The landscape around Hotel Playa was once a very different place. The main pool was filtered saltwater and surrounded by a marshy jungle of trees, shrubs and shady huts with a view of a huge, green lagoon, rich in wildlife. With the Pacific ocean in the front yard and the lagoon in the backyard, Hotel Playa was almost completely bounded by water. Now, a main street, shops, offices, and restaurants fill the area where this wild lagoon once thrived.
…Just to name a few and keep privacity…
Not long after Hotel Playa first opened, Hollywood began shooting Westerns in the dusty town of Durango, 200 km northeast of Mazatlán. Movie stars and producers such as John Huston, John Wayne, and others began using Hotel Playa Mazatlán as a refreshing escape from the blistering set.land was dotted with salty lagoons and flocked with abundant waterfowl and deer. Mazatlán had a mere 40,000 inhabitants.
John Wayne was quite the man about town in Mazatlán. Six months a year, he moored his yacht, Blue Goose, in the downtown harbor. “The Duke,” as he was known to friends, made his classic Western movies near Durango, Mexico.
Tony Curtis on vacation. At the time, Hotel Playa was relatively small and Mazatlán was still a low-profile destination. Stars like Curtis enjoyed almost total anonymity here.
Rock Hudson (2nd from right), playing bridge under the palapas. Hudson ‘cut loose’ at Hotel Playa in between filming a western with John Wayne near Durango, Mexico.
Robert Mitchum, was a longtime guest of Hotel Playa, coming down as much as 5 times a year. Like most stars, he relished his anonymity in this modest, coastal town. Mitchum loved the area’s pristine beaches and often frequented Copala, a charming village set in the nearby mountains.
As part of the 60 years of “Hospitable Tradition” that we are celebrating in Hotel Playa Mazatlan, we are pleased to share with you an extraordinary interview conducted by the magazine GENTE Sinaloa to the President of Hotel Playa Mazatlan, Mr. Donn Ralph Vient George.
Enjoy it and learn through Mr. Vient the history and magic that surrounds Hotel Playa Mazatlan!
DATE OF BIRTH: July 28th, 1947.
PLACE OF ORIGIN: Los Angeles, California.
NATIONALITY: Naturalized Mexican on February 19th, 1976.
CHILDREN: Robert, Lance, Alain y Andre.
WIFE: Martha Ramírez.
The port of Mazatlan adopted its prodigal son since the year 1979, when Donn Ralph Vient George arrived at the Hotel Playa Mazatlan, it had 357 rooms, an architecture style reminiscent to the 50′, low rise and rustic detailing painted in blue and white. It was situated on the best stretch of beach in the city, with a property extension of 270 meters, it was the first hotel built on the shores of the city.
It is a destination that has marked my life since I was 5 years old; it is the city that changed my life. In 1952 my grandfather on my mother’s side, Ulysses Solomon George, was invited to visit a place that he had been talked to at length about, for its unique beauty and as a great place to fish and hunt. When he arrived, he stayed at a local trailer park situated on the “Camaron Lagoon”, he was impressed by the beauty of the destination, and even more so by the ability to practice his three favorite pass times; fishing, photography and hunting. During his first visit he met some people that invited him to invest in the property next door to the place where he was camping; he immediately called his wife to let her know that – he was going to stay and invest in his now favorite place in the world, to pack her bags and come down – It was then that at his 60 years of age and already retired from his job as a builder that he decided to build a motel, with the hopes of receiving guests that wanted to hunt, fish and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Mazatlan coastline. This is how the Hotel Playa Mazatlan was founded and he obtained the nickname “Gringo Loco” (Crazy Gringo) because they thought he was crazy for building so far away from the rest of the city and on top of a beach.
In November or December of 1954, mi grandfather invites my parents to the “grand” inauguration of the Hotel. They decided to hop into their new car and together with their best man Mr. Al Wilkes and his wife they began the long drive down. They were pulling their brand new wooden ski boat behind them laden with barrels of gasoline and water due to the long distances between one filling station and the next; on their way they even came across makeshift bridges made out of boats and planks, where local kids would charge a toll to cross, and when they arrived, they realized the place was not ready for an inauguration; this wouldn’t take place until February 14th, 1955. Until recently Mr. Al Wilkes still claimed to be the first actual guest of the hotel as he was able to stay two months prior to the grand opening. We were able to celebrate this anecdote when he returned to celebrate our 50th anniversary.
In April of 1963, mi grandfather invited me to visit him in Mazatlan, I had spent very little time with him until this point, and I thought it would be a good way for me to get to know him better, while at the same time getting a vacation at the beach in Mexico; this would be the first time I visited. I was 15 years old and it was the first time I had ever travelled on a plane, I remember I had to buy a suit because the airline required you wear one to travel. My friend Phillip Benefiel came with me. We arrived at the airport in Mazatlan, it used to be located near where the “Teodoro Mariscal” Baseball Field is now located. The first thing I thought when I arrived was “Why do we have to wear a suit to come to such a hot place?”. The hotel back then did not have air conditioning but my grandfather’s wife had established the rule of wearing formal attire to the dinner table, so you had to wear a suit to get into the restaurant; it was so hot I could barely stand it. I remember being very impressed by the size of the giant shrimp that they served me, as everyone mentioned the abundance of it on our shores.
The Hotel was 100% full, so my grandfather asked us to stay out on his porch – he usually used this area to hang dry his clothes- we slept on cots; I will never forget how at night the floor would get covered with some kind of crabs, I couldn’t understand how they could climb up to the fourth floor every night. We had to shower before 9:00pm in the evenings because they would shut off the boiler, and by 6:00am the next day they would turn it back on, so that the guests would have hot water. Back in those days they would use tar to heat and light the boiler, I remember we would wake up every morning covered in ash and soot, since the chimney came out right on the porch we were sleeping on; this was my first impression every morning. One morning my grandfather invited me to ride on something the locals called an “Araña” (basically a horse drawn carriage) so that we could go see the sights and sounds of the city. I was taken aback by the amount of notoriety I received from the locals, whistling at us as we came by, it was not common to see two men wearing shorts back then, men would usually wear slacks or pants. I also remember a day in which my grandfather invited us to go hunting. He asked me to drive, since he was injured and walking on crutches and he liked to tell us his stories about experiences that he had lived while in Mazatlan, as we drove along. I was 15 years old and I did not have a license to drive, but I remember driving along with lots of caution. We came to a crossroads and when I stopped to look both ways and make sure a car was not coming, her said “If you keep on waiting a car is bound to show up”. Further up along the way we came across a herd of cattle crossing the road, and when I began to stop he screams: “Hurry, Hurry!, Cows don’t have a reverse!”. My grandfather had been raised on a farm, so he was used to always hunting for food; this had made him a man that did not waste time, or bullets. When we arrived at Chametla to go hunting, he sent my friend and I – we where novices at hunting- up ahead so that we could hunt for ducks. What we didn’t know was that he had sent us with guns that where loaded with special shells that carried a minimum load, and he had kept all the good shells. – He would personally load his shot gun shells- when we arrived at the bottom of the hill; we spotted ducks and shot at them, our bullets where only enough to scare the bird’s uphill to where he was waiting. he immediately began to shot and load, but he lost his crutches; I remember him going down and shooting as he fell. He took five shots and downed five birds. This is just one of so many memories that I have of my first visit to Mazatlan.
In 1966 my grandfather incited my parents Robert Vient and Bernetta George – Vient to help him build the third and fourth floor of the hotel. My parents made a very good team, he being a builder and licenses contractor owning a company in which she was an award winning architect and he having been recognized for the quality of his homes. They began to re-design and build the hotel in order to make it more functional and lasting. Meanwhile I was studying at Glendale College and later at Pepperdine University in California; living at school since my parents had stayed in Mazatlan after their arrival in 1966. Two or three years later, around 1969 or 1970, my grandfather suffered a stroke and had to come back to the US with his wife. My parents had earned the trust of my grandfather, so they where left in charge of the Hotel Playa Mazatlan.
When do you arrive in Mazatlan?
During the time in which my parents arrived at the port, I stayed in California finishing my studies. In 1967 I was required by the US draft to participate in a military exercise. Before I left, I went to Mazatlan to say goodbye to my parents, this was the second time I visited the city and I stayed for one week. In May 1969 I return from Korea to California, and in June, I fly back to Mazatlan to visit my parents once again. This time I stayed two months. During my stay I bumped into the owner of a Contracting and Building company out of California, that was friends with my parents; he invited me to return to the US and work for him. I worked there for three years; learning how to build/ re-build and frame houses. A few years later I began to work for a place called “Fleming Lumber”, a hardware and lumber store. I had been working here for one week when the General Manager quit, and they left me in his place. I worked for that company four years. In 1971, when I was twenty three years old, I bought my first house; it was in ruins but had a great price, I completely gutted and remodeled this home.
In November 1972 I returned to Mazatlan to visit my parents, this was my fourth visit. Upon my return I continued my work buying and remodeling homes, as well as working for Fleming Lumber, often I would be offered side jobs building and remodeling homes as well. In 1977 I began to build my parents home in California, it took me one year and one month to finish this project. Soon after I obtained a loan so that I could finish my home, which I finished and sold to pay off my debt to the bank. Since I sold the home at a very good price and I was doing very well income wise, my accountant recommended that I claim my income over the course of three years versus one; this would help me with the taxes I would need to pay. I stopped working in the US. In 1979 my parents asked that I come and help them out in Mazatlan; thinking that it would only be for a short time as the three years recommended by my accountant passed. It was during this transition that my father fell ill and had to return to the United States, they left me at the head of the company, I did not speak Spanish and barely knew the destination, it was 1982. I arrived in Mazatlan at 32 years old married and with my first son.
The first year was a test by fire. The very first day I was leading the hotel, my employees went on strike (It had not happened in 30 years), it caused me to break out into hives and have headaches. As I began to recover from that blow and continue on the remodeling of our tower, I received a call from our then night manager Antonio Orenday; he wanted to inform me that the tower was collapsing and that many of the windows on the first floor had began to shatter. We immediately evacuated the building and I called my dad asking him for advice. I remember that he recommended that I put wooden beams between each floor. I called the engineer and we spent all night putting beams in between the floors, all the way up to the sixth floor. After two weeks had gone by we were hit by a Hurricane, El Tico; as a consequence it shattered all the windows on the first floor and covered the pool from bottom to 15 cm over the patio floor. Fortunately I had around 150 construction workers and peons that where working on the remodel in house, so I took advantage and put them to work cleaning the areas and sand from around the hotel. That same day we were able to provide dinner service in our restaurant. It was during this project that I found out that all of our maintenance projects were “commissionable”, this is how my maintenance manager operated. I decided it was time for him to get pensioned. Even through all of these difficulties, we finished construction before high season in December.
In February of the next year, I received the moneys from the sale of my home in California, I put all of this money in to a “Bond” with a high yield rate of 26% over 90 days; I remember thinking “Wow! It sure is easy to make money in Mexico”, I felt very secure in my life investment. But what I wasn’t counting on was the devaluation, which took my investment and immediately cut it in half. At that point I decided to take my funds and invest them into a Dollar account versus a peso account; right after I invested again the government of Mexico decided to create the law stating you could not hold moneys in dollars, only in pesos, so he froze all accounts at a 90 to 1 exchange ratio, even though you could get 140 to 1 at the border. As if this was not enough, President Lopez Portillo announces that he planned on nationalizing all banks, because they belonged to the country, and there began to be rumors that he would do the same to hotels. At the end of this year I can remember thinking “What else could happen to me? I am ready for anything now!”.
Currently, how many rooms and services does the hotel have to offer?
It has 400 rooms in 12 different categories for all types of clients and we have two luxury penthouses. We offer both European Plan and All inclusive. Our amenities include a gym and spa. We have 10 different dining and drinking experiences between our specialty restaurants (Italian, Mexican and Sinaloense), bars and snack bars. Some of the attractions that the hotel boast are our “Theme Nights“, which consist of a dinner-show with more than 40 years of experience and tradition; the concierge service with a variety of programs and activities like arts and crafts, games, physical training, open air movie theatre as well as a mix of tours and local excursions, monthly and seasonal events, themed parties, dinner and dancing events, new year’s party, and many other family friendly options. We also have packages for event planners, like weddings, conventions, event halls or business people. Multiple children’s amenities such as water slides, swing sets, slides, cenote, temazcal, zip line, rock climbing wall, green belts, gardens, ponds, waterfalls, fish tanks, exotic flower gardens, etc.
Firstly, the fact that my father gave me the opportunity to develop myself in a field that I was passionate about – construction-. For me it is highly satisfactory to have re-designed all of the building and towers to my taste, and to have been involved in the remodeling of all 400 rooms. Another great satisfaction is to have satisfied customers with what we are doing; many companies like to over promise on their offering, but in our case, we like to under promise and over achieve, so our guests are always pleasantly surprised with our offering. This is the best and most rewarding marketing. This has allowed us to maintain a very high return rate of our clients, whom have made this a tradition and in many cases span over many generations of family members. Also being able to maintain and solidify the dream-legacy of my grandfather and parents. Being able to offer a better life style to my four sons and the families of multiple collaborators that have formed the Playa Family over the years. I have had a great team of collaborators in my brother in law Lance, my sister Joan’ husband, who installed the very first Hewlett Packard 3000 in the state, and in the hotel with the development and management of our front and back office systems. I feel very thankful of the Hotel Playa Mazatlan because during the last 36 years it has helped me with my personal and professional growth.
I have been blessed with four sons, Robert and Lance from my first wife, as well as Alain and Andre from my current wife, of whom I feel very proud. My son Lance, is currently helping me at the hotel, being able to offer him and his family the opportunity to follow in my foot steps and the footsteps of three generations before him, makes me very proud. Lastly, I cannot forget to mention that this is where I met my current wife, Martha Ramirez, with whom I am very happy.
Do you have any new pending projects?
The destination tendencies are pointing to Family travel, so we are working on solutions that allow for parents to enjoy their kids, we are projecting the implementation of water parks, perfecting our current amenities, like the zip line and rock climbing wall, as well as the pools, garden and kids amenities in general. While at the same time continuing to grow the services and amenities inside our rooms. We hope to do this so that we can make our option more affordable and memorable for all the guests that visit us.
I obtained the Business Man of the year award in 1997, by CANACOM; this was the first time in my life I had received an award of this magnitude. I felt very proud, the best part was that my parents and my wife and children where all very proud of me as well. At the end of the day the only thing you can inherit to your kids is their name, and the example of being an honest and hard working individual. In 2005 I obtained the Executive of the year Award, given by the sales executives. But the award that I hold dearest after my many years of service is the fact that so many guests and employees have made it a tradition to be at our facilities, and a guarantee towards their future.
What values do you transmit to your team of employees?
As an individual, a very important thing that I try to transmit my team is honesty, this is the highest of all virtues in any business, you can go without many things and still be acceptable, but if you are dishonest, nothing works; I learned that from my father. As a company we have many values that we strive to instill within our business module: kindness, loyalty, responsibility, trust, justice, compromise, respect and gratitude.
What advise do you have for young business minded youth that are just starting in their careers?
They need to know that if you are willing, you will accomplish and jump over all hurdles. When you are on the outside, it all looks very difficult, but by giving yourself completely to what you do, you can accomplish many things, you must always give your 100%. Saying that “I can’t” will never help you to obtain anything in life, it is always good to have dreams and visions, but the most important thing to do is “to do” and stay constant.
He who does not fail, never succeeds, he who is afraid of defeat, will never taste victory.