Mark Durliat - The Man With the Midas Touch
On a mission to find the right site for a high-end hotel development, Mark Durliat was bewitched by one small island. Twelve years later, with a world-class resort setting the standard for Turks and Caicos tourism, the globe-trotting real estate developer is happy call this slice of paradise home.
Words by Natasha Were
One fine day in 2001, a luxury resort developer set off to scout out the perfect Caribbean location for his next big venture. Within three days of setting foot on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, negotiations to acquire a beachfront property were well under way. The untouched natural beauty of the island and the warmth of the people he met there quickly cast their spell on Mark Durliat. A life long traveller, with an impressive portfolio of international developments to his name, it was unchecked emotion as much as business savvy that convinced him that the Turks and Caicos were ripe for investment.
With little on offer at the time in the way of high end tourism, but a sound legal infrastructure, proximity to the United Sates, the safety of a US dollar currency and welcoming government and people, he knew in his gut that a high-end development could turn out to be something of a Cinderella story for the slightly ramshackle island. He wasted no time in purchasing the 20-room Grace Bay Club – one of the only luxury hotels on the island at that time – along with vacant land around it.
"It's a magical place, it's so beautiful it's hard to describe but I knew that if I felt this way about it, other people would too."
Over the next few years the original hotel was renovated and condominiums and villas added, creating what is now an ultra-luxury 130-key oceanfront development that ranks alongside the finest resorts in the world.
To have been competing against industry giants like the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons just over a decade into his career is testament to Durliat's determination and ambition. He had known since childhood he wanted to be in real estate, and studied and networked with that goal in mind.
Majoring in business and French, he also knew he wanted an international career and lifestyle and within two weeks of graduating, the intrepid entrepreneur waved goodbye to the US and set out for Europe.
In Paris he dabbled in computers and the movie industry, in St Tropez he soaked up the sun and mingled with influential people. Then, a fortuitous meeting with South African golfer, Gary Player, launched him into the world of resort development – and he never looked back.
An entrepreneur through and through, Durliat knows better than anyone the value of building and nurturing relationships. But building resorts is about more than making those relationships work to one's advantage. "I've always been creative and, for me, property development is like taking a blank canvas and creating something where before there was nothing."
While most observers only appreciate the final structure, for Durliat the challenge – and the fun – lies in orchestrating the many different components of a development to ensure that the banks, the investors, the designers, architects, construction firms and engineers all come together to make the vision a reality.
Such projects do not materialise overnight, however. Patience is never more of a virtue than in the real estate business, Durliat says. "It's a slow process. It's like chipping away at a log day after day. Some days you chip away big chunks, other days little splinters but after many months, a beautiful carving appears."
It is not only the bricks and mortar of the development that attracts some of the most discerning guests in the world, and have earned Grace Bay Club a mind-boggling array of awards and accolades, and Durliat is quick to recognise this.
"We have a spectacular location on the beach, which is a great competitive advantage, but we also consistently reinvest in the best team possible, bringing in the most talented individuals from the most accomplished hotels in the world and provide ample training and opportunities for local staff."
The sense of community that is so typical of the islands filters through to the workplace, Durliat says, and the Grace Bay Club staff become a family of sorts. As the head of that particular ‘family', Durliat felt the need to share their success with the wider community and in 2009 set up a Community Foundation, providing assistance in the form of materials and equipment to a number of local schools.
It is a win-win programme: children receive better educational opportunities and a greater appreciation for the value of tourism, and hence an openness to it. At the same time, Grace Bay club guests are invited to join boat trips to outlying islands to deliver gifts and equipment. For them it is a unique opportunity to see a different side of Turks and Caicos, and they are often inspired to make donations as a result.
Constant reinvention and renovation are the hallmarks of the Grace Bay Club. Not one to rest on his laurels, the CEO has plans not only for enhancements to existing properties but is also assessing the development potential on other Caribbean islands. Having carved a niche in the ultra-luxury sector, whichever Caribbean destination he sets his sights on next is bound to benefit from his Midas touch.
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