Skift Take

Ambitious first-time hoteliers are forging some of the most intriguing hospitality experiences. The power of the beginner's imagination combined with knowledge and passion from other industries is adding up to exactly what the most jaded travelers want.

Series: On Experience

On Experience

Colin Nagy is a marketing strategist and writes on customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond.

You can read all of his writing here.

Some of the most compelling hotels in the world are currently run by people who are beginners in hospitality. These rookie hoteliers harness a combination of naivete, the cross-pollination of thinking from outside the industry, as well as dashes of verve and sensibility.

When done well, the result can add up to a destination that matches what luxury travelers — or any type of traveler — claim to want right now. These are the kinds of properties that don’t feel like they were grown in a lab, where you can predict every utterance from the staff. Rather these hospitality projects reflect the beginner’s mind, drawing on instinct and taste to create a singular vision that often delights in contradiction.

An example of this is Kevin Wendle, owner and CEO of Hotel Esencia, a cult property in Mexico. The hotel sits at the midpoint between Tulum and Playa del Carmen and, according to the site, was originally “built as the private hideaway home of an Italian duchess.”

Wendle’s background is far from the traditional routes of those getting into hospitality: He worked in the tech sector for several years and operated in several roles including television producer, network boss, and founder of CNET, the digital media site. In conversation it was easy to notice that he thinks in narratives, knows how to package a story, and also has the audacity of an entrepreneur — characteristics you don’t always see in a hotelier. 

Wendle’s Weltanschauung is informed by a lot of areas outside of hospitality, but he drew upon this unique perspective to pull everything together: “The fact that I had worked in Hollywood at a high level, worked in Silicon Valley at a high level, worked in Paris in art and architecture helped create the worldview,” he said.

He was always interested in real estate, particularly in creating environments where he could host his friends. The hospitality bug happened organically. “I was frequently renovating properties, doing the project and inviting friends,” said Wendle. “I didn’t really want to have 10 bedrooms filled at all times, but I loved entertaining and making friends happy.”

At a turning point in his life, friends urged him to formalize the touch that he had refined on a smaller scale and launch his own hotel. “I did a lot of research and went and visited 50 luxury hotels around the world,” Wendle said. Then serendipity struck when he found a slightly dilapidated structure, in his words: “not a ruin but not in great condition… but with incredible architectural bones and most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.”

Go Your Own Way

From there the contrarian thinking began. He brought in a designer, C.S Valentin, a graduate of École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who hadn’t ever done a hotel or even the interior design of a home. Wendle also carted in a serious art collection from Paris and put it in the hotel.

And once the pieces came together, he told me the lack of outside investors allowed him to be aggressive with his strategies of filling the property and putting it on the radar. “First we tripled the price,” he said. He thought that “luxury doesn’t discount” and that the process of slowly changing the clientele would be the right move.

The strategy paid off when a British guest was asked why she chose the property and replied: “It is reassuringly expensive.” The defying of convention continues in how Wendle and team deliver their service, which is spoken about in reverent tones from a lot of world-weary travelers I know. Surprise and serendipity are the themes, where an unexpected touch at turndown or an impromptu beach marshmallow roast just happens out of thin air. 

The hotel’s website perfectly captures Esencia’s sophistication, featuring illustrations from noted New Yorker illustrator Pierre Le-Tan on its homepage as opposed to run-of-the-mill photos of beaches. Last December Condé Nast Traveler named the hotel a 2019 Gold List Winner in its annual The Best Hotels and Resorts in the World. 

Not Just a Resort but a Refuge for Good

Another first-time hotelier, Tim Hartnoll, a British shipping entrepreneur, had quite an ambitious undertaking for his first project: Bawah Reserve, which sits 300 km northeast of Singapore in Indonesia’s remote Anambas Archipelago. Getting there requires a ferry, a seaplane ride, or logging hours on a boat. It’s not exactly the easiest place to start a new endeavor when you consider the logistics of building and sustaining a five-star property. 

“I never really thought of it as a hotel, and all my inspiration came not from the industry but from sustainable architecture/projects in the region,” said Hartnoll. “I was fortunate to find a small team who shared my passion and vision and helped me realize it. Not having any past experience, I didn’t carry any emotional baggage or preconceived ideas.”

The eco roots and sustainability are front and center on the property: In November he launched the Bawah Anambas Foundation, aimed at improving the livelihoods of those on neighboring islands, in particular Telaga, Mengkait, and, the closest of the three, Kiabu. So in addition to launching an extremely remote property, Hartnoll built in social good from the start, adding layers of complexity and challenge. 

Hartnoll told the South China Morning Post that part of his intention was righting the wrongs in this highly remote place: Plastic was often thrown in the ocean, fish were hunted with dynamite, and other natural resources were plundered. Now the resort is providing both jobs and education. It also serves as a marine reserve where no fishing is allowed close to the islands, with the goal that local maritime life will thrive.

Stay the Course: Service and Sustainability

This eco approach required nuance and a hands-on approach. “The design detail was all worked out on-site with organic materials,” said Hartnoll. “Not in an office. We would have a creative discussion, my architect would sketch out his ideas, and we would then be left to figure out how to turn it into reality. I spent a lot of time in Java in villages with artisans and craftsmen showing them what we wanted. …It was a deeply immersive experience.”

Bawah Reserve is northeast of Singapore in the Anambas Archipelago in Indonesia. Source: Bawah Reserve

And although the going hasn’t always been easy — the initial business model quite wrongly presented economics that mirrored a city-center property and not a remote, seasonal resort — it would seem the bet is paying off. Despite having just opened, the property has guests that are already two- or three-time return visitors, and it’s receiving strong word-of-mouth from the adventure luxury set.

Hartnoll regularly hosts drinks with guests on the island, soliciting feedback. Yet he’s very careful not to cave on his originally stated ambitions of sustainability and ecological responsibility. The property isn’t going to become overly rigid in its operation or surrender the remote island magic that gives it its charm.

It will continue to have its kinks and quirks, those distinctive particularities that pop up when you’re running a place in the middle of nowhere. “My first priority is to maximize the guest experience while not compromising our sustainable values. I put that ahead of any other considerations,” said Hartnoll.

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Tags: boutique hotels, ecotourism, luxury, On Experience

Photo credit: When entrepreneur Tim Hartnoll imagined Bawah Reserve, conservation was top of mind. Bawah Reserve

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