KC Hardin, co-founder of real estate development company Conservatorio, is the rainmaker behind the revitalization of Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo. This Panamanian expat has rolled out a series of developments in the Unesco Heritage site including hotels the Canal House, Las Clementinas, and a third, The American Trade Hotel, set to open in Fall 2013, which will be managed by Ace Hotels.
You are a corporate lawyer from New York, how did you end up in Panama?
Surfing is the short answer. I went for a short trip, found a backpacker hotel for sale on a small island with great waves and that was the end of lawyering for me.
What drew you to the Casco Viejo area of Panama City?
It was a kind of “come for the buildings, stay for the people” kind of thing. Casco has amazing bones so anyone with an ounce of passion would have been drawn to it back then. I was lucky to meet a lot of people who made me feel welcome here, which is ultimately why I stayed.
What/who inspires you most?
Seeing people overcome obstacles.
When you first moved to Panama having no previous hotel experience you purchased a youth hostel on the small island of Bocas Del Toro, what challenges did you face with this property and what advice would you give to aspiring hotel developers?
Youth hostels are fascinating—they represent travel in a very pure form. I learned an incredible amount about the world and the human condition that year, as well as how to change the heating element in suicide showerheads and many other useful handyman tricks. I also began learning how important cultural fluency is to doing business in a new place and that it only comes by being very humble and having good mentors. If you are lucky you’ll find a good local partner whose vision is similar and whose skill set matches up well with yours, but only if you are humble about what you bring to the table.
Where do you draw the concept and aesthetic inspiration for each of your hotels?
We really only have one hotel concept and that’s to give our guests a true sense of place, thoughtful comforts and embracing service. All three of our hotels are the same in that way. The aesthetics differ a bit but my partner and I joke that the buildings kind of tell us what they want to be. We only deal with historic buildings so it normally seems pretty clear from the beginning what the building wants and then the details of the aesthetic flow from there. The context here is so strong that there is a lot to riff off of but at the same time you know instantly when some design element is out of tune.
What role has the local community played in your various hotel developments and in the revitalization of Casco Viejo?
Community is really what it is all about for us. A neighborhood with beautiful buildings but no community, or even just an extremely homogenous one, is sad. Casco Viejo was once the country’s most affluent neighborhood, became extremely poor and is now on its way, hopefully, to some kind of balance. As a World Heritage site it needs to be safe, to have its buildings protected, but it also needs to have its human heritage protected. The money it takes to restore historic buildings tends to push out long-time residents absent a real commitment to helping them participate. I’ve lived through two early revitalizations that ended up going too far (South Beach in the 80s and Williamsburg in the late 90s) so what I’ve seen is that there is a pretty set formula for combining culture and commerce to bring an urban district to life, but if you want the revitalization to also be an engine for social progress your work becomes much more interesting and complex, and also much more rewarding. Our vision here is that the rising tide should float a lot of boats. Our company is built around that philosophy. I think one of the most beautiful things about Casco is that you can ask anyone who lives here, rich or poor, and they’ll tell you that’s what they want. Ironically, part of the challenge is keeping the public sector on board with that vision.
The American Trade Hotel, your new hotel development, is set to open in Fall 2013, what can we expect from this hotel?
Hopefully it will become an icon. Somehow the face of Panama City has become these towers that are so far from its essence. We think that there is something about the eclectic, audacious old American Trade Building that goes to the heart of what this city was and is all about. And we hope that the hotel’s take on luxury resonates. It’s got all the comfort and service one would expect in a five star, but we think this opportunity for guests to be a part of a historic district in its early stage of revitalization is a rare, valuable experience, which we think is in itself a kind of luxury.
What do you look for when choosing potential hotel sites?
The first thing is that the building physically works well as a hotel—good distribution, circulation, decent area for back of house, etc. Sometimes an old building seems like a great hotel at first glance, but when we really look into it, we realize we’d have to torture it into working.
You currently own and operate two hotels in Casco Viejo, why did you bring in an outside management company for the American Trade Hotel and what drew you to Ace Hotels?
American Trade is at a scale where it made sense for us to bring in a management company, but we hadn’t found one that felt like a really good fit. A lot of hotel brands talk about integrating their hotels into the local culture but we felt that Ace lives it, and that translates into hotels that are truly part of the everyday conversation of their neighborhoods. We were talking to them about doing an Ace at another site in the neighborhood but when Alex told us that he had been dreaming of doing a luxury hotel we all realized pretty quickly that we should do American Trade together.
As a real estate developer, do you find it challenging to manage your own hotels?
Yes. Rooms are manageable on a small scale, but adding a F&B component makes it very time consuming and takes away from development activities. I think if you are really passionate about revitalizing a place you will naturally want to run the first one because you are so eager to share everything you love about the place with guests (and you probably can’t find anyone to do it for you anyway). But once that’s done and the vision starts to become more widely shared I think it’s important to bring in new ideas and energy.
Your wife Patrizia is a native Panamanian and very passionate about Casco Viejo, what has been her role in your various developments?
Her daytime job is running our real estate sales, but she spends a lot of her time as president of the neighborhood association/chamber of commerce. The private sector here has to be a lot more organized to get basic things like garbage, parking and social housing addressed consistently than it might in a place where the civil service doesn’t change completely with every election.
Who do you admire most in the field of hotel development?
There are a lot but three come to mind immediately. Adrian Zecha for his tirelessness and unwavering dedication to his vision of travel. Rogerio Fasano because of the understated luxury in his hotels and how he makes his guests feel like part of the family even in the middle of a huge, scary metropolis. Ira Drukier for mastering the arts of developing and owning.
Where do you see Casco Viejo in 5 years from now?
I think Casco Viejo is on its way to being one of the world’s great historic districts—vibrant, eclectic and with a unique character that is quintessentially Panamanian; Central America’s French Quarter or Salvador de Bahia. In five years I hope that the words “Casco Viejo” come to represent a particular experience in people’s minds, not just a place with pretty architecture.
Do you have a favorite hotel in the world?
No. The one thing I’ve realized about hotels is that it’s hard to be objective about them. My impressions of a hotel are inextricable from my particular experience there--who I was with, my mood, my chemistry with the staff or owners--so rating them is really just ranking my personal experiences, and I’m not sure how helpful that is for other people.
Aside from the highly anticipated new hotel, what other projects does Conservatorio have in the pipeline?
We always have a few buildings in the neighborhood in development, right now some offices, a condo, a lot of retail, a mechanized parking structure. I’m very excited about finishing a new affordable housing project. We kind of took it on ourselves to build one affordable unit for every luxury unit and it’s been very cool to see people from the neighborhood who have been squatting for years become owners of it.