It takes old-school hospitality expertise and new-school marketing hustle to create a cult property from scratch. Nihi Sumba Island seems to be the culmination of both, plus it has the right capital and vision.
Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
When you canvas hospitality leaders around the world for who they look up to or where they find inspiration, hotelier James McBride is a recurring name people bring up.
He began his career in a Durban, South Africa kitchen; worked his way up through the Ritz Carlton for 14 years starting in 1988 and has a Harvard Business School case study referencing his work, and served as managing director of The Carlyle in Manhattan from 2003 to 2009.
In the latest phase of his career, McBride has partnered with investor Chris Burch to open a property called Nihi Sumba Island in Indonesia. It is around a 50-minute flight from Bali. McBride is a partner and CEO of Nihi Hotels.
The property is in a remote location and strives to offer an ecologically minded experience. Travel+Leisure recently named Nihi Sumba the “Best Hotel in the World” and user reviews across several platforms show that it is resonating with guests. Skift caught up with McBride in New York to discuss the hotel project, staff training, Nihi’s expansion to new locations, and his thoughts on the state of modern luxury.
Skift: Can you describe your Nihi project in Sumba to someone who hasn’t heard of it?
James McBride: We started with a very different vision than most luxury resorts and have expanded on that vision: To go beyond the idea of merely a hotel or a vacation and create a feeling and introduce our guests to a way of life. Nihi is a glimpse into a bygone era, centuries of rituals, an unspoiled landscape, and unlimited freedom to explore. We want guests to feel connected and useful and to give back and feel a part of something larger than themselves. With philanthropy at the core of our business model, the Nihi legacy stands for more than just a destination. It stands for goodwill throughout the world it serves.
Skift: You went from zero to press accolades and great consumer reviews in a short time. Describe the marketing approach?
McBride: Our destination and the community here is unparalleled in the world. By leveraging the global relationships of Chris Burch and myself, we have a network of travelers who give us the benefit of the doubt and will go somewhere they might not otherwise without a trusted endorsement. We exceeded expectations. Additionally, we embraced the digital movement immediately and made our brand Instagram-savvy. Instagram is the primary referral to our website.
We have also been very generous to our supporters—travel agents, bloggers, booking providers, and more by inviting them to experience the uniqueness of Nihi Sumba Island. Last and most important, our philanthropic commitment to the Sumba Foundation. Guests want their children to learn about charitable giving and preserving cultures and communities; there is a meaningful educational component to what we do. Guests also enjoy returning to Nihi to see how their contributions to our efforts have been deployed. All of this combined creates and enthusiasm for and awareness of the brand.
Skift: How did you manage digital media versus old-school word of mouth?
McBride: It’s both. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing mechanism, and Instagram is wonderfully pictorial. Social media is today’s word of mouth.
Skift: What is the role of local community and how does that fit in?
McBride: What has been most rewarding is being surrounded by a society that is warm and welcoming. We owe the very heart and soul of the Nihi experience to our island’s communities. We need our communities’ support, trust, and relationships to make our business possible. Local communities have also very much rallied around the Sumba Foundation. The Foundation’s efforts can only make a positive, lasting impact to the extent that the communities embrace knowledge and training, and apply best practices, systems, and protocols. They appreciate the Foundation’s balance of providing benefits while preserving cultural traditions.
Skift: How are you finding and training staff?
McBride: Our staff is 95 percent Sumbanese. Guests interact with pure, native people. By no means are they classically trained — they serve from the heart. We do not want a vanilla, repetitive type of customer service. By that I mean, our employees are not reciting from a script and responding with “certainly, my pleasure.” They are engaging and real to Sumba. We’ve had to train on efficiency and execution so that they understand prompt resolution to a guest’s needs.
Skift: How do you get the right mix of guests and not just those that want bragging rights?
McBride: Being an attractive resort destination does draw some off-brand people. We are not a stuffy, flawless experience. We are thoughtfully rough around the edges. For the most part, we appeal to our ideal guest who is adventurous because it is not easy arriving to the forgotten island! It can be 30 hours of travel for the 50 percent of our guests who journey from North America.
Skift: What are the plans for other properties in the near term?
McBride: We are always looking. Like Sumba Island, the location must be special and allow us to provide our signature “edge of wildness” experience.
Skift: What was your experience running The Carlyle?
McBride: The Carlyle was a pivotal moment in my life where I met some of the most interesting people in the world. The Carlyle is still close to my heart to this day. When I am in New York I spend a lot of time there. It is like home. I love the tradition of the place, the elements of the music between Café Carlyle and Bemelmans Bar, the simple elegance, and how it exemplifies a feeling of home away from home. Like Sumba, it attracts very interesting and eccentric people and has employees that embody that spirit.
These businesses are similar in that you either get them or you don’t. Creating them and leading them is the same. You either understand how to connect with the people, or you don’t. For example, the bathrooms in The Carlyle’s rooms are small, but guests don’t stay at the Carlyle for the bathrooms. They stay there because it feels like a home.
Skift: What were your most formative experiences in hospitality and when did you know it would be a life’s work?
McBride: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be in the hotel businesses. I was fortunate to stay in beautiful hotels with my family while growing up. The people who fail in this business usually fail because they don’t realize it is a permanent commitment, seven days a week, working hard. My first hotel job was in the kitchen of a Durban hotel in my native South Africa. I loved it and the experience added to my drive to be successful. I joined The Ritz Carlton in 1988 in its infancy and basically grew up in the business there. From there, my career just took on a life of its own.
Skift: How is luxury changing?
McBride: Luxury means something different to everyone. Nihi Sumba Island is not a white-glove-service-and-polished-silver destination. You can bathe from your private terrace outdoors. You can indulge in unlimited spa treatments in a clifftop bale. You can practice yoga on a rock cantilevered over rice paddy fields as far as you can see. You can have lunch in the cool mist of a majestic waterfall. At Nihi, luxury is defined by the experiences we create individually for our guests.
Skift: What are the characteristics of your ideal city hotel?
McBride: For me, it is about connecting with your guests with the softest comforts, a connection that it is your home, not just a place to sleep. In cities, people are looking for tranquility, and not to be bothered. Details matter, like the availability to leave one’s clothes there between trips, quiet rooms, not closing the window treatments during turndown if there is a beautiful water or park view. Knowing how much or how little to interact with guests. Everyone over-complicates everything when our business is very simple.
It’s about making people feel warm, happy, and safe, letting them recharge so that they can go about their lives which are usually stressful and filled with issues — the last thing guests want to have to deal with is the minutia. I’m still shocked when I am in a hotel room that has classical music playing from a clock radio after turndown at night. I can never find the switch to turn it off. Hotels must evaluate old past practices to see if they make sense today. Most people don’t want a fruit bowl.
Skift: What is missing in the hospitality market at any level of the pricing?
McBride: An abundance of power outlets in convenient places to charge anything. Also, I have not seen it executed properly, but a service where your luggage is transported from the airport to your hotel room — you do not have to wait for it or see it until you arrive in your room.
Skift: What is inspiring you in other areas of travel: brands, airlines, or experiences?
McBride: I love what Swire is doing with their Houses, especially Upper House where it is all about the programming and the thoughtful engagement of people. The product is so great you almost don’t even notice there is no spa and a smaller gym. It exemplifies hospitality and really makes you feel at home. But they need more power outlets. You have to bring an extension cord with five plugs.
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Photo credit: James McBride, the CEO of Nihi Hotels, thinks the new luxury can be rough around the edges, and shouldn't be intrusive. Nihi Sumba Island