The Dominican Republic and the Niagara Region don’t have a lot in common, especially when considering local business expansion. Niagara Falls, Hamilton or even Toronto maybe, but crossing international time zones seems unnecessarily ambitious -unless your business is horses.
To the owners of HorsePlay Niagara, an established trail riding company in Wainfleet, expanding their brand into a warmer climate made sense to them personally, and Punta Cana – a newly developed region home to more than 80 seaside vacation resorts – fit professionally … almost accidentally.
For 15 years, Kathy and Tony Buttigieg have owned HorsePlay Niagara, a riding stable of about 40 horses specializing in saddling-up western-style and taking visitors through parts of the Niagara Escarpment. Summers are beautiful, but stormy winters in this region can be challenging. Warmer climates beaconed. Their goal was to spend the summer months here, and the winter running a trail riding operation (horses are their first love) in the sunny south. So the quest for a location took them to Florida, Arizona, Mexico and Jamaica before settling, somewhat by fluke, on the Dominican Republic.
Kathy and Tony were on vacation in the Dominican when they hired Cesar, an English-speaking driver, to take them around the country-side – a country Kathy describes as “safe with incredibly friendly and welcoming people.” At lunch, they discussed horses and their desire to open a trail-riding business during the time of the year when business is slow at home. Cesar said, “I know someone you should talk to,” and drove them to see his uncle, Jose Castillo, a former jockey who spent years living in Mississauga working at Woodbine Racetrack. Jose returned home to turn the family property into a cattle farm and trail riding businesses servicing the growing tourist population along the Punta Cana coast.
They struck a deal, and a year and a half ago, HorsePlay Punta Cana became a reality.
“As of today, we are the number one choice for activities in Punta Cana on Trip Advisor,” Kathy proudly tells me about HorsePlay Punta Cana. “We started in January 2012 and shot up to number three within a year. And now we’re number one.”
By “started,” Kathy means she and her husband invested in Jose’s existing family-owned and operated trail riding business near Punta Cana, along the south coast of the Dominican Republic. And by Trip Advisor, she means the surprisingly influential online travel website that allows users to review hotels, destinations, restaurants and excursions based on personal experience, and it’s also one of the main places people are going to research vacation activities. In fact, when I visited HorsePlay Punta Cana to participate in the three-hour River Run excursion, the other families I met – from New York, Boston and Cape Breton – all discovered this option on Trip Advisor citing reviews as a reason they booked.
Understanding social media is a key to both local, and international, travel business success. Marketing, especially online, was something the riding stable wasn’t doing well before the Buttigiegs invested. The business was struggling before rebranding as HorsePlay, but the land and location was ideal.
“Buying the property from me was not an option,” says Jose who runs the Dominican operation. While I was there, he showed me around pointing out the backyard gardens producing coffee beans, chocolate and cinnamon that are part of some tours here. Pigs and chickens roam freely and as we talk he points to where the houses of his father, grandmother and uncle once stood. But a partnership was a welcome insurgence of capital.
The business partners went to work updating the facility, expanding web-based bookings and renaming the business. “When I first met Jose,” Kathy says, “he did day tours, short horseback rides and some meals. After we invested, we closed the place down, and added a building, picnic tables, and a zip line over the river that flows beside the property.” They also added a three-hour River Ride experience that includes an ride through forests and across a stream, a stop at a cigar making store, zip lining and a ‘Dominican meal experience’ that mimics the type of food the people in the surrounding areas eat, including soup brewed in a pot over an open fire, rice, beans, and chicken.
The horses used are Higueyano, a special breed of ‘country horse’ that’s evolved to tolerate the climate and hard working conditions. “All mammals that live closer to the equator tend to be smaller to dispense heat,” says Kathy, “and these horses have no extra body fat, narrow chests and protruding hips.” So they look underfed compared to North American pets.
Finding a riding stable that cares well for the horses is important to most travelers, especially equine enthusiasts. Horses in the rural Dominican are functional and often necessary for transportation (some people’s only source) and farm work. HorsePlay Punta Cana horses get hay, grain and vet care, unlike many of their neighbours, and a salt lick that, according to Kathy, staff didn’t believe the horses would love but did. The number of horses also increased from eight to 30. Kathy says trusts Jose’s judgment and horse expertise to stock their herd from the surrounding countryside, and work the horses in cycles. “My horses get more time off than I do,” jokes Kathy.
They are also working on getting the zip line certified to North American safety standards, not something required by Dominican law but a selling feature to tourists. In the evening, the ranch offers ‘cattle drives’ that allow riders, some novice and some experienced, to get in touch with their inner cowboy and help move cattle from grazing fields to rivers to drink. “It’s a lot of fun, especially for people who don’t know what they are doing,” Jose says. “Because I’ve working and lived in Canada and the United States, I know what tourist from there want while on vacation.”
The tourist trade is their bread and butter in Punta Cana, and the vacation landscape is changing. Two of the most luxurious resorts, for example, are the Paradisus Palma Real, a boutique-style hotel with a Royal Service upgrade, and the newly renovated Paradisus Punta Cana, described as a resort within a garden. Both are owned by Spain-based Melia Hotels International and both offer an up-scale service and food experience only recently associated with the Dominican Republic, once the playground for economical all-inclusive party holidays. The Palma Real’s Royal Service, for example, includes access to adult-only lounges, pools, beach section, one butler per six rooms accessible by hotel-provided cell phone, and gourmet restaurants in addition to the traditional all-day buffets.
According to Kathy, tourists from the resorts are the primary source of customers and business has picked up considerably since the company rebranded as HorsePlay and actively promoted. People are picked up at resorts and driven, about an hour, along a rural paved road, while sitting on benches on the back of a tarp-canopied truck. The ride is a bit harrowing at times, wind whipping through your hair, while the truck occasionally passes horseback riders and is overtaken by mopeds, motorcycles and cars. But it’s an excellent way to see the country-side of wooden shacks, roadside food and souvenir vendors, and fenced grassy properties, before experiencing an authentic Dominican ranch.
When Kathy and Tony are in the Dominican, they stay on the Horseplay property fully immersed in both their business and the lifestyle of the people who live here. Many visitors fall in love with the luxury of the resorts; others like the Buttigiegs fall in love with the people and culture, and the slowly evolving infrastructure prime for Canadian investment.
This article was originally published in Niagara Life Fall 2013