Story and photos by Susan Doran
Winter is optional, or at least so says Calgary-based developer Cary Mullen.
As founder of Vivo Resorts, a gated community of luxury condominiums and private villas on Mexico’s balmy Pacific coast near Puerto Escondido, the former Olympic ski racer has personally given winter the cold shoulder.
This writer can get on side with that, having recently spent time as Vivo Resorts’ guest, representing REM on a media jaunt. I learned plenty there which will inform this article, although perhaps a little less than I would have, had I gone easier on the margaritas at the swim-up bar.
But back to Mullen. After retiring from the eternal winter of competitive skiing, it’s little wonder that once he hit his stride as a developer/investor, he decided to “bet on beachfront property.” Barring a zombie apocalypse, there will always be demand for beachfront recreational property. And Mexico, despite safety concerns in some regions, remains near the top of the list of retirement and tourism destinations. (Oaxaca, the state within which Vivo Resorts is located, is considered safe.)
Still, Mullen must have had a few sleepless nights over the years.
He says at the start, trying to sell the dream, “We were sitting there on the beach with just sticks in the sand, bringing people through.”
Laughing, he remembers having clients climb into the scoop of a front-end loader so they could be lifted up to admire the view. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Says Derek Jackson, one of the early buyers: “Everybody told me I was an idiot to buy here.” A British Columbia resident, he’d been looking for somewhere to retire and had already checked out Puerto Vallarta and Cancun when a friend suggested Vivo Resorts. He bought a two-bedroom condo and is aware that it’s gaining in value and that he got a deal he’d have been unlikely to find in the larger, more touristy resort towns he’d previously scouted.
Canadian baby boomers make up the bulk of Vivo Resorts’ buyers, along with affluent clients in the market for second or third properties, says Mullen. Most don’t stay year-round. When absent, they take advantage of the resort’s vacation rental management program to make some investment income.
Mullen’s goal was to create a development where his parents could enjoy their golden years but that would also be fun for him and his young family. Having a reputation as a developer with a knack for spotting emerging markets, he spent a couple of years scouting potential beachfront locations, with the help of Realtors from various different countries.
“Investment timing is what I was looking for,” he says. “I wanted to find tremendous value in an emerging location.”
That meant a destination where luxury beachfront condominiums and private homes could be priced significantly below those in more developed areas, creating affordability both for vacationers and those wanting to invest, along with growth opportunities.
Vivo condo owner Bruce Lunder from California says that Mullen has delivered. Lunder says that he and his wife “circumvented all of Mexico” before finding the resort. “Prices here are much less than in the big ex-pat cities, which are all so developed and expensive,” he says.
Prices at Vivo Resorts – currently starting at around C$350,000 for fully furnished condos (more for villas) and ranging upwards of $900,000 – are expected to continue to go up as the area attracts rising international attention and takes off, which Mullen and others believe it is poised to do.
“It’s the perfect storm, all getting ready to happen,” I overheard the resort’s account executive tell a group of potential buyers.
Mullen says that “billions of dollars” have been earmarked for ongoing major improvements to highways and other infrastructure, and flight volumes have gone way up since building at Vivo began a decade ago.
It can still be a schlep to get there, particularly in the off season (June through October) when charters tend to be unavailable. Mullen says that limited direct flight access is one reason purchase prices at the resort are currently lower than in more heavily trafficked destinations.
Mullen’s long list of location criteria included natural beauty, perfect weather (“You are assured as a snowbird of great weather here”), and authentic culture and cuisine. I noticed that the authenticity line gets drawn at Montezuma’s revenge however; the resort has its own water aquifer and purification system.
The ocean is warm. Mole sauce – intense, earthy – is a local specialty. Roadside stands sell oranges and mangoes. In the market, amid fruit and flowers as bright as tropical birds, you’ll see barefoot children in skeleton costumes if you happen to be there around the Day of the Dead.
“It’s heaven,” Mullen says, “unless you have to have golf, or Oscar de la Renta and Big Macs. Chains and things aren’t here yet…We cater to people who are successful but not pretentious, willing to take the road less travelled.”
The community atmosphere of the resort is a plus, particularly now that the long-awaited multi-million-dollar clubhouse is open to provide a social hub, with its upscale open-air restaurant and bar, spa, fitness facilities, event space and tennis and pickle ball courts.
Located on 75 acres along a seemingly limitless stretch of unspoiled beach, Vivo Resorts’ master plan is ambitious, with the final build-out expected to be 114 private homes and over 400 condominiums. There’s still quite a ways to go (despite there apparently now being plans in the works for a new development up the beach).
Reduced rate “discovery tours” are offered to potential buyers.
The resort operates on a non-leveraged, cash-only business model, with funding secured by buyer deposits and project construction held off until pre-target sales of around 75 per cent are reached. It can be a slow process and it means buyers may have to wait awhile for their units to be built. But it’s safer than other models, says Mullen.
Where appropriate the resort will pay commission to outside Realtors, but so far 99 per cent of buyers use the resort’s own sales team. Mullen sees this as a missed opportunity for Realtors to help clients address investment and recreational property options.
“We have a Realtor program,” he says. “If Realtors have an interested client, they can register the customer with us, and then have our associate handle things or do it themselves.”
But let clients in on this important piece of information, passed along to me by the resort regulars I interviewed …the beer is really cheap at happy hour.