Cancun Confidential: Kempinski Hotel and Secrets of a Career in Hospitality

Kempinski Hotels executive Xavier Destribats has overseen many international properties. Photo by Peter Franks

Kempinski Hotels executive Xavier Destribats has overseen many international properties. Photo by Peter Franks

Cancun, Mexico, easily reachable via three-hour, non-stop flights from Lansing’s Capital Region International Airport, is sometimes perceived as a party destination. Spring breakers are more than welcome to whoop it up, but Xavier Destribats wants you to know you have an option at the cultured, Kempinski Cancun Resort, where vacationers can get sophistication with their sunshine.

As Kempinski’s president and COO of the Americas, Destribats knows Latin luxury: he also oversees the brand’s three resort and business hotels in Cuba and beyond.

“Kempinski Hotels, founded in 1897, is the oldest European brand, with 84 privately-owned, unique properties worldwide. We like to open hotels in historic buildings and even palaces,” he explained. “For our guests, every moment becomes a masterpiece.”

Even for me: on the rooftop pool deck, Destribats gently replaced the cola I was drinking with a glass of sauvignon blanc. “Drink wine. It is healthier for you,” he said in his non-judgmental, humorous tone. Destribats is all sophistication with no snobbery – as are the Kempinski Hotels.

Five-star service has reached the beach in Cancun with its powdery white sand along the turquoise-blue Caribbean Sea with Kempinski’s 363 rooms overlooking the oasis. Kempinski Cancun feels blissfully remote but convenient since it is in the vibrant hotel zone 25-minutes from downtown and the airport. Kayanta is the Mayan word for “renewal,” and the name of the hotel’s spa, which uses indigenous ingredients in wellness treatments. Kayanta Spa is described as a “decadent place of respite.”

Travelers who appreciate a variety and gourmet food and wine fear Cancun’s “all inclusive” resort plans which can leave their palates trapped with redundant on-site menus and buffets. Kempinski Cancun eschews the all-inclusive model for a la carte cuisine curated by epicurean chefs using local ingredients and supplemented by sommeliers in its six bars and restaurants. It is the same accommodating European plan used at their historic properties in world cities such as Istanbul, Dubai, Singapore, Cairo and Dresden.

Destribats, born and raised in France’s famed Bordeau wine region, has managed hotels in Mexico, Israel, Paris, Geneva, Japan, and Cuba. His long professional career began with a posting in Cancun – and so he has come full circle.

 “Although I have a house in France, home is where I am at any given moment,” he insisted. The hospitality industry has given him a life, and he has advice for students in MSU’s School of Hospitality Management. “You will always have work in hotels and restaurants. To be sure to always have a job, hospitality is a great industry. You need to have a passion, though, because you will work long hours. These are not eight-hour days. And very often you must be entertaining.”

The reward for dedication, according to Destribats, is the ability to travel and see the world and experience its different cultures.

“I was always impressed that my father invited people to our home. It was more welcoming than taking them to a restaurant. We were six children sitting at the dinner table with the guests. I had to wear a tie. And then a lady came in with white gloves serving at the table. This is how I started to like hospitality, so I went to hotel school in Switzerland.”

Destribats’ wife also studied hotel management, as did his son, who is now in Munich. Vacation for the Destribats means visiting their son and their daughter in Innsbruck.  His career, during which Hyatt once named him “General Manager of the Year,” was not always as smooth as the Bordeau he sips.

“My first hotel in Cancun was destroyed by a hurricane. So, I moved to a job in Jerusalem where I encountered the missiles of the first Gulf War,” he revealed. Destribats was also in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami that resulted in a nuclear power plant disaster.

“My friends are afraid to travel with me,” he joked. “But Japan is great for a hotelier because the Japanese insist on top quality: the best food, cutlery, uniforms… everything. They eat out almost every evening so the restaurants are always full.”

 It was in Tokyo, where his hotel was next to a cinema, that Destribats was able to meet Clint Eastwood, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and even Billionaire inventor Bill Gates. “My conversation with Mr. Gates totaled five words from him: I welcomed him to the hotel and he said, ‘Thank you.’ In the elevator I asked how his flight was and he answered, ‘Good.’ When I delivered him to his room, he said, ‘Thank you.’”

Obviously, a diplomat, Destribats has learned to vary his management style. “You do not manage your team in Cancun the way you manage your team in Japan or Geneva. You adapt to the local culture. That does not mean you have to compromise your standards and morale. You teach about the brand and luxury. And you must not lose your temper anywhere.”

Contact Michael Patrick Shiels at  His radio program may be found or weekday mornings from 9-noon on WJIM AM 1240

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