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In our new series profiling executives who have chosen to get into the travel and hospitality business, we meet a man dedicated to redefining the eco-resort
Andrew Dixon knew he’d won a battle when he saw an old friend sitting at the bar at Nikoi island. That same friend had wished him luck when he got out of banking and begun a new life as a hotelier on this small Indonesian island in the Riau Archipelago: but he said he’d never come and see the place for himself. Why? No air conditioning.
There is no aircon on Nikoi, nor on Cempedak, Dixon’s nearby second resort opened last year. The Australian entrepreneur set out to make both resorts carbon-neutral. So in your villa you get a huge fan and the breezes off the South China Sea to keep you cool – and dry your hair for that matter, for hairdryers are also off the amenity list.
But like his mate at the bar, families (at Nikoi) and couples (at Cempedak) are more than willing to escape their air conditioned offices, cars and homes in Singapore and Hong Kong for a little barefoot luxury in rooms made from recycled woods: driftwood for Nikoi, bamboo for Cempedak..
We asked Dixon, 53, what made him swap a career trading distressed debt for a large European bank for running a resort.
I had no intention of going into the island business (we don't like the word resort!) It started from a simple holiday on a very small private island near to Singapore. It was built from driftwood with sand floors and with no air conditioning and yet an easy weekend destination. I fell in love with the place. It was the rustic simplicity that I loved most. It reminded me of childhood summer holidays at the beach.
So I wanted to get a few friends together buy one of the desert islands, then build a few ‘driftwood palaces’: and that would be our escape on the weekends. We then stumbled across Nikoi which was a much larger island than I had been looking for. But the island just had so much going for it – we bought it.
Initially we camped. Slowly we became more familiar with the area and the people and started to build. By this stage we had decided it would be better to open it up to the public. We finally opened the first six villas in 2007 and we started taking bookings. We quickly started to fill up on weekends and within a year or two it was nearly impossible to get a room. We finished another nine villas in 2009 and in no time were running at 90% occupancy. By this stage I had come to see that this was more enjoyable than my banking job so I quit it to focus on the island business.
Did you have second thoughts at any point?
Yes, many times! It is not easy building on a remote island and is quite a harsh environment. Many said we were mad, but we stuck to our guns and slowly it began to take shape. It was the rave reviews that we started getting from guests that made it all so worthwhile and made me want to persevere.
Did you always intend to set a high bar in terms of sustainability?
When we started out the word ‘sustainability’ wasn't really a term that was widely used. ‘Eco’ was the buzzword, but we felt that it had been overused and somewhat abused. We were very keen to protect the environment and this became the starting point for our sustainability journey. Early on we picked up a few Responsible Tourism awards and this inspired us to do more. About five years ago we joined a group called The Long Run and this has been a fantastic platform for us to learn more and be inspired by other responsible operators from around the world.
Do hotels do enough to engage with their communities and educate them on their environmental goals?
No, not nearly enough and they are shooting themselves in the foot by not doing so. We have found connecting to the local community through the Foundation and other initiatives a wonderful way to help grow our business and the trust the community has in us. It has been invaluable.
Was it easier with your second property?
No! We thought it would be but we set a higher standard and had a reputation to keep. It was much more challenging than I expected.
How involved in the day to day operations are you? Is this a hard thing to manage?
Very involved, but I am trying to inspire our staff to make decisions without having to revert to me. Culturally this is a little difficult as they have a very tiered hierarchical society. We have fantastic staff and a very low turnover so gradually this is getting easier.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs contemplating a similar move?
Start slowly and have some patience. It is a long road.