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Carlos Couturier

Grupo Habita Co-founder Carlos Couturier

Carlos Couturier

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Though he’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t love the term “boutique hotel”, Carlos Couturier can be credited with bringing the phenomenon to Mexico back in the late ‘90s, putting Mexico on the map as a hospitality destination. Along with his partner Moisés Micha, the two founded Grupo Habita, which now boasts 13 lifestyle properties mostly in Mexico. Couturier is leading the way for innovative design and experience, and talked to A Hotel Life’s founder Ben Pundole about this extensive passion for hospitality and drives home the mutual belief that hotels are built from the heart, not from the wallet.

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Ben Pundole: You and your business partner Moisés Micha come from finance and farming, why get into the hotel industry?

Carlos Couturier: We both love architecture. We wanted to develop something that was unique for Mexico City at the time. This was in the late ’90s, and Mexico City was quite chaotic, not really a city that people wanted to visit. So we thought a hotel, a nice hotel, could do that. I think in a way, we contributed to making Mexico City sort of a destination.

Ben Pundole: You were way ahead of the curve in what we call the Riviera Maya with Deseo and Básico hotels in Playa del Carmen. It was pioneering; it was almost as if you’d come from the future to give us these forward thinking hotels back then. What gave you that inspiration?

Carlos Couturier: Again, same thing. I mean, the Riviera Maya was completely unknown, there was only Cancun. We thought there was this potential to do something—not only for us as business guys or hoteliers to develop a property that was different—but also to put the town on the map. At the time, Playa Carmen was just a fisherman’s town and quite unique. We opened the second or third hotel in town, and the whole thing exploded after that. It was the beginning of something, and that’s what we like to do. We like to create not only a hotel but an experience that goes beyond the hotel.

Casa Fayette in Guadalajara
Casa Fayette in Guadalajara

 

Ben Pundole: Grupo Habita has come a really long way since. What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned since the days of Básico and Deseo? What are some of the highlights?

Carlos Couturier:  It’s important to build hotels that are honest, that feel authentic. You don’t want to be part of a trend. You want to create your own personality in a hotel, and also it’s a hotel group.

Whatever we do, we try to be adventurous. We go to a neighborhood that is not obvious and contribute in making the community more interesting, the local community as well. Again, it’s not only a hotel. It’s part of a greater movement which is in a way almost philosophical. We like to take risks, and I think that shows also in the sort of people that follow our projects.

Ben Pundole: Do you have a favorite focus? Is it the development, the design, the food and beverage, the community-building, or is it all of it?

Carlos Couturier: When we started it was more about the architecture, design, the lifestyle. Our approach now is a human approach as we develop a hotel. It’s more about the comfort, the fact that you want to have a good night’s sleep, you want a great shower, the basic things of a hotel. At the same time, what has become pretty interesting in hotels is most of them are social hubs, at least the ones we build. We want people to meet in our lobbies or restaurants or bars, and we want them to feel part of a larger group. It’s not only just because it’s nice architecture, which I still love, of course, and it’s why we’re known, but to be able to cater to the human aspect of a space or of an experience.

Hotel Habita MTY in Monterrey
Hotel Habita MTY in Monterrey

Ben Pundole: Tell us a little bit about the project in San Agustinillo, in Oaxaca.

Carlos Couturier: It’s an intimate hotel right on Punta Elefante, so it’s at the very end of the beach. We want to recreate that summertime in the Greek islands experience and build something that feels like that, but in Mexico where it’s a place for the sunset. It’s a great bar, some grilled fish on the ground floor, in the lobby. Even though we’re known as a hotel group that probably too many parties happen, in a way we think of ourselves as more of relaxed hotels that have a vibe for simplicity.

Hotel Escondido in Oaxaca
Hotel Escondido in Oaxaca

Ben Pundole: It’s really exciting to hear that you’ve got so much going on, building a larger community and continuing to be the pioneer in the industry in Mexico and beyond. We’re obviously living in unprecedented types; what do you think the industry needs to change to be successful post-corona?

Carlos Couturier: We have to go back to where a hotel is less about just financials and budgets and it’s more about thinking of what the guest needs. It has become where it’s all about numbers, and it’s all about making it happen financially. I think it’s important that we go back to the old days where the hotel was a developer. When we started, nobody wanted to build a small hotel. Lots of times, they were called boutique hotels. I hate the term. The hotelier was like the equity, the developer, or the manager, was the PR. We were doing everything. I think it’s great when you enter a hotel that feels it’s family run or the owner is there, and I think we should go back a bit to that experience. Airbnb did that to the industry. Anyone with a couple of extra rooms at home feels that they can become a hotelier.

Ben Pundole: Carlos, you are well-known for being creative and adventurous. With that said, have you discovered any new talents while you’ve been quarantining in the last year?

Carlos Couturier: I’ve discovered my skills as a family person, staying at home, enjoying my kids, reading a book. I think that has been the most positive experience. I’m realizing that so many times we were just moving. Now it feels like we were moving without a reason.

I’m feeling so much more productive just being on Zoom. I was traveling 300 miles or driving or flying just to have the same meetings that I’m having now over Zoom, and I’m not polluting, and I’m not stressed.

I’m going to give you another example. There is a specific Spanish sparkling water that I love that I’ve been drinking in Mexico for the last probably ten years because they import it. I found it at the local supermarket and they ran out of it last week, because it comes from Spain, and all the logistics. I realized how foolish I was just drinking that water for so long when I have incredible Mexican waters, sparkling waters. These are the things that are probably going to change in the future. You’re realizing that we were doing things just because either they were trendy or either because other people were doing that.

Hotel Condesa DF in Mexico City
Hotel Condesa DF in Mexico City

Ben Pundole: A lot of people know you and look up to you in the hotel industry. Any advice, Carlos, for people looking to get into the hotel industry?

Carlos Couturier: My advice is only do it if you have the passion. Don’t do it because it feels like it could be a good business. Do it because you know you have something that is special and that you can sell it correctly to a general public and they get it because you are delivering something that feels unique. It all comes from within. You know if you have it or not. You can go to the best hotel school in the world and still just graduate and feel like you are not really a hotelier.

Ben Pundole: Did you go to hotel school?

Carlos Couturier: I did not. I studied economics, but I felt that I had a certain talent for it, the mix of the social aspect of being a hotelier together with the skills to build something that felt was different and relevant and just things that when I put them together with my partners and each of them does a different aspect of what our company is – we’re just a great team because of that.

Hotel Condesa DF in Mexico City
Hotel Condesa DF in Mexico City

Ben Pundole: Very wise words, you’ve got to be passionate about architecture and design, food and beverage, building community, creating desire for business and pleasure. I think it’s a wonderful industry, and besides, I certainly don’t know how to do anything else. It’s one of those industries that if you’ve got the passion for it, it will be good to you.

Carlos Couturier: The people that were there early, people that I respect a lot, like Sean MacPherson, Jean-Louis Costes, Rogerio Fasano or Liz Lambert. Each of them developed living their own dreams and made it happen without arrogance. And there’s new guys, like the guys from Experimental, like Romeée (De Goriainoff) and Olivier (Bon), who  have the energy and the will to keep developing things that feel interesting. I saw your interview with Marie-Louise Sciò which was really interesting. I love those sort of hotel groups where I can tell who’s behind them, why they are doing it and why they just survive in their own way because of that honesty.

 

This interview was edited from Episode 2 of AHL Live Podcast with Ben Pundole and Carlos Couturier. You can listen to the full conversation here.

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