Cover story: Taking care of Paradise

If your clients long for a tropical oasis in their backyards, there’s probably no better example to follow than the grounds of Atlantis, a 500-acre mega-resort that dominates tiny Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Envisioned by South African hotel mogul and developer Sol Kerzner as the mythological utopia risen from its watery grave, Atlantis includes five hotel towers (one with a 5,000-square-foot suite for $25,000 per night), a casino, golf course, four residential estate properties, a 63-acre water park and habitats for 50,000 marine animals ranging from dolphins and sharks to stingrays and giant turtles. And surrounding it all are lush, colorful plants in keeping with the lost paradise theme.

While Plato’s Atlantis sank into the sea “in a single day and night of misfortune,” the city’s rebirth as a resort is taking much longer. Construction and landscaping are ongoing processes that began 16 years ago when Kerzner International bought two existing hotels and turned them into the Beach and Coral towers. Two building phases followed, with the newest structure, called the Reef, completed in December 2007.

Bahamian native, Conray Rolle, has had a hand in the resort’s landscaping from the beginning. Now senior director of landscaping for Atlantis, Rolle was a foreman with the landscaping company Kerzner hired to upgrade the grounds of the original towers. When the next phase commenced, the resort sought him out to work as a full-time project manager.

Rolle, who grew up working in his father’s residential landscaping business, says despite the obvious differences in residential work and overseeing landscape operations at a large resort, lessons learned in each field can be applied to the other. Rolle’s responsibilities include managing landscapes at the four residences inside the resort, and he still does residential design and installation projects on his own. “You try to bring the same level of quality to residential as you have at a resort, and you try to take the intimacy of residential and bring it here,” he says. “So you have that symbiosis.”

Many challenges Rolle encounters at Atlantis – plant selection and survival, finding the right employees, and controlling costs – mirror those managers face in running a landscape business.

Every plant in its place
Ten percent to 15 percent of the plants at Atlantis are native to the Bahamas. Most others are indigenous to rainforests or other parts of Latin America “to achieve that tropical feel,” Rolle says, and many have to be acclimated to the coastal climate. Nearly constant wind laced with salt, high soil pH and the presence of salt in the reclaimed water the resort uses are tough on plants.

The solution, Rolle says, is to follow a basic landscaping principle: “Plant the right plant in the right place.” Some plants tolerate salt spray better than others. Those with hard, waxy leaves, for instance, are better protected. Hibiscus and bougainvillea, two frequently appearing plants in the resort’s landscapes, have different water needs, with hibiscus flourishing in areas where excess water is present and bougainvillea requiring drier conditions.

For initial plantings, Rolle works with landscape architects. He looks over plant lists and tells them of any species that won’t survive or won’t be able to grow properly in a particular place. Sometimes the owner requests plants that might not fare well, and in those cases, Rolle and his staff take measures to make them work. Sometimes they create a protective zone around a tree by planting it in a corner or pairing it with a hedge to act as a wind screen. “We do what we can to give that plant the best chance of survival,” he says.

Daily, staff members wash salt off a palm that had to be planted in an area prone to salt spray, Rolle says. But that can’t be done with every plant. Overhead irrigation also helps remove buildup in areas where salt spray is worst.

Holding down costs
Landscapes are constantly evolving at Atlantis. Even at the Cove and the Reef, both less than three years old, upgrades are in progress. After initial installations, Rolle is in charge of selecting replacement plants. He attends a plant show every year, and a plant broker puts his selections in the next shipment.

The landscape staff acts quickly to transplant species that aren’t thriving to areas where they will. The resort practices integrated pest management and has a dedicated pest management crew. Stressed, diseased or insect-infested plants are quarantined in a greenhouse for three to six months and reintroduced to the landscape after natural growth resumes. Despite these efforts, Atlantis spends approximately $500,000 annually on plant material.

Rolle is trying to lower costs associated with replacing plants that don’t survive. He’s kept a spreadsheet tracking plant replacements for years, but it didn’t include the reasons for replacements until two years ago. He couldn’t tell from the spreadsheet whether a plant was replaced due to poor installation or plant selection, damage from heavy equipment or some other cause.

His new data is growing now, and Rolle says he’s already seeing a reduction in costs. Soon he hopes to present the developer with information that will help the resort recoup a sizeable portion of its plant budget. Taking the role of owner, he plans to hold outside contractors and architects responsible if their poor installations and plant selections lead to losses.

The resort look for less
If your clients want you to recreate a resort they’ve visited, budget likely will be your biggest obstacle since most homeowners don’t have the financial resources of a vacation property developer. “They [clients] want density; they want that ‘wow’ effect, but they don’t understand the cost,” Rolle says.

Fortunately there are ways around this hurdle. Rolle says while he might buy a $15 shrub for Atlantis, he can purchase a similar one for a homeowner for $7. “You have to give homeowners options,” he says. “The beauty of landscaping is that you can use a lot of the same plants in terms of color at different costs and achieve the same thing.”

He practices this philosophy even within the resort, where accommodations range significantly in price. Rolle uses more expensive plants in and around the new luxury towers, for example, than at the casual Beach and Coral towers.

Informing your clients about maintenance costs is also important, as some resort-style plants require a lot of attention. To those strolling the grounds of Atlantis, the palms, ferns and colorful tropical flowers appear to be growing naturally and effortlessly. But it takes 70 full-time landscape employees and 80 to 90 people working for outside contractors to create this illusion.

Give your clients low- and high-maintenance options the same way you show them plants from different price levels, Rolle says. He advises landscapers can protect themselves by turning down jobs that will require complicated maintenance unless their company will perform the work. If a landscape doesn’t turn out the way you and the customer envisioned it because poor pruning practices caused a plant to be misshapened or if plants die because they didn’t receive the fertilizer treatments or irrigation they needed, the customer is likely to blame the installer.

Irrigation upgrades
Irrigation is a vital aspect of maintenance at Atlantis. An automatic, 200-zone system waters every plant at the resort, and Rolle started a retrofitting program for the system last year.

Around older structures, where landscapes are established, the system will transition from pop-up sprinkler heads to low-volume drip irrigation. In these areas, mature shrubs block water from some plants while, in general, the sprinkler heads are delivering too much water to plants that don’t need as much as newly installed ones. Rolle says drip irrigation will give these plants the exact amount of water they need where they need it, and lose less to evaporation. He plans to continue the upgrade throughout the property, ending with the newest landscapes, for a water savings of 30 percent to 40 percent.

Trainable employees
Like many landscape company owners in the United States, Rolle puts attracting quality employees at the top of his list of challenges. The labor problem is exacerbated in the Bahamas, where a population of only 300,000 is spread over hundreds of islands and no formal landscape training institution exists.

Rolle focuses on hiring “trainable” people who have potential ability and an interest in landscaping. He goes to career fairs and explains the scientific aspects of the industry to young people who often view it as lawnmower pushing. “I try to get them to see it as a viable career option and not just a job,” he says.

Rolle says he is lucky to have a strong, reliable management team – comprising a director, two assistant directors and six managers. The team has established a great relationship, he says, and works together on every aspect of the resort’s landscaping.

On-the-job training takes place twice a week in rotating groups of 15. The staff began an external certification program through the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association last year. Instructors will travel to the Bahamas to provide training in horticulture, maintenance and design, and Rolle says his staff is looking forward to the courses. “I want to get international recognition for them,” he says. “Bahamians are prideful people.”

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