A Family Affair
The Coral Reef Club, a luxury resort on Barbados’ breathtaking West Coast, is truly a labour of love, dedication, hard work, and most importantly, family. When Budge and Cynthia O’Hara first set sail for the island from England in the 1950s, they had no idea of the legacy they were about to cultivate.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
Over 60 years later and the Coral Reef Club has become a pillar in the hotel community, redefining luxury with a relaxed, quintessentially Barbadian feel. With the O’Hara’s three children – Mark, Patrick, and Karen – now married and all involved in the stunning, beach side property, the Coral Reef Club remains very much a family affair. Mark O’Hara took some time out of his busy schedule to talk a little about his family, the hotel, and what makes the Coral Reef Club just so special.
Can you tell us a bit about your parents?
My father was a very upright British Naval type who loved to get involved and show people how he thought it should be done. With this very disciplined background and the eagerness to succeed, along with their natural social focus on meeting and entertaining guests, this all quite naturally became a way of life in the Caribbean. They were the first hotel to introduce their Monday night cocktail party. As a team with our mother [Cynthia] as equal and looking after accounts, gardens, and designs, they developed a very special and personal way of managing the hotel. This also extended to the community, to the many people they helped in and outside the hotel business.
How did the Coral Reef Club come to be? Was it always in the family?
No, it originally belonged to a British Naval officer who built the private house in 1952. A couple of cottages were built as extra accommodation in 1954, but it wasn't until the neighbouring property had overbooked that the first paying guests were welcomed. As a result, this is when it first became a hotel. When my parents arrived in 1956 on a management contract to run the hotel, there were only about 15 rooms by then. They arrived by ship, which was the only way tourists could get to Barbados, after having sold everything up in the UK to run Coral Reef Club for the next three years. After two years they were invited to become financially involved and they put in everything they had. Barbados and Coral Reef Club became home and the rest is history. They built a family home on the property and this is where Cynthia still lives and where we continue to have the weekly cocktail party. Over the years they kept adding accommodations in the form of cottages, and Coral Reef became a 75-bedroom hotel. After that we (Patrick, Karen, and myself) eventually came along, having been born on the island and growing up within the hotel, which was immense fun!
What was it like growing up in the hotel?
It was great fun. There were twelve acres of playground and all the water sports activities we could want – and we did them all! There were expectations and rules of which I'm sure we broke most of. We met many families and couples, made many friends and it is always amazing how many have returned, some third generation, all who have watched us grow up. It will always be our home!
When did you know that you wanted to continue your parents’ legacy?
I always wanted it to continue but didn't really know if I was going to be involved. I did have other ideas that I wanted to develop but ended up here a little by accident after coming out for a holiday, which I hadn't had for two years. After my first day I was asked if I would cover a friend's position who was the Food & Beverage Manager at the time, in 1987, who was leaving right before Christmas. After the season I decided my plan was completely back to front. I had a long holiday and rejoined the hotel full time at the end of that summer and that was nearly 30 years ago. We were never actually enticed into the business at any time.
What do you think your father would say if he could see the hotel today?
I'm sure he would be very proud of what we have achieved. He was part of the original drive to redevelop the hotel but sadly died before seeing the ground breaking of phase one. Having practically rebuilt most of the hotel accommodation since then, yet retaining all the best features of the original concept, we have managed to protect its most important characteristics as a spacious cottage style hotel, which continues to evolve today. Reinvestment is our greatest asset, along with a great staff and a huge percentage of repeat guests that keep telling us we're doing the right thing. Spreading the word amongst them also remains our greatest form of promotion, apart from all the new social media avenues now that particularly play a part in our younger set. I believe he would have been extremely satisfied with our progress thus far.
Are your children interested in continuing in the family business?
Who knows? We have taken the same view as our parents: while not encouraging them into the business and pushing them to follow their own path and interests, this decision is really for them. We will support whatever they wish to excel at. We have one in sales and marketing and social media, another in architecture, and one still in school. The hotel will always be here. There may not be enough room in any case for them all to come into the business, but the different interests they have could bring any of them back into the industry in some way. It has to be their decision.
What do you think it is that keeps your guests coming back year after year?
Consistency in our style and product is key. Constantly refurbishing and developing concepts that overall make for an exceptional experience. The quality of our restaurant, with its ever-changing trends in food styles, gives us the opportunity to impress our guests. Our staff and their demeanour are at the heart of the hotel’s character, friendly and attentive but not in your face.
Your staff seems like a big family. How long have some of them been with you?
We are fortunate to have a great team, some whom we have grown up with, and many who have been with us for long periods, up to 60 years. Even the young and more recent have been with us for 10 to 15 years.
What is your favourite time of year at the club?
This would probably be Christmas and New Year, when there is more activity than any other time. There is a buzz like no other when guests have worked hard to be with us, and in making the most of it nothing is held back. There is a great party family atmosphere.
In an industry so overrun by corporate chains, it's wonderful to see that family run places can still thrive. What does the future hold for the Coral Reef Club?
The best of the best. We will continue to ensure its success and keep investing in its future. As a family-owned and operated hotel, this is also what we think is our special attraction. Consistently providing a warm and personal, friendly hospitality within an incredible environment, along with a dedicated and loyal staff. Coral Reef Club will continue to be a leader in the industry and will continue to develop and redevelop with the times.
Finally, what do you like to do in Barbados in your down time?
Sailing and boats are my greatest loves, fishing and surfing too, or any combination of the three. We have an amazing playground right on our doorstep. While there is not always time to enjoy it, one has to take advantage of it whenever one can. I can be under sail in five minutes from my desk, and not many people can say that!