I am excited to begin this new series that gives you an inside look into my own travels and experiences with hospitality and tourism businesses. The inspiration for this series came to me recently on my trip to Costa Rica, where I stayed at two properties and the experiences were day and night. Both were highly-rated, well-liked properties, but one of the properties failed miserably in their marketing. It wasn’t that they were posting low quality content, or that they were inconsistent in their messaging. The problem stems from the hotel’s marketing promises.
This new series will take a look at the two crucial components of a memorable experience:
- Before The Experience: what expectations do I have based on their marketing?
- During The Experience: what am I actually experiencing, and how am I comparing it to what I was lead to believe, based on their marketing?
And I will provide some final thoughts on how the marketing and experience at this location could be improved or changed. I hope to share more POSITIVE experiences than negative ones, with lessons you can learn from. But to kick off this first post in this series, I will be doing a comparative post on the two hotels I recently stayed at in Costa Rica – Nayara Springs and El Mangroove.
Before The Experience
Costa Rica quickly made it to the top of my travel list this January, when I decided I needed a vacation but didn’t want to travel TOO far. I wanted adventure, and I wanted relaxation, and Costa Rica checked both of those boxes.
I typically stay at adult-only hotels, or hotels that appear to cater to adults. Screaming children and relaxation don’t mesh for me. So after overwhelming several days on Tripadvisor, I decided to go to a tour operator to book our trip.
They originally recommended Nayara’s family resort, but we quickly switched it over to Nayara Springs after reading about their adult-only option and looking at their Instagram photos. While the hotel only had one Instagram account for both hotels, I could see that most of the adults were staying over on the Springs side. Scrolling through, I saw minimal families or children in their feed. The photos had a very carefree air to them, with a heavy focus on relaxation, reconnecting with nature, and everything PURA VIDA represents.
The other hotel that was recommended to us was El Mangroove, part of the Marriott Autograph collection. This was one on my list during the research I did on Tripadvisor, because I liked that it had direct access to the beach – a rarity for Costa Rican hotels in this region. This hotel also had a very similar Instagram feed to Nayara. It was a chic, curated feed of picturesque relaxation. And while they weren’t an adult-only property, the Instagram promised me a “hot and hip” scene. So we went for it.
During The Experience – Nayara Springs
After a long day of travel (it may only be a 5-hour flight to Costa Rica, but it’s a 3 hour drive to Arenal) we were warmly welcomed by the Nayara Springs staff at around 6pm. We were invited to sit down and were given a choice of three welcome drinks. We chose the Costa Rican shot trilogy, which included my first traditional taste of Costa Rica: chiliguaro. What a fun way to be welcomed! Sitting in the lush chairs with some cold drinks was just what I needed to get out of travel mode and into vacation mode. Every detail of the resort was explained to us, including a map of the property. We were invited to have drinks with the general manager and then brought to our room.
I cannot say one bad thing about my experience at Nayara Springs. There was no request too big, and every employee made us feel like we were movie stars. Seriously, I started to wonder if they thought we were famous or something. That’s how they treated us. The property was stunning, clean, comfortable, and offered a variety of fun experiences to take advantage of while you were there.
We had a packed itinerary from our tour operator, which was a lot of fun, but every time we left I could not wait to get back to our resort. We loved hanging by the pool and all the couples there were so nice. There were so many restaurant options, all serving up fresh, quality food. And the hotel seamlessly blended into the Costa Rican landscape and ecology, with breathtaking views of the Arenal volcano.
We were supposed to leave at 10am at the end of our stay to go to El Mangroove, but we pushed our transfer back to 5pm so we could enjoy the full day at Nayara Springs. We left – begrudgingly.
During The Experience – El Mangroove
We arrived at El Mangroove just in time for a late dinner. It was a long, three-hour drive. We checked in – no chiliguaro shots here, but a refreshing cold non-alcoholic beverage. The woman at the front desk seemed unenthused, and we walked to our room to get ready for dinner.
The rooms were big, but the floor was made of some cold, hard concrete-like material, making it not a very cozy place to be. The whole hotel design is uber-modern, and this room did not feel like a place built for relaxing.
So, we headed to dinner, where there were just two restaurant options: fancy-ish, and beachy. We weren’t wearing appropriate shoes for the beachy restaurant, so we went fancy. But it would have been nice to have more options – more on that later.
The chaos didn’t begin until around 10am the following morning, after a few hours of relaxing by the pool. Kids – everywhere. Screaming, crying, smacking each other with noodles. This is not what the website or Instagram feed promised me! Where was the serene, relaxing pool I was promised? I want to be this girl. No rules were enforced, so I put on my best smile and tried to focus on my book. This went on for three days straight.
Thankfully, our tour guide planned an incredible day for us on a private boat that took us far, far away from the calamity. I was back in relaxation mode, and it felt so good. I was so relieved this is how we ended our trip, because if we didn’t have that little getaway, I probably would have needed another vacation as soon as we got home!
One thing that put a really bad taste in my mouth was the management staff’s attitude. There was no movie-star treatment here. In fact, we were made to feel a bit like nuisances! We wanted to take a 2-minute car ride down to another town for more restaurant options (since this hotel only had two dining spaces and we ate at both of them all day every day). We were told a car would cost $40. Since $40 for a half mile car ride sounded ludicrous, we asked if they could arrange a trip with another couple if there were any others looking to go off of the property. They got very snippy and basically told us this was our only option. I could tell this was something they have gotten a lot of backlash on, and I went on Tripadvisor to see who else was annoyed by this. Why didn’t this come up in my original research? Turns out, people have been complaining about this for years, and there has been no effort to change.
Nayara Springs and El Mangroove are both 4-star hotels. But where El Mangroove went wrong is by advertising their hotel is a boho-chic boutique hotel. When you market your hotel or service business one way, and your experience doesn’t deliver, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Yes, it’s possible that we were there during an odd time, and that the 360 days out of the year that we aren’t there, this place is a relaxing paradise. But when they are busing groups of 50 in from “Adventures by Disney”, it makes me think that this hotel is very much a family hotel. And that is 100% fine, but their marketing promise says differently.
Maybe El Mangroove wants to attract the type of traveler that they’re speaking to on their Instagram account. In that case, may I suggest not having a supply of pool noodles and toys readily available? After all, when you have only one pool and your beach is swimming with jellyfish, everyone is going to be hanging out in the same place. So make it clear to the parents that roughhousing won’t be tolerated if you want the DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) staying at your hotel. Or go one step further and make your hotel adult-only. This hotel felt like it was built for adults, then last minute they decided to make it open to everyone.
“You can’t be everything to everyone” is a phrase thrown around a lot in the marketing world – and for good reason! El Mangroove can simply shift their marketing to include more family & children in their marketing (and they have within the last month, after my suggestion in my Tripadvisor review). But this obviously doesn’t address the lack of PURA VIDA present among upper-management and staff.
Does it pay to be the Nayara Springs in this comparison? Putting in the time and effort to make the experience enjoyable and memorable? Nayara Springs was just recognized as one of the top ten hotels in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2018. And I don’t think you get that kind of recognition for anything short of amazing.