What first brought you to Asia?
I have been connected to the hotel industry since I was 16 years old. When my mother remarried, her new husband was a hotelier. So I lived in a hotel for a few years in Scarborough then joined them in the family hotel business in Devon.
After that I worked as a cook in Austria for a winter season, followed by a housekeeper position for a Nigerian Prince and his family (I could write a book on that alone!) – then I got a position as a systems administrator at London Hosts, which ran 250 pubs in Central London. I was living in London in my mid 20’s – then my flatmate got a job in Hong Kong. It was to change my life as I followed her months later.
When I moved to Hong Kong, I got a job with a catering publication and after writing a feature about Ramada Group, the company appointed me as Group PR Manager. So I have always been linked to the industry. In 1990, I started my own PR company (ImpactAsia Ltd) and our focus, due to my knowledge in the area of hospitality, was in the same industry.
Over the years, the company morphed into specialising in luxury hotels, travel, upmarket restaurants, art shows, fashion, wine/drinks, retail and even motor cars when we bagged the Rolls Royce business in Hong Kong and China. I took time out to join a retreat in 2014 and I enjoyed the head space it gave me from my usual 15-hour days. I had time to think and relax my brain. It was a turning point and I realised I was ready for a change, so I sold a majority stake in my business in 2011 and stepped down in late 2013 after overseeing the transitional period in my role as CEO.
Now you have a project in Koh Samui. Tell us about it.
The Palms Retreat is tiny, and I prefer the word ‘bijou’ as it has just three villas. And that is what our guests like because the service is very individual and personalised. Also, our guests get lots of help from our yoga and other exercise instructors – much more than if they were in a class of, say, 20. It is located in the premium northeast area of Koh Samui, with lovely beaches and yet only 15 minutes from the airport.
To complement the activities we run on a daily basis (yoga, meditation, aqua power aerobics), we use a nutritional programme called Amrita, which we purchase in powdered format and mix up to make shakes by mixing them with fresh coconut water and a whole range of healthy-giving fruits and vegetables, such as banana, strawberries, papaya, kale, celery, beetroot etc.
Guests also enjoy one healthy meal per day which is sometimes a tasty vegetarian Tom Yung Goong or a salad. We do not serve any meat but sometimes use fish in our recipes. The rates start from around 6,000 baht per night, depending on the length of stay and room category.
Why did you choose Koh Samui?
I have a long history with, and love for, the island. I first visited it in 1986 and built a villa here in 2007. After 30 years in Hong Kong, I needed a change. Also, I slashed my living expenses by at least 80% by moving to Thailand! I love it here!
Who is your typical guest?
There is no ‘typical guest’. I admit that most people come for weight loss but sometimes they come because they need some head space, some peace. Usually, it is a combination. We have solo guests and couples, women and men who come from UK/Europe, Australia, USA and from Singapore, Japan, China and Hong Kong, as well as, increasingly, from India and the Middle East.
How long do they normally stay?
Between five and 15 days but we have a few who stay for a month.
What’s the overall reaction so far?
Really, really positive! We have an ‘Excellent’ rating on Trip Advisor and one lady actually said ‘it changed my life’. People love it here.
How much time do you spend at the resort?
As much time as I can but as I have a very capable and friendly manager, Khun Air, and a great team, I leave them to the day to day running. Sometimes I take part in some of the activities or have lunch with the guests. We have some fascinating people - it’s great meeting them and hearing their stories.
The rest of my time is spent on my other businesses; I liked the name Impact in Hong Kong so when a friend in Samui, Rodney Waller, asked me to consider teaming up with him to launch a new development company, I thought ‘why not’? Impact Samui was born! We started off buying old properties on the island, reconfiguring the layout and bringing them totally up to date in terms of the interiors, the plumbing, electrics et cetera. My main role is in the marketing and PR, and also overseeing the interior design.
In addition to these two roles, I also still handle a few PR consultancy roles from time to time, which I really enjoy.
I live about five minutes’ drive from The Palms Retreat in a lovely house with a huge and beautiful garden. I bought it last year and together with my partner, we have virtually completely renovated it. After living in the city for so many years, it is bliss having a garden to potter about in!
What are your major problems running the resort?
I don’t really favour the word ‘problems’ – I prefer ‘challenges’! And like any business, there are sometimes challenges, but to be honest, it is a small business and not too difficult to own and run. Thankfully I have good people!
After 30+ years working in Asia’s tourism/travel industry, what have been the major changes in terms of destinations, style, markets, attitudes – and what’s the future, etc.?
There are so many. Perhaps the biggest change has been in the consumer demographics; now that China has opened up so much, its people are exploring the world in droves and increasingly looking past the usual destinations such as London and Paris, by going to the Maldives, Thailand and other exotic destinations. Also they are looking for new experiences as they are ever hungrier and as such they need to be catered for.
Also young people in general are travelling independently more frequently, and need different products to those their parents may like. They want to hang out with their peers and so hotel groups are creating different products catering specifically for them – for example, Andaz (Hyatt) ; ALoft (Hilton); SO by Sofitel. There are many others too. Very important is ‘connectivity’ and ‘hip’ – travellers now must be able to be in touch 24/7.
Why not read my memoirs? – hang on, I haven’t had time to write them yet! OK, so in terms PR corps, the one that sticks in my memory is Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop which I brought to the region in the 1990s. It’s a long story but culminated in front page coverage in the Financial Times. I took a portion of fish and chips down to Star Ferry and gave it to a rickshaw driver to sample. The FT reporter was English so I told the translator to say that he thought the food was delicious’. The old man took a bite and literally said: “Yuk, I would never eat this.”
However, the picture of his wrinkly smiling face, complete with Chinese hat, appeared on the front page of the FT saying “I love these fish and chips – I’ll definitely be taking my family.” This episode will always stay with me!
Three on the Bund marked my first strategic move into the China PR market. It was feted as the very first ‘integrated luxury lifestyle’ concept in China and I helped to launch it, handling the international PR. I was so lucky to have that opportunity.
I also loved working with Sofitel Metropole Hanoi in Vietnam on the occasion of their 100th anniversary, and the Goodwood Experience for Rolls Royce Motor Cars in Shanghai was fun. So many memories. I could go on forever. I am just blessed to have had such a wonderful career.