‘Pura vida’ – A captivating Costa Rican experience

Welcome to The Moodie Davitt Report’s latest Interim Bureau, this time in San José, capital of Costa Rica. I’m here at the home of Morpho Travel Experience, the travel retail arm of recently rebranded Grupo Arribada. And it’s fair to say that in the three days of my visit so far, I have not just been on location but have undergone a full immersion in the culture and tourism highlights of this wonderfully welcoming Central American country.

Riding the wave: A warm welcome to Juan Santamaria Airport for The Moodie Davitt Report President Dermot Davitt (fourth left) from the Morpho Travel Experience team, including staff, left and right, and (from third left) Strategic Development Director Marcela Villalobos Moya, CEO Adriana Echandi, Director of Retail Alberto Perez Ibarra and F&B Corporate Director Byron Mora

Many travellers – the US is the dominant visitor nationality in Costa Rica – move between the key sites by air rather than road. So on Monday, to get from Juan Santamaria International Airport to Liberia International (Morpho’s two key airport locations in the country, the latter serving the hugely popular Guanacaste area), so did we.

In a 12-seater commuter jet that danced its way through the clouds and made several interim stops along the way to deposit or pick up tourists. If you want a landing to thrill the soul, fly in over the beach at Tamdor and bounce down on the short runway with only the local cows as spectators.

Taking to the air in a 12-seater to visit key Morpho sites in Costa Rica with Adriana Echandi (window seat) and Marcela Villalobos…
…and arriving at Liberia International Airport

I’ve since wound my way through coffee plantations close to the active volcanoes that ring the capital city region, paid a memorable visit to the stunning La Paz Waterfalls & Gardens, fed a toucan, come face to face with a sloth, learned the art of coffee blending and sampled the simple but joy-filled cuisine of Costa Rica.

Britt Shop and Casa Tica, among a range of destination brands employed by the group across Costa Rica and other markets (Liberia Airport pictured)

I’ve also learned much about the country’s major travel retailer and its vision to become a powerful force across retail and dining in the regional travel market, and perhaps beyond.

Since opening its first airport store in 2001 Morpho Travel Experience has grown to become a US$160 million turnover company, with operations in 11 countries, and it has US$200 million in sales firmly in its sights for 2023. Morpho in turn contributes around 70% of Grupo Arribada turnover, the group comprising sister companies Café Britt (which is a producer and supplier to the rest of the business), Delika Gourmet and Conceptos Gastronomicos.

Back to Juan Santamaria Airport (international terminal) for a walk through the extensive Morpho Travel Experience operation. The image depicts the entrance to the departures zone after security, which is led by the vast destination and speciality retail stores managed by Morpho, a contrast to many airports that lead on duty free

Above, Costa Rican handcrafts and the Emprende 506 concept, which gives entrepreneurs of all kinds the chance to showcase their wares at the airport (506 is the Costa Rica dialling code)

Across airports, hotels and other travel-related sites, Morpho has become a reference point for destination retailing, through its Rumbo, Casa Tica, Emprende and many other brands, its close associations with local manufacturers and its focus on high-quality destination product that matches the demands of the location and the client base.

Take it slow: The sloth has become a national symbol, instantly recognisable to those that have spent a few days visiting the country, and is depicted across product designs and in stores. I am in the main Morpho departures store at Juan Santamaria with Marcela Villalobos, Adriana Echandi, Alberto Perez Ibarra and Byron Mora.

The level of investment and detail that goes into imagining and executing its stores is arguably unmatched anywhere else in terms of creating Sense of Place. This is led by its partnerships with local suppliers in each country, its focus on appeal to all wallet sizes and its adaptability to new trends and customer demands.

The company’s focus on what it does best is a big factor. It knows what it does well so don’t expect it to enter the duty free market any time soon for example, though it does travel essentials, jewellery and some consumer tech well through its in-house retail brands.

Enjoying superb Argentinean food at the renowned La Esquina de Buenos Aires in San José with Morpho Commercial Director Ronaldo Herrera (left), Liberia International Airport Director Cesar Jaramillo Gallego alongside Adriana Echandi and Marcela Villalobos

What it does aim to become beyond its traditional core is a recognised travel food & beverage partner to airports, complementing retail where appropriate. Having entered the F&B business in 2017, it is now aiming to expand here too, with an emphasis on fresh, locally produced fare alongside selected franchise brands – California Pizza Kitchen a prime example.

This is above all a story about people and their passion for the company and what it stands for. Not all of the senior management team have worked at Morpho right from the start like CEO Adriana Echandi (selected as one of The Moodie Davitt Report’s People of the Year in 2022), but most have been there for 14, 16, 18 years and have grown in expertise and confidence as the group itself has expanded.

Director of Retail Alberto Perez Ibarra and Visual Director Javier Andrés Villarroel Vivero join me (and the toucan) at La Paz Waterfall Gardens National Park, one of many sources of inspiration for Morpho design and products

A visit to Morpho Travel Experience HQ – which it shares with sister company Café Britt – offers a snapshot of a close-knit senior team alongside young talent coming through the ranks in departments from design to logistics.

That growth from within reflects well on Morpho’s drive to recruit homegrown talent, as well as on Costa Rica’s education system; its hires are local, highly skilled and most speak English to an astonishingly proficient degree.

The natural Costa Rican openness and hospitality to guests helps too, as does the absence of a heavily tiered structure dividing people in the organisation. No administrative assistants or secretaries, the leaders sit with their teams, and importantly, decisions are made fast without needing committee approval. Having a management team with 50% female representation is another factor not to be overlooked in the collaborative style of management.

The vast, impressive F&B zone at Juan Santamaria Airport, managed by Morpho, which leads on from its retail arena

The ethos of the company – which also involves supporting communities by striking purchasing agreements with artisanal talent across every market – has had an impact on its place in the regional industry.

Aside from a handful of concessions Morpho relinquished as too difficult due to local factors, the company has renewed every major contract it has operated over its 20-year-plus history. It continues to strive to be the partner of choice – trusted, fast and flexible – for any airport seeking a speciality retailer leading on destination merchandise in Latin America or the Caribbean.

Rumbo Puravida is a brand that will appear at many more airport sites. Here we are visiting one of the street locations run by the group. I am pictured with Marcela Villalobos and Senior Retail Manager Eileen Rowland (right).

Like Morpho’s story, this trip isn’t just about Costa Rica alone. As I write I’m heading to Bogota to see another group operation, with Santiago de Chile – location of the biggest openings for the group in 2023 – to follow tomorrow. These will be far from the last new Morpho locations in this region, with expansion to other states in Central and South America, plus the Caribbean, firmly on the radar.

With the warm, engaging Morpho team and one of its artist partners at Bogota Airport, Colombia en route to Chile

We will tell the full story of Morpho’s rise to become a significant regional player very soon. Over 20 years in the making, we sense that this take is still in its early chapters. And it’s one in which the ‘Pura vida’ spirit is very much alive. The phrase that means ‘pure life’ or ‘simple life’  can be expressed to mean any number of things in Costa Rica, from thanks to hello or goodbye. Above all, it’s about making people feel welcome and at home. As an expression of national spirit, from what I have seen this week, it is spot on.

  • Thanks Dermott for your time and visit . Hope to see you again in the near future!

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