Sally, owner of Hotelito del Mar, recently received an e-mail from TripAdvisor.com congratulating her on winning the “People’s Choice Award”, an award that only 1% of hotels worldwide have the honor of being presented. When she found out the news, Sally couldn’t have been more proud of her staff as she attributes the success of the hotel to her “hard-working girls” as she calls them: Yesica and Onieda.
“The reason I got this award is not because of me. It’s because of my staff,” the hotel owner recognizes.
Hotelito del Mar has been in operation for 10 years now. Sally first visited Bocas in 2001 looking for property. She was getting ready to retire and was fearful of the direction that life in her home country, the United States of America, was headed.
“I realized there was no way in the world I could live with a Social Security of $561 a month. I didn’t want to be a bag lady, so I knew I had to do something creative,” says Sally.
Also, she wanted to live in a warmer place and she had been instilled with her mother’s sense of adventure ever since her mother convinced her father to take a job in Indonesia and move the family overseas. Sally spent her adolescence in Indonesia and went to school in the Philippines.
After working in the US and getting ready to retire, she researched places to start a new life. The Philippines was too far, Costa Rica was too expensive and crime was on the rise, but Panama seemed just perfect and friendly for Americans. She bought her property on her second trip in 2001 when it was nothing but a vacant lot.
“I liked Bocas right away. It felt a lot like Key West did 40 or 50 years ago. I just liked the feeling,” she explains.
When George Bush won the 2002 elections, it was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back for Sally. She saw a news report about a group of young Republicans storming the Miami-Dade voting centers trying to put a stop to the recount and it reminded her of something out of 1936 Germany. She packed her bags and prepared to build a hotel on her little lot of land in Bocas Town.
Eleven years later, here we are sitting on the veranda of Hotelito del Mar and she is very proud of her hotel. She describes it as small, bed and breakfast-esque, comfortable, service-oriented “family place”.
There are 7 rooms: 5 downstairs and 2 upstairs. The 2 upstairs rooms used to be Sally’s home, but she moved out since everyone seemed interested in renting the upstairs rooms, the ones with the cool balcony and the best view. Each room is equipped with air conditioning, hot water, internet, television, kitchen and other amenities to make you feel at home away from home.
One of Sally’s favorite things about the hotel is breakfast and the way it always seems to bring the people of the hotel together. They provide coffee, tea, juices, fresh fruit and homemade muffins (which she is proud to say she taught her girls how to make) and everyone congregates out on the veranda to enjoy their meal. Guests from all over the world chit-chat, get to know each other and become friends over breakfast. If Sally is there, she’ll join right in.
My favorite thing about the place is the vibrant sea life mural that adorns the outside of the hotel. Apparently it was done by a gentleman that paints the “Diablo Rojo” buses of Panama City.
One thing customers love about Hotelito del Mar is that it’s very centrally located, but at the same time feels very private. You’re in the middle of everything, but you’re surrounded by plants and the plants give the hotel area a sense of privacy, yet you’re still close to everything in town.
Sally must be doing something right. Not only does she consistently receive rave reviews on TripAdvisor, she also gets lots and lots of repeat customers.
“I have one customer who comes here 2 times a year. He’s been coming every year since 2005. We know each other very well. He calls me on Mother’s Day, he knows when my birthday is and vice versa. I have many people like that. They’ll come back 3 year later and say ‘Hey Sally!’ I really like that.”
She seems to go the extra mile to make her guests feel at home. In fact, in the middle of the interview she had to excuse herself to make herself available to comfort some guests that had experienced some misfortune earlier in the day.
Realizing that Hotelito del Mar is literally a small hotel by the sea and that there are a lot of places to stay in this town, Sally empowers her staff telling them “There are lots of hotels here. We are small. We are insignificant, but we don’t have to be. We can do things better than other hotels and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do it better than anybody else.”
And do it better than anybody else they did, at least according to the people of TripAdvisor. Congratulations to Sally and her staff on their TripAdvisor People’s Choice award!