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Past Lives: Belize Hotelier Daniel Lighter

‘Past Lives’ is an ongoing column about the past careers of entrepreneurs and business leaders. The column recounts each person’s experience in various industries, from finance to sales, or simply, the nine-to-five grind. More than anything, ‘Past Lives’ is a story about how one person has reached their potential, and cut themselves loose from what was expected.

Written by Chris Metler

Alongside managing a successful law firm in Montreal, Daniel Lighter is a passionate hotelier, continuously striving to improve the guest experience at his Matachica Resort & Spa and GAÏA Riverlodge premises in Belize. Here, the father of five not only recounts his unlikely metamorphosis from Canadian criminal defence lawyer — and former Crown Attorney — to Central American proprietor. Here, Lighter on his journey from loafers to flip-flops, why timing is everything, and how entrepreneurship has drawn upon his three decades of practicing law.

I first visited Belize in 2005 following a divorce. The winter holidays were fast approaching, and anticipating my first Christmas away from my children, I knew that I needed to get away and head somewhere warm, quiet, and somewhat solitary—no family resorts or couples retreats!

I remember that first visit very well. I admired the simplicity, casual nature, and the friendliness of the Belizean people. I was struck by the manner in which tourists and locals mingled and coexisted. Belize is not a destination where tourists are whisked away from the local areas to spend a week’s holiday. Guests share restaurants, bars, bikes, golf carts, beaches, hiking trails, and more with locals. Families, children, schools, and neighborhood events are all in plain view, and guests are welcome to join in.

After returning to Montreal, I couldn’t stop thinking of Belize. I was back there within a month’s time, exploring the island of Ambergris Caye and hoping to purchase a small stretch of beachfront for a beach house that I fantasized building for my kids.

Fisherman and real estate agents pulled me in all directions. It wasn’t long until I understood all the ups and downs. Just prior leaving, I headed to a charming, magical, and most importantly, very well located, hotel owned by a European couple, who happened to have close friends from Montreal.

Poolside, over a quiet cup of Belizean coffee, they suggested that I consider buying Matachica from them, rather than merely settling on a stretch of beach.

Timing is everything. Before I knew it, we shook hands. I spent the next three months between the Court of Quebec’s Criminal Division, where my defence practice specializes in white-collar crime, fraud and corruption, and Ambergris Caye, doing my due diligence on the hotel.

The hotel since has grown from its initial 11 casitas and three villas, to 31 guest rooms, a spa, full dining room, tour operation, and a small fitness center. We have increased our staff from 25 to 75, and I’ve also added a second hotel, GAÏA Riverlodge, located in the Belize jungle.

I visit the properties 10 times a year to meet and interact with guests so that I can give them an authentic Belizean experience. In a globalized and hyper-connected world, the authenticity’s lost when visiting a foreign country. I work incredibly hard to ensure our guests have moments that allow them to connect back with themselves, their travel partner, and local Belize culture.

Ultimately, the transition from law to the hospitality industry has been challenging, but it’s also been exciting. It’s been a huge surprise to me just how much of my legal background and education has helped in the hotel business.

From the first days of negotiating the purchase, working with banks, lawyers, and accountants, to analyzing opportunities, working with trades, and of course, connecting with guests — all of those tasks have drawn upon my 30 years of practicing law, which began in 1989 as a Crown Prosecutor for the Quebec Crown Attorney Office.

It’s true, I’ve gone from gown to a swimsuit, and from loafers to flip-flops, but in the end, so much of life and entrepreneurship is based on instincts, analytics, and common sense.