|The Making of Indigo Pearl.|
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Wednesday, 5th May 2010
It was a big gamble but in the end, it was worth it, Yeoh Siew Hoon gets into the story behind Indigo Pearl and how a father-daughter collaboration made it happen.
Suite in Indigo Pearl
There are some places worth waiting three years for to visit and I’d put the Indigo Pearl resort in Phuket in that category.
Ever since it opened as a reincarnation of the former Pearl Village Resort, I had put it in my list of must-see places. I had stayed in the resort a few times in its previous life and knew the owner Wichit Na-Ranong personally and he is both gracious and persistent.
Well, I finally made it and there’s nothing like seeing it with my own eyes what it’s become. All the media it’s generated since it re-opened had prepared me for a place that’s strong on design elements and modernity, but I wasn’t prepared for the strong sense of history that is interwoven between the design elements and the keen attention to detail.
Mostly, what struck me was how a new generation had brought out the history of a family and place and made it contemporary, cool and real.
Indigo Pearl is the result of how a daughter brought her own vision to a family business and reinstated the family’s “crown jewel”, so to speak.
I can almost see Prakaeaw Na-Ranong (pictured left) cringing when she reads this and yes, it would not have been possible without the blessing and experience of her father – plus financial support, of course, because the resort, in the end, cost almost double what had been budgeted – but it was undoubtedly her vision that enabled architect and designer Bill Bensley to create the product that is now Indigo Pearl.
A student of the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland, Moo (as she is called by friends and family) grew up in the hotel environment. Her father built the Pearl Hotel, Phuket when she was seven and then the Pearl Village Resort in 1986.
“I fell in love with it. I enjoyed meeting people,” she said. “My father worked hard but he was so passionate about it and I think when you enjoy your work, it takes away the fatigue.
“For me, it was like operating a home with many, many people visiting ¬ and you feed them and put them to sleep – in the nicest way, of course.”
With time, though, she observed changes in customer behaviour. “They became more demanding and they wanted a total experience, not just bed and hotel.
“We knew Pearl Village was at the end of its life cycle. The product had been very successful but was very traditional. My father wanted to renovate it to become more in tune with the times.
“But the soft renovation we did was not very successful – the core product was still the same.”
Wichit recalled his indignation when his old customers visited the renovated resort and asked him what had changed. “I had spent a lot of money doing new things here and there, but they weren’t noticed because the product felt the same to them.”
Then came the tsunami of December 2004 which caused some damage to the property. “That gave us the push to go for a bigger renovation,” said Moo.
She then recalled a visit she had made in 2003 to the Anantara in Hua Hin with her husband. “We sat under a tree in an Italian restaurant. There were beautiful white petals coming down and it was very romantic. I asked the waiter who the designer was and he said, Bill Bensley.”
She stored that name in her memory because in 2003, her father wasn’t quite ready for the plunge. After the tsunami, she saw her opportunity and asked her father if she could present Bill as a potential candidate.
“I wanted to bring out some of the uniqueness of Phuket and with Indigo Pearl, I wanted to bring back the island’s history, its tin mining legacy and the traditional way of life.”
Said Wichit, “I couldn’t imagine how it would come out when she described it to me. But I trusted and believed in Bill – that he could create something nice.”
The hotel's lobby
Throughout the hotel, there are reminders of the island’s tin mining history – the old generator that sits as an installation in the lobby – and the family’s history. In the Tongkat Bar is a showcase that’s packed with heirlooms of the Na-Ranong family, one of the most prominent families on the island. Its room mix include Plantation Villas, cottages that hark back to the traditional way of life on the island.
At first, it wasn’t that easy to convince her father. “He was extremely skeptical of the idea, especially when I told him everything had to be custom-made – tables, chairs, cutlery – to fit into the concept. The costs were substantially higher and yes,” Moo laughed, “we went over budget quite a lot.”
“It was painful initially – accepting that it would be an extremely costly exercise. I didn’t expect the budget to go so high but up to a point, we couldn’t compromise,” Wichit said, as he pointed to the extra-large chairs we were sitting on. “Each of these cost three times more than a normal chair but we had to stay true to the concept.”
So one billion baht later, the resort, which closed in April 2006, re-opened at the end of that year.
Said Moo, “I am very lucky that my father was open to new ideas and thankfully he let it happen. Pearl Village was his baby and it was difficult for him to let go.”
And so together, father and daughter worked hard on the relaunch. Today, Indigo Pearl is constantly rated high up on Trip Advisor’s rankings, occupancies are healthy relative to competitors and the average room rate is now at US$250, more than double the previous rate.
But it wasn’t always that way. “It was a risk at the beginning. We didn’t know if people would accept it but as it turned out, the market for the resort was wider than we had thought,” said Wichit.
Almost all the old customers are gone – groups of most elderly customers from tour operators in Europe. “We lost nearly all of them. Some came back after the opening and started to curse our general manager. Some grew to like it,” said Moo.
Added Wichit, “We knew we would lose them when we decided to go in this direction. But either you do it all the way or not.”
The old generator in the hotel's lobby
In the past, tour operators accounted for up to 80% of business. Today, while the resort is still reliant on them for 60% share, new customers have come from channels such as ecommerce and publicity in travel and lifestyle magazines.
“We found a new match with certain tour operators who had a younger clientele. The Internet has definitely helped – it helped us to position our hotel globally,” said Moo.
The change went beyond the physical. The level of service was upgraded and there was a bigger focus on food & beverage with offerings such as the Black Ginger Thai restaurant and Rivet Bar.
What I like is the attention to detail and to ensure that everything is just a little different – from the floral arrangements to how the little Thai desserts are served in the room.
With three years behind them – and let’s not forget the difficult times Phuket’s been through – father and daughter are now keen to take Indigo Pearl to the next stage and extract maximum value out of it.
Wichit is naturally keen to see the resort make more money. “It’s been worth it because the product is unique. It’s helped us stand out in a competitive market. It will pay off over time.”
“We need to be more targeted and we can afford to be more focused to go in the direction we want to be in terms of positioning,” said Moo. “In the beginning, we offered Indigo Pearl as a unique resort in terms of design and experience and we offered value for money.
“Now we need to work on the rates and find more of the right customers.”
How easy it is to work with her father? “He’s got a lot of experience and he gives me good guidelines but he lets me do my thing,” Moo said, adding with a laugh, “to a certain level of course.
“We make a good team actually. I learn a lot from him and I also see things in a different way and we meet halfway and achieve better results. We are still good friends.”
On Wichit’s part, he knew that for his daughter to come into the business, this change was necessary. “I knew that for Moo to be really passionate about the business, she had to have something she had created herself. I couldn’t expect her to take over something she didn’t believe in.”
Photos courtesy of Indigo Pearl ~ www.indigo-pearl.com
Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.
Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com. Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.
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