One balmy late June afternoon, as the world is beginning to shake its COVID-19 concussion, and tourism is finally, ecstatically unfurling its long-reaching limbs, I’m told again and again by numerous residents along the crystalline Seven Mile Beach in and around Negril, Jamaica: “That’s the spot.” This unwavering conviction is for Rockhouse Hotel and Spa. The fabled destination is one of the most unique boutique hospitality destinations in the Western Hemisphere. It is, also, atop all this, one of the most soulful.
Founded in 1973 atop the wind-carved molars of a tiny limestone cove, Rockhouse boasts an exceptional ecosystem of culture and commercial endurance. This difficult to describe atmosphere is chiefly attributed to the heart that pounds in its chest. You see, beyond the exemplary swimming and snorkeling experience in Pristine Cove, enterable by ladders staked into the colorful rocks—where the ocean’s wake is subdued into total tranquility—beyond the birdsong-laced organic garden and grounds that feature hundreds and hundreds of lush plant species, beyond the contemporary flair of its restaurants and spa treatments, beyond the trial and tumult of global financial crises, pandemics, and hurricanes… the pulse of Rockhouse is in its team of nearly 200 persons, spread between here and its kid sister property up Seven Mile, Skylark Hotel.
Rockhouse is indeed a diamond in the rough when it comes to people over profit, demonstrable in the impressive longevity of its employee base, among other things. It is perhaps most pronounced, though, in that the entity continues to empower and enforce the surrounding community via Rockhouse Foundation. Now in its 18th year, Rockhouse Foundation has invested over $7m into the establishment and upkeep of youth education facilities and programs in western Jamaica. The foundation has modernized six schools—with a support structure that includes grounds and building maintenance, wage subsidy for personnel, nutrition subsidies for free breakfast and lunch, utility support, computer-based literacy and numeracy programs, and ongoing capital development projects. Rockhouse Foundation has also renovated and expanded the Negril Community Library.
You don’t establish a decades-long ecosystem like this one without trial and error, without enduring the inevitable hurdles of the global hospitality space, without a deep and sincere love for that which surrounds you. To whit: several days into my stay, I have the unique opportunity of speaking to Rockhouse Chairman, Paul Salmon, who, along with a small crew, purchased the property in the mid 90s, and grew it into the global destination it is today.
If Salmon isn’t here on site at Rockhouse, or tending to the ongoing scale and needs of Rockhouse Foundation, he can be found holding court at New York institution, Miss Lily’s, known for serving contemporary Jamaican fare and ice cold Red Stripe. Miss Lily’s now boasts an outpost in Dubai, and came home to its Jamaican roots a few years back as the food and beverage anchor to the aforementioned Skylark Hotel.
Salmon is one of those guys you want to spend more time with. He’s also one of those guys that seems to have landed a balanced trinity of paramount contemporary pursuits: family, adventure, and success… and it’s evident the three have coalesced, not through aggression or greed or arrogance, but through patience, learning from mistakes, philanthropy, and above all, vibes.
We chat about sculpting that laid-back, yet attentive guest experience at his properties, about the many challenges faced on this unique island, the expansion plan for Skylark, the indelible power of Rockhouse Foundation, the imperative of regenerative tourism in a post-pandemic world, and why your winter holiday is probably best spent here… over a pair Red Stripes, of course, as the sun, yet again, paints a remarkable picture over Pristine Cove.
As a proper pioneer in the conscious hospitality movement, what are your thoughts on the word ‘sustainability’ as a buzzword? Are there risks associated in the increasing popularity of the term?
You see a lot of stuff going on that is ‘green washing’, jumping on board, but man, if we are going to save our planet, people need to change their ways, right? I think it's great that the pandemic is a force that is triggering people to think differently about the way they make their choices, and what they do with their lives. If we can offer some inspiration and leadership in a certain way, I'm happy to be part of the movement.
Why is the need for this mindfulness so pressing?
Tourism is one of the industries that has a big impact on the planet. There are lots of challenges in this industry, and so I think that trying to think about ways to be regenerative—versus taking from—is ideal. In a developing country like Jamaica, there’s a history of exploitation, and investment in tourism has not exactly been a positive one. I think there's a tremendous opportunity to have a much more positive image.
Do you see this carrying over the guest experience?
Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of aspiration now and a lot of talk about responsibility and about sustainability… but I think it’s important to have real integrity around those things. And I think this is for guests, too. I really think the way the industry changes is through an enlightened self-interest. I don’t think without the consumer changing demand, and what they’re interested in, that you get a lot of evolution. Otherwise you’re just focused on the bottom line. I hope that—and I would advise—when people are selecting who they're gonna work for, or where they're gonna stay, to think about what are the values of that place: how are they treating their staff? What are they doing environmentally? Have they figured out how to have their own positive little impact in the choices they make?
And how about your early growing pains, given you came from the world of finance—not hotels?
Yeah, we didn't come from a hospitality background. So our mission probably wouldn’t have become what it did had we had one, right? We’d have probably been much more focused on margins, spreadsheets… and we probably lost money for the first 10 years. We had to lean on some of our generous partners who were being very patient with the investment. But we joined a mission that we loved—coming down here with their kids, and my kids—and we can show how our business can have an impact, and be mission-driven. Not just a business that needs to make a profit to sustain itself.
Were some of those challenges attributed to the ‘boutique’ identity?
It took a long time to work out what a boutique hotel—we started out at 14 rooms—could look like, and it was very tough to make ends meet. But we sort of scaled, and we were able to get 40 rooms, and build up a successful business at the time. We have been through our ups and downs—from the Jamaican financial crisis, or 9/11, or the Global Financial Crisis, and we've had all the airborne illnesses from malaria, Zika virus, chikungunya, and now COVID.
That's a lot.
The partners have been so supportive, and the team has been amazing, really. We are experienced and have a strong philosophy of hiring at the highest level. We believe in promoting from within, and most of our team has been here 15 years. The General Manager has been here over 20 years—Inise [Lawrence] was a front desk junior, for instance. We put her through college and she ended up the GM in the last five or six years, and she does a fantastic job. That's very typical for a lot of our senior management team—they have been here for a long long time and have been very loyal. And it's incredible—the energy and good vibes they they bring, particularly to moments of struggle, during hurricanes or COVID. The way people band together, and support one another, is really amazing.
With regards to that energy, something clearly got in your blood when you came down here a few decades ago… it’s a beautiful place, of course, but what was it that made you fall in love?
I think I fell in love with the people on my first trip down here. I had such a good introduction to the country and the energy, the sense of humor, the outlook, and despite coming as a stranger, we had a lot in common from The Commonwealth—a sort of history about sports, cricket and that kinda stuff. But I was stunned from the very first trip—all of the people, and their contradictions, and their spirit.
And it's a spirit that gets expressed in music, which is such a big part of being here. What about the music culture finds its way into the Rockhouse experience?
I think, culturally, Jamaica is incredible on the world stage. For a small country, they have a huge profile. ‘We small, but we tell it wise,’ they say. But I think most people's introduction to Jamaica, or their knowledge of Jamaica, starts with music. I think it's a huge part of what sort of bonds people.We have spent a lot of time making sure how we program the spaces, thinking about having DJs every night, like we doup at Pushcart restaurant, and how to bring a contemporary, current aspect to it. And historically, we’ve done a lot of great, live acts here as well. There’s a big open deck where the gym is. I think we had about 700 people. We’ve done about 10 shows here now.
Let’s come back to the actual property here and its unique geological formation on the water. What’s going on there?
I walked in here in ‘92, the first time, and it was just so beautiful. It’s a little cove, Pristine Cove it’s called, and it’s just amazing with the limestone coral cliffs. There’s some sort of magic about it, I think. With the sunset looking straight out at it. The way the buildings themselves are almost sort of organic… The water itself, there’s something about the air that really is regenerating. I gotta tell you, when I come to Rockhouse—-I come here often to do work—and if I don’t write stuff down that’s wrong in the first 24 hours, I don’t even see it anymore! You kinda get on this vibe here. We often get guests coming in, you know, from New York or whatever, and they get going, like, ‘Oh, am I in the best room? What room am I in? Can I change it?’ A day, two days later they’re coming back saying, ‘I’m really sorry about how I was when I checked in.’
And what other programming is going on here that you think is special?
Over in the organic farm, we built this retreat, we call it the farm house over there, and started thinking about how to program that? And that’s something kind of new. Then we developed this passport—we haven’t brought it back post-COVID, but we’re working on it. And it’s this beautifully sort of locally illustrated book of activities that you can do. It’s a bit cheesy, right? But you get a stamp for every activity. The idea was to create a relationship with Jamaica. So, you’d get a stamp if you jumped off the bridge, you’d get a stamp if you tried a ridiculous drink, or you get a stamp if you go out and listen to some live reggae. Smoke a spliff and you get a stamp. Then we started to bring it into other wellness activities: we had a painting thing, or you get a spa treatment, we had African drumming, we had all kinds of activities going on that sort of revolved around the hub of this passport program. Not everyone was into the stamps thing, but the passport worked as a great tool for communicating with people that there were all these awesome things to do.
And how about doing new awesome things with the brand that is now so many decades old, yet super strong?
We’ve gotta try and think about ways that we can integrate more vertically. We built that organic farm over there, about six or seven years ago, and we’re looking at putting in a full hydroponic greenhouse right now. And then we’ve got a working shop over there. So every piece of timber—every bed, bedside table, tables in the restaurant—are all built on property here. Through the workshop, we’ve got a candle factory over there, so every candle we light, we recycle and redo over there.
For the next steps, I think it’s about incrementally doing more. We’re doing an expansion at Skylark, we’re putting another floor on top. It’ll get us to 43 rooms, we’ll get a rooftop spa over there. We’ve got a good base now, we’ve got a great management team, so we’re looking for ways to give them opportunities to grow. With so many people that have been here for a long time, you’ve gotta grow the places, you have to give everyone an opportunity to keep moving up. I don’t see anything crazy, but incremental, and keep the good vibes going.
And what are you feelings on the hospitality space in general?
Hospitality has moved so far beyond just a bed to sleep in—or even a bed to sleep in a beautiful palace. It’s more about, “So, what am I taking away that's enriching me in some way, that I’ve felt something, that I’ve actually experienced something beyond just having gone away to a different place on vacation?” There has to be some sort of connection there… I think that’s a real challenge.
I was at this conference the other day talking about the digital nomad crowd. The thing that sort of struck me was that right now, if you buy a fancy hotel in Paris, you pay about three million dollars per room and you can charge maybe $700 a night for that guest room, right? And he was saying that he can build a tented camp in the desert for $25k a room and charge the same $700 dollars a night, if the programming and experiencing is strong—it’s all about what kind of experience people can get.
So, we’ve been thinking a lot about that and thinking about new things. We’ve been running this monthly psilocybin sound bath across the row. Jamaica is one of the only countries in the world where psilocybin is fully legal.
How about you personally, beyond business expression, where do you think you, Paul, have benefitted from time spent down here?
For me, Rockhouse has been such a soulful journey of self-discovery. Because what I love about hospitality is the ability to have an impact on people. Whether it be the guest that needs a stiff drink at the end of the day, and has a rum at the bar or whatever, or over the course of a week, watching them unwind or getting the rest and recuperation that they need. Much more palpably, watching someone’s career—where they’ve been able to buy themselves a car or a house—over the course of decades, working for you. Or they go to school, start a family—I get tremendous benefit from that, I feel very proud of the positive vibes.
And I imagine that sentiment is particularly acute with the Foundation?
Yes, it’s particularly strong with the work we’ve done with Rockhouse Foundation, with the seven schools, the local library that we’ve renovated—nearly 8 million dollars we’ve put into local education—and impacted thousands of kids that we’ve given an extra step up the ladder. Even to do it in a way that you’re trying to be best practice—there are always things we can do better—but we are trying to do it environmentally soundly, and take good care of our team, with health benefits, and a pension plan.
And how about those that contribute or support the Foundation?
As we’ve styled the foundation over the last few years, it's been quite amazing how generous people have been, and where people have come from. Traditionally, we really relied on a close-knit group of long-term supporters, owners, board members, and regular guests, but over the last few years, that’s really spread to a wide group. With the commitments we’re taking on now, and building out the schools, we need to foster that. That has been a big part of the growth in the local community, and a big part of the success of that strategy. We’ve never wanted it to feel like a tax on people’s day.
Any bit of advice on scaling such an ambitious project?
Making small steps is the big thing, I mean that’s how we got started. We’d go for a little breakfast program at the local school here and there wasn’t a lot of money but we sort of opened a whole window into what was going in the school - it’s needs, it’s challenges, and you know over time, over the course of a year or two, this is back in 2004, we really sort of scaled our involvement, it’s just doing this little steps to open up your mind.