The show must go on, as the late, great Freddie Mercury once sang.
Even if COVID-19 has wiped out a year’s worth of live concerts, Hard Rock Hotels is keeping the music vibe alive during the pandemic, spoiling guests with rock star treatment, while turning up the volume on health and safety.
On a recent tour of the Dominican Republic, PAX visited Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Punta Cana to have a boo at how the luxury, 1,775-room compound is adjusting to pandemic life.
This particular property, notably, was the first Hard Rock to debut in the Caribbean and first all-inclusive for the chain.
Officially launching in 2011, the glossy, 121-acre resort sits on Dominican’s beloved Macao Beach, a divine stretch of soft sand, clear water and roaring waves suitable for body surfing.
The opening marked a major milestone for the rock ‘n’ roll-themed brand (and for Punta Cana) as it elevated local hospitality with five-star amenities – a 48,000-square foot Vegas-like Casino (the largest in DR), a “Rock Spa” (also one of the largest), an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-branded golf course and, of course, fierce music memorabilia.
The AIC Hotel Group-headed brand, today, is renowned for its spacious, modern rooms and party-hard approach to group-oriented activities and high-end entertainment.
Large-scale gatherings are obviously on hold due to physical distancing rules, but it’s still worth mentioning the extravagantly-bold set-up at Hard Rock Punta Cana.
There’s 65,000 square-feet of flexible event and meeting space for starters.
Hard Rock Punta Cana, pre-COVID, was hosting between 700 to 800 weddings per year, as Marketa Svabova, an assistant director of sales, told us as we toured the tropical, village-like compound of low-rise buildings and rivers that flow under bridges.
And there’s plenty of things to do and see: 13 pools, a lazy river, nine restaurants (from Brazilian to Lebanese to Asian to Italian), an arcade, escape room, bowling alley and a shopping mall, to name a few amenities.
This may sound like a lot of racket, but even here, finding a quiet spot under a palm tree is easy.
There are speciality experiences, too, like “KIDZ BOP,” where youngins can step into a “Pop Star Lounge,” work with a “tour manager,” create a band name, learn choreo, assemble a red carpet-worthy look, take an A-list photo, and perform on stage.
Or the “Sound of Your Stay,” where guests can channel their inner rock star with complimentary vinyl record players or play Fenders using a “guitar room service.”
“This Table Has Been Sanitized"
But even rock stars sometimes have to face the music, and while the party is still jamming at Hard Rock, the brand is acutely aware of the responsibilities that come with hosting guests during a pandemic.
Hard Rock Punta Cana, like most hotels, temporarily closed in March when it became clear that COVID-19 was escalating into a global emergency.
The resort reopened on July 1st with a reimagined approach to safety and cleanliness, integrating directives laid out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Their program, called SAFE + SOUND, requires every Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to pass a “Safe + Sound 272-point inspection,” independently assessed by NSF International.
The list of COVID-prevention protocols is long, but the must-haves, must-dos are all there.
These include temperature checks, social distancing markers on floors, readily-available hand sanitizer, touchless in-room dining, luggage sanitization, sealed rooms (so guests can see that no one has entered their room before arriving), plexiglass separators at desks and signage that promotes healthy decisions (like hand washing).
Masks are mandatory for staff and required of guests in common areas – a rule that visitors, during our visit, were respecting.
“The reaction [to the protocols] has been positive,” Svabova said. “People understand what the situation is.”
Buffets, as expected, are no longer self-serve as staff now plate the dishes. Restaurants, too, have lowered their occupancy to avoid overcrowding.
Eliminating touchpoints has been key. Menu items and property memorabilia tours, now, utilize QR codes, eliminating the need to hold physical paper.
And while these protocols are pretty standard these days, Hard Rock has still found ways to make its own kind of music.
New arrivals, for instance, receive a complimentary Safe + Sound-branded health and protection kit complete with hand sanitizer packs and face masks.
You also almost-always know when a surface has been cleaned.
On top of tables (in and around the lobby, for instance) there are signs that read “This Table Has Been Sanitized.”
It’s a simple, yet effective, peace of mind protocol.
The spa, fitness centre, entertainment and activities are all still a go, with some modifications to accommodate physical distancing (some gym equipment has been removed, for example).
Otherwise, Oro nightclub and swim-up bars are, really, the only major things that aren’t available.
Stalking Madonna’s limo
Hard Rock lobbies are a feast for the eyes – glitzy, lush and posh, with extravagant, contemporary decor.
It’s the type of rich aesthetic that makes you think, for a moment, that you’ve stepped into the foyer of a mansion owned by Prince or Mick Jagger.
Even during COVID-19, that exciting ambiance still exists.
However, some lobby elements– at Hard Rock Punta Cana, in this case – have been scaled back, just a little, for safety reasons.
There’s less decorative items, such as pillows, (another touchpoint), for one, and furniture has been spaced out to promote social distancing.
You don’t really notice this until someone points it out to you. Our eyes were too busy focusing on the pop star portraits and music collectibles that adorn the walls and showcase areas.
And what a collection it is, too.
From Elton John’s hand-painted piano to Billy Idol’s Harley Davidson motorcycle to the sequin-covered limo Madonna used to promote her “Music” album at the 2001 Grammy’s, Hard Rock Punta Cana is a glittering museum of music history.
And while appreciating all the memorabilia may be reserved for fans of a certain age, the property, as a destination, is still appropriate and fun for all ages.
PCR testing available
To comply with Canada's new 72-hour, pre-departure testing requirement, Hard Rock Punta Cana has unveiled PCR testing services for Canadian visitors.
Until Dec. 31, 2021 (or until the mandate is lifted), on-site testing is available for $99 USD. Guests can also get tested at local clinics. However, it may cost more as Hard Rock is absorbing a portion of the cost.
The hotel also has complimentary on-site medical assistance insurance to cover expenses such as doctors, medications, and hospitalization, if required.
In the event that a guest tests positive for COVID-19 while at the hotel, they will be able to quarantine on site for up to 14 nights at no cost to them.
These benefits apply to all existing and new reservations of three or more nights booked by Feb. 28, 2021 and travelling between by Dec. 31, 2021.
Moving the in-room jacuzzis
If anything, Hard Rock Punta Cana’s temporary shutdown was a good opportunity to kickstart some ambitious reno projects.
Let’s just say the place didn’t sit around and eat chips while it was closed.
The Market restaurant (international cuisine) got a facelift, as did Ipanema, a Brazilian rodizio-style eatery.
The downtime was also used to start renovating the rooms, moving those bedside jacuzzis to the outdoor balconies, while installing sectional couches/sofa beds in their place.
Why remove the tubs from the interior?
“People weren’t using them as much,” Svabova said. “It’s all about making space. It will be good for families.”
The result? Spacious rooms are now super-spacious rooms, and Hard Rock hopes to finish this all by 2021’s end.
In the hotel and hospitality world, that’s a pretty badass move.
Maybe even a little rock ‘n’ roll.
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