Published On: Sun, Oct 13th, 2019

How Holland House built back better on its own after Hurrricane Irma

Paul Boetekees - GM Holland House

PHILIPSBURG – When Hurricane Irma hit on September 6, 2017, Holland House lost its entire fourth floor to the monster storm. At the time, there were 57 guests staying at the iconic hotel that faces Great Bay Beach, and some of them were able to help get the place back on its feet.

Managing director Paul Boetekees remembers the storm like it was yesterday. “We got fully destroyed by the hurricane,” he says. “The whole hotel got beat up badly. When the winds came we were hiding in the hotel and eventually we ended up in the basement. The roof blew off and there was a lot of water damage. Six or seven hours later we were standing on the street in the morning and we saw that everything we had built was gone. But the process of restarting the hotel began immediately afterwards.”

The main problem the hotel faced was the lack of power, because the generator was badly damaged. “It was a big deal to get the power back on,” Boetekees says. “We wanted to charge phones, we wanted to keep our food fresh, and we wanted to be able to communicate.”

One of the hotel guests, who had actually come to St. Maarten to experience the storm, turned out to be a retired 747-pilot who operates a dive boat back home and who brought with him a lot of experience with generators.

“He figured out a way to get the power back on. We had to line up all kinds of car batteries and we needed four people to get it started. When we had power again we could run basically all the necessary systems to keep the hotel operational. From that point on we recovered. In the beginning we had still twelve rooms open.”

Keeping the hotel open was not only important for the business. To Boetekees it was also important to keep his staff employed. “We kept everybody. With the owners of the hotel we established a foundation in the Netherlands and we asked all our guests and our owners to put a lot of money into it.”

With the money from the foundation, Holland House was able to support staff members – some of them had lost everything in the storm – by buying fridges, clothes, mattresses and other necessities. “We even rebuilt the house for a staff member who’d been working here for almost forty years,” Boetekees says. “She had her own little house and it was completely gone and she had no family to rely on. I am very happy to say that we have recovered, we have built back better and we are looking forward to a very healthy and good season.”

Holland House managed to settle its insurance claim within three months, giving the hotel the funds to start rebuilding. Boetekees says that the owners helped financially as well. “We’re very thankful for that but what we missed is government support, though the government did its part in making sure St. Maarten has come back up.”

While governments on other islands extended financial support to businesses, Holland House did not receive a penny from the government. It does not really bother Boetekees: “We did it on our own, which is fine. We are not tied to anybody, we are independently owned and we can do what we think is right.”

Nevertheless, Holland House has two challenging years behind it. “We need to financially recover from that, so soft loans or liquidity support would be welcome. If support is coming from the World Bank, I wish that is it going to be offered to everybody and not just to particular groups.”

Boetekees is of the opinion that the ministry of Tourism and Economic Affairs needs more money to market the island. “When that happens I think St. Maarten will definitely become one of the prime destinations in the Caribbean.”

Holland House has literally built back better after the hurricane. Rooms now have hurricane proof sliding doors that are also soundproof due to the type of glass that is used. “The hotel is much quieter,” Boetekees says. “It saves us on air conditioning and it is much more impact resistant when there is another hurricane coming. We also use steel panels instead of capsular panels. When a hurricane is coming we can close down very fast and then we can just take a bottle of wine and wait for lunch.”

An impression that has stayed with Boetekees in the aftermath of Irma is the looting. “After three days when we were still trying to fix our generators we realized that looting was going on; it was incredible and I hope I’ll never see that again.”

Holland House reached out to friends, owners and guests through social media – an effort that was quite effective, because management managed to raise “a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”

With Hurricane Irma in the rearview mirror, Holland House has created a new dinner menu. “We have a great executive chef who has won a couple of awards already. He is a young guy from the islands and he cooks with a very nice flair,” Boetekees says. “He makes very flavorful dishes.”

Shopping in Philipsburg is good again as well, Boetekees says, referring to the presence of Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and quality watch retailers. “St. Maarten has done an amazing job coming back after the hurricane. The island is beautiful right now and from Holland House you have easy access to the French side. It is just a little drive away. I encourage everybody to buy plane tickets and to come to St. Maarten.”

The new rooms Holland House created on the fourth floor are business-class style. “It is our executive floor now; the rates are a bit higher, but the rooms have beautiful mini bars and beautiful showers. You can stand in your rain shower and look outside at Great Bay Beach. It is worth the plane ticket to get there, it is absolutely perfect.”

Watch the video interview online here: