Suzy Soto – A tourism pioneer
A tourism pioneer, a pillar of the community and something of a local legend, Suzy Soto’s life has been filled with adventure, achievement and accolades.
Words by Natasha Were. Photos courtesy of Suzy Soto and Compass Media.
Suzy Soto has packed more into her professional and personal life than most people could dream of. One of Cayman’s pre-eminent women in business, alongside a career as a successful hotelier and restaurateur, she helped establish the Cayman Islands Hotel Association and the Cayman Islands Restaurant Association and served as Director of the Caribbean Hotels Association, all whilst raising five children. She has gone on to start the Cayman Heart Fund and create the memorial honouring those lost at sea, published two books, and still finds time to paint and write poetry. Throughout all of this, she has amassed a wealth of accolades and awards, as well as a treasure trove of memories that range from lunching and dancing with Prince Charles and hiding Jacques Cousteau for weeks at her hotel, to hosting shipwrecked sailors and a sabbatical spent at sea.
The road has not been paved in gold, however. Suzy has encountered more than her share of obstacles along the way, but her unerring positivity and determination (“I’m like a dog with a bone,” she says) have enabled her to face each setback head-on, with inimitable spirit and resolve.
Born in Delaware, later moving to Wisconsin, she had a tricky start in life. Diagnosed with infantile paralysis, later called polio, causing scoliosis, she wore a painful back brace for two years to straighten her spine, and at age 12 had surgery to correct her feet, leaving her with both legs in plaster for six months and a lifetime of ‘walking funny’, as she puts it. For Suzy this wasn’t cause for self-pity; rather, she says, “the experience made me thankful for what I had when I saw other children with worse problems. It gave me a determination to get through it.”
Suzy married Eric Bergstrom after high school and soon started a family. But a car accident shortly after the birth of her first child resulted in a broken back and neck. The doctors advised her not to have more children – but unsurprisingly, she ignored the caution and went
on to have four more, completing nursing training while pregnant with the third.
The 12-hour shifts, however, proved incompatible with the demands of a new baby and a move to Chicago, so instead, she took up modelling, until deciding to swap the harsh Chicago winters for balmier Caribbean climes.
It was 1963, Cayman was still a remote backwater, and Suzy and Eric were young and idealistic – or ‘complete greenhorns’, as she describes it. “We were told there was nothing available to buy on Seven Mile Beach and we were so stupid we believed it,” Suzy says. “So we bought the most remote 300 feet of beachfront on the island, at Colliers in East End. There wasn’t even a road to get there, so Eric had to borrow a bulldozer and make one.”
Nonetheless, within nine months they had built the ten-room Tortuga Club, a simple resort offering scuba diving, fishing, peace, quiet and great food, with no phones, no TVs and they had to generate their own electricity. Suzy may have been a hospitality novice, but her nursing experience served her well. “There’s not one bit of my training I didn’t use. From time management to bed-making, and sanitation to kitchen procedures, I applied everything I had learned,” she recalls.
At the time, tourism was very much in its infancy and marketing for hotels on the island consisted of hoteliers meeting new arrivals at the airport, all pushing their accommodation offers. Convinced a more professional approach was needed, Suzy and Eric, along with a few other hoteliers formed the first Hotel Association in 1963, with the aim of properly promoting local hotels.
This, in turn, led to the creation of the Caribbean Hotel Association in 1967, to which she was appointed regional director in 1972. She used her knowledge and experience to help local employees and then hoteliers on other islands to improve their operations and procedures through the Small Hotels Advisory Council for five years.
“My natural strength was employer/employee relations and the value of having procedures for everybody and everything. Nowadays they call it Human Resources,” she observes wryly.
After selling the Tortuga Club, parting ways with her first husband, and marrying scuba diving luminary Bob Soto, she moved into the restaurant business, opening the original Cracked Conch in Red Bay in 1981. Alongside running the restaurant, she helped to set up the Cayman Islands Restaurant Association in 1985 and was President. It became part of the newly formed Cayman Islands Tourism Association in 2001 where she was a Director.
It wasn’t all hard work though. In 1987, having lost three dogs and had her boys involved in two major traffic accidents on the same road to their Frank Sound home, Suzy announced she couldn’t live there any longer. Suzy and Bob sold their house and moved themselves and their Doberman onto a 37’ sailboat and spent an idyllic year-and-a-half sailing around the Caribbean.
By 2001, Suzy’s heart was failing. “People thought I was a great athlete, as my heart rate was so slow. But it was actually my heart trying to stop,” she jokes. It was a hereditary condition that required her to have a pacemaker fitted. Inevitably, she resisted slowing down, and two weeks after the procedure she went out to pick tamarind.
“Each time I bent over, I felt a sharp pain but ignored it. The next day I still had severe pain and shortness of breath. It turned out, each pain was the wire puncturing the heart wall.” Blood was filling up her heart cavity and she had to be air-ambulanced to the Miami Heart Institute for open-heart surgery.
Again, she turned the life-threatening event into a positive, setting up the Cayman Heart Fund, a non-profit organisation that offers training and programmes to support cardiovascular health in Cayman, in 2007.
Her strong faith and community spirit have led her to dedicate as much energy to giving back as she has to forging a highly successful career. In addition to the Cayman Heart Fund, in the early 2000s, Suzy and her late husband Bob embarked on what she calls a labour of love, researching the names of the 477 Caymanian seafarers who lost their lives at sea. This eventually resulted in the Maritime Memorial ‘Tradition’ which now stands in Heroes Square, George Town.
She is also a director of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, is co-chair of the Cayman Maritime Heritage Foundation and is currently working on a book that collects together tales of Caymanian Turtlers, and the history of schooners.
Now in her 80s, despite suffering from post-polio-syndrome, having had shoulder, hip and knee replacements, and now confined to home under the lockdown, Suzy remains upbeat and active.
“I’m missing the gym something terrible but I still swim 20 laps a day and I’ve taken up tap dancing. I’m learning it from an old tape. Oh my heavens, it’s hysterical,” she laughs. So is she bothered by being alone during the curfew? “Absolutely not!” she declares. She’s never had time for ladies’ lunches, unproductive meetings, or being anything but ‘embarrassingly honest’. This curfew is her chance to focus on the book she is editing, as she is determined to finish it this year. “I’m only on earth for a short time, and I want to make good use of it,” she says.
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