Grupo Poma and its strategic partner, Bass Hotels & Resorts Ltd., inaugurate a five-star property in yet another Central American capital.

In January, the two announced the opening of the 157-room Inter-Continental in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, followed in July by the inauguration of Nicaragua's newest luxury hotel, the 157-room Inter-Continental Metrocentro Managua. And on Oct. 10, the duo will inaugurate the 239-room Inter-Continental in Guatemala City.

That's quite a vote of confidence in a region once known mainly for civil wars and kidnappings.

Fernando Poma, managing director of Grupo Real, which is Grupo Poma's hotel division, says the Metrocentro Managua represents a $20 million investment. Grupo Poma owns 68% of the new property, with the remaining 32% owned by Nicaraguan businessmen Leonardo Somarriba and René Morales.

"This property is definitely the most upscale hotel in Nicaragua, and this whole development is very new and promising for the region," Poma told Hotelsduring inauguration festivities in Managua. "We own between 60% and 100% of our hotels, depending on the specific property. We try to form strategic partnerships with companies or groups that can bring some sort of strategic value to the venture."

Of the Metrocentro Managua's 157 rooms, 20 are business rooms, six are junior suites and one is a presidential suite. The hotel's eighth floor is an executive floor, with 17 rooms each boasting their own fax machine, printer, computer and Internet hookup. Corporate rates vary from $130 to $155 per night.

Asked if opening such an upscale property in Nicaragua -- the poorest nation in Latin America -- was a risky venture, Poma replied that it's a risk worth taking.

"This project in Nicaragua is a big deal, because it's not just a hotel but also a shopping mall," said Poma, the 29-year-old son of company president and CEO Ricardo Poma. "When we construct hotels, we rarely do stand-alone properties. We build them with a gimmick. Also, there's a real-estate benefit, which is the appreciation of land values. All you have to do is develop a percentage of it, then the rest goes up in value too."

Grupo Poma, one of El Salvador's largest conglomerates, signed a strategic alliance with Inter-Continental Hotels -- now a division of Bass Hotels & Resorts Ltd. -- in 1996. Its first hotel venture was the Hotel Camino Real Inter-Continental San José, which has 260 rooms and is 85% owned by Grupo Poma.

At present, Grupo Poma owns eight hotels. Besides the Managua and San José properties, it owns Camino Real Inter-Continentals in San Salvador (228 rooms); San Pedro Sula, Honduras (149 rooms) and Miami (150 rooms), as well as the Mesón del Angel in Puebla, Mexico (192 rooms), and the new 100-room Comfort Inn next to San Salvador International Airport, which opened for business in July.

"We have two strategies, the upscale strategy and the mid-scale strategy," said Poma. "The idea basically is to develop the best hotel in each key Central American city with the Inter-Continental brand. These properties are generally built as part of a large development project -- all of them include shopping centers. This is to take advantage of synergies. If you have office space, the office workers can stay at your hotel, and so can their families when they visit. And if people are staying at hotels, they want shopping centers nearby," he explained.

"Once we have the upscale market, we'll pursue our mid-scale strategy, which is to open Comfort Inns throughout Central America. We already have two franchisees: Viva Clarion Suites in Guatemala City and the Quality Colón in San José," he said. "Our plan is to open eight to 10 more Comfort Inns in key Central American cities, and maybe 10 or 12 more under management contract in secondary cities such as Santa Ana (El Salvador) and Antigua and Chichicastenango (Guatemala)."

Grupo Poma owns the Camino Real brand name for all of Central America except Guatemala. It is unrelated to the Camino Real chain in Mexico.

Chuck Bedsole, Latin America practice leader for Ernst & Young's Hospitality Services Group in Dallas, says the Bass-Poma co-branding relationship has both positives and negatives.

"Bass has some good products in Central America, and their co-branding strategy will probably differentiate them from their competitors. It also adds the benefits of having an affiliation with an established local brand," he said. "But it can also cause some confusion, both among hotel guests as well as investors and developers.

Poma says building a five-star hotel in Central America costs between $110,000 and $130,000 per room, and that his biggest competitor at the moment is Princess Hotels.

"We want to expand, we just haven't analyzed where yet," he says. "After doubling in size in just over a year, what we want to do now is consolidate our operations, making sure all the hotels are working perfectly. At some point, we also want to do joint ventures with Salvadoran entities like Grupo Taca and Banco Agricola Comercial -- joint marketing agreements and programs to help us obtain customer loyalty."

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