How a Butler Is Adding a Humanitarian Touch to Hospitality
With a broad smile and an outstretched arm, born and bred Puerto Rican native Noel Santiago Concepción endeavors to keep the local population thriving amid the unincorporated U.S. territory’s chaos.
Santiago, as he’s known professionally, works as an embajador, a butler, at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton reserve property. The luxury resort’s 1,400 acres once belonged to Laurance Rockefeller, and its 114 rooms fetch, at minimum, $1,000 per night. The hotel received a $382 million renovation and reopened in 2012, when Santiago was hired.
From the moment the lanky, brown-eyed 52-year-old stepped onto the property, he vowed to be an example.
He believes no action is too small; his daily activity of picking up a single piece of garbage on the beach is as important to him as is arranging a group visit to a local foster home, as he did in 2010.
Along with a handful of his fellow employees, Santiago dressed up like a clown and came equipped with face paint. After painting each of the foster children’s faces, he handed them the paint and volunteered his own face.
“It was a mess,” the U.S. Army veteran says, wiping tears from his eyes, “but it was beautiful. There are communities here that need a lot of help; to just take one hour, that could change everything for a kid who has nothing.”
Although Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, it’s drastically different. Roughly 84 percent of the 3.7 million inhabitants say they do not have a working knowledge of the English language. The island is laden with $70 billion in debt, a 12 percent unemployment rate, and a staggering 41 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The median household income is $20,000, according to U.S. Census documents.
This means raising money, even just $175, like Santiago did to buy school supplies for this academic year, takes considerable time and effort.
“We work at a place that is ultra big and ultra luxury,” says Ana Maria Ramos, a Dorado Beach guest relations supervisor and Santiago’s manager. “But it’s more than that. Noel engages with the guests on another level. That makes him good at his job but also well respected by the staff. When he talks, they listen.”
When Santiago asks for money, they donate, despite the fact that funds are admittedly tight. In July, Gov. Alejandro García Padilla hiked the sales tax from 7 to 11.5 percent, higher than any U.S. state, and called for an exemption from the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Born in nearby Vega Alta as the youngest of four children, Santiago graduated from Ramirez College of Business and Technology with an associate’s degree in dental hygiene before enrolling in the U.S. Army. He spent four years stationed in Texas and Georgia, including a tour in Korea.
Upon his return to Puerto Rico, Santiago found himself lost. While working at a printing company and continuing on reserve duty, he began drinking heavily. He was serially late for work, in paying bills, and in picking up his three young children from school.
“One day I day just stopped drinking,” Santiago said. “I said to myself, I don’t want to drink anymore. My body asked for more alcohol; I had to go to the veterans hospital and take some medicine and join a program.”
He changed everything, from his route to work (in order to avoid some of his favorite bars) to his group of friends. He describes his mind as clearing and opening up at that time. Shortly after completing his rehab, Santiago returned to the VA hospital, this time as a volunteer. Working in recreational therapy, he encouraged fellow veterans, sharing experiences and sometimes just listening to music together.
“I want to be the difference, I want to make the difference,” says Santiago, adding, “you have to change first, and then you have to spread it.”
Santiago is relentless in his efforts to include the roughly 340 hotel employees in his initiatives. He convenes with Ramos or another Dorado Beach hotel supervisor bimonthly to present a host of ideas that challenge the status quo of both the hotel and its staff.
According to Ramos, his ideas have a 60 percent acceptance rate.
That transcends food and clothing drives, now both semiannual staples thanks to Santiago, who was recently awarded employee of the year at Dorado Beach, in part because of his volunteer efforts.
He’s also looking to educate the local community on topics such as understanding the importance of fresh ingredients and eating healthy. Along with the hotel, Santiago arranged for the executive chef of Mi Casa By José Andrés, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant, to speak at a local school, marking the first time Santiago wasn’t on the front lines.
“He goes department to department, often attending every line-up, or morning staff meeting, figuring out what each person, each group can do,” Ramos said. “He’s so driven, collecting emails, always asking people to join him. He inspires other people to follow him and dedicate their own time and resources.”
Mopping his thick brow, Santiago is jittery; on the surface it would seem like anxiety, but friends and coworkers characterize his perpetual movement as a way to literally keep all of his ideas in motion.
“I think we are all learning, and that takes time,” says Friedel Stubbe, the developer and part owner of Dorado Beach. “Personally, I am very happy that we have been accepted so well, but there is space to improve. Life is like a river; it flows, and you never stop learning and restructuring and improving. That’s what makes a great organization.”
As an early member of Community Footprints, the social and environmental responsibility program of Ritz-Carlton, which partners with the resort, its employees, and the nearby communities, Santiago is looking to expand its reach. On Sept. 19, he mobilized an island-wide beach cleanup as part of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day. In 2014, that event attracted half a million volunteers in 91 countries.
“We have to care more,” Santiago said. “If you don’t change, you can’t expect the world to change.”