Build­ing a re­sort

Run­ning a cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive busi­ness on a re­mote is­land will test your san­ity. Man man­age­ment and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing are two of the skills to mas­ter.

Action Asia - - FINAL FRAME - Story by Alex Frew Mcmil­lan

BUNAKEN NA­TIONAL PARK IS A sanc­tu­ary for ma­rine life, and a par­adise for divers. Op­er­at­ing in the Indonesian en­clave, though, can be as tough on the hu­man will as wa­ter tor­ture. Just ask Carolin Flohr. The Ger­man man­ager of Celebes Divers has spent the last two years drag­ging a new re­sort into be­ing on a re­mote is­land off Su­lawesi. Some­times there was lit­eral drag­ging. With no ma­chin­ery of any sig­nif­i­cance on Siladen Is­land, es­sen­tial items such as the 6,000-litre steel gaso­line tank and the three mas­sive elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tors had to be pulled into place by hand, one by one. The process con­jured up im­ages of an­cient Egypt in the mind of Flohr, a trained ar­chi­tect. The sys­tem was sim­ple: wooden planks, yards of rope, some 25 men … and a shout of “1,2, 3 … heave!” Kuda Laut Bou­tique Dive Re­sort, which takes the Ba­hasa name for sea­horse, is the third op­er­a­tion for Celebes Divers. It com­ple­ments the com­pany’s Mapia and Onong op­er­a­tions, shar­ing Siladen, and a dive shop, with the Onong. The practicalities were the easy part. Celebes Divers rented the land and drew up the ar­chi­tec­tural plans in Fe­bru­ary 2015. Those were the first steps to­wards get­ting per­mis­sion to start con­struc­tion.

BUILD­ING BAT­TLES

It was tough enough toge tall the share­hold­ers to agree on a plan, some of the more out­landish schemes in­volv­ing the con­struc­tion of an 18m wa­ter tower on an is­land that shud­ders through reg­u­lar earth­quakes, and the con­struc­tion of tree houses where ter­mites are happy to gnaw through any wood they en­counter. Build­ing ap­proval can take as long as three years to ac­quire. A lit­tle grease was nec­es­sary to ease the ma­chin­ery of Indonesian of­fi­cial­dom. It’s an easy de­ci­sion, Flohr says, if you ac­tu­ally want to get your re­sort up and run­ning. “First you get in­for­ma­tion on

how much it will cost, and you pay, then they come again and tell you that there is an­other pa­per that costs this much, and you pay,” she ex­plains. “A week later, they come again and tell you ‘Ev­ery­thing is fine, but you still need this per­mis­sion for this,’ and so on, and so on.” Per­mis­sion to build came through in De­cem­ber 2015, and con­struc­tion started the next month. The re­sort was sched­uled to have a soft launch this year, through Au­gust, with the grand open­ing slated for Septem­ber 1. All in all, grease in­cluded, the new re­sort will have cost €550,000 (US$620,000) to build. The eight cot­tages and four “su­pe­rior rooms” can ac­com­mo­date 32 guests. Coach­ing the con­struc­tion of a re­sort de­signed to cater to Euro­pean tastes has been a try­ing process. “Of course, Indonesian work­ers can’t know the stan­dards in Europe,” Flohr notes. She lost count of how many times she re­minded the painters to take great pains when they paint win­dow frames that they don’t paint the glass as well. Like­wise, it was a strug­gle to get them to paint the walls in the bath­rooms with­out drip­ping paint all over the tiles. Only through the dis­cov­ery of the mag­i­cal prop­er­ties of tape were the de­sired re­sults for the win­dows and walls achieved. Flohr fre­quently found that a new build­ing was com­ing along nicely, only for con­struc­tion to stop. Why? The work­ers had run out of an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent like wood, and had to wait un­til next week for a fresh de­liv­ery – god will­ing. Mean­while, the struc­ture was open to the el­e­ments, with the rain­drops splash­ing in­side dur­ing a down­pour. The wood that’s al­ready in place gets ru­ined? No prob­lem! We’ll just or­der some more wood! At her worst mo­ments, Flohr feels like she’s a mod­ern-day Don Quixote, tilt­ing at wind­mills. She puts all her heart into im­prov­ing the re­sort’s ser­vice and coach­ing the staff. But quite of­ten, she re­al­izes her ef­forts are “worth noth­ing, and just a shot in the wind,” she says. “It feels dev­as­tat­ing to try to do my best every day, working crazy hours, and then the em­ploy­ees show me once more that they can be just like a bunch of schoolkids.”

A FINE TIME

That man­i­fested it­self re­cently when the heads of her var­i­ous de­part­ments com­plained that too many items around the re­sort had been get­ting bro­ken, and staff hadn’t been turn­ing up on time. Fine the mis­cre­ants, they in­sisted, and the prob­lem would im­prove. That worked well in the­ory. Ev­ery­one un­der­stood there would be a 10,000 ru­piah (75 U.S. cents) penalty for each half hour they were late. Their take-home pay would re­flect break­ages, too, they found out. Then the fines started to kick in, and so did the bick­er­ing. That re­quired an­other meet­ing of the whole staff to ex­plain the sys­tem, again. Only when Flohr started in­struct­ing peo­ple on the spot, every time, why they shouldn’t ex­pect the same pay packet did the method pay off. There’s a de­sire to im­prove. The dive guides came to Flohr ask­ing her to im­prove their pre-dive brief­ings. She squir­relled her­self away for sev­eral hours with her in­struc­tor text­books to come up with some solid ad­vice. She wrote a hand­out for each guide and de­signed a sam­ple brief­ing with a dive-site map. The trou­ble started on the day of the train­ing. Two of the dive guides who re­quested the ad­vice didn’t show up, and had to be called to get them to at­tend. The train­ing took two hours, with each guide be­ing walked through the steps so they could, when called on, con­duct an ex­em­plary brief­ing. The white board came out with point­ers. “And the re­sult? Only one of them re­mark­ably im­proved his brief­ing,” Flohr says. To date, none of the guides shows guests the emer­gency equip­ment on board each dive boat, as they’re in­structed. Flohr is ready to re­peat her ad­vice. But she’s not sure how many times she needs to do so. In those mo­ments, she re­minds her­self how far things have come, the times when ev­ery­thing runs smoothly. Then she coaches once more. “I try again, slowly, to make them un­der­stand,” she says. “Of­ten, they do. But not al­ways.” Although man man­age­ment is a dark art, mar­ket­ing is the most dif­fi­cult skill to mas­ter on the op­er­a­tional side, Flohr says, “an ex­tremely del­i­cate mat­ter.” And it’s some­thing a dive op­er­a­tor must work on every day. “The big­gest chal­lenge is to sell your name, to make it known,” Flohr says. Face­book, Instagram, Tripad­vi­sor, there are so many so­cial-me­dia out­lets to track. Then there are the black­mail­ers. Re­sort man­agers know all too well the guests who book a trip that’s a lit­tle out of

their price range – then try to talk down the price through a dig­i­tal ran­som. “A sen­tence you hear from guests like this is ‘Ei­ther you give me a dis­count or I’ll write a bad re­view on the In­ter­net,’ and it’s not al­ways easy to han­dle,” Flohr says. “You have to eval­u­ate if they are just bluff­ing or will re­ally do it, and whether you want to have guests com­plain­ing con­stantly and both­er­ing other guests.”

READY TO QUIT

There has only been one in­stance where Flohr thought about chuck­ing it all in. Soon af­ter she ar­rived three years ago, she be­friended the lo­cal dive su­per­vi­sor, who had been in the busi­ness 18 years. He acted as trans­la­tor and guide through the set­tling-in process. The pair would of­ten sit late into the night talk­ing about what needed chang­ing at the re­sort. When she ven­tured to the beach with the other Indonesian dive guides, she knew she was the only woman. But she had a free pass as a buleh, an out­sider, they told her, so no prob­lem. She later re­al­ized how wrong this was. The su­per­vi­sor’s wife was watch­ing his every move, want­ing to know ev­ery­where he went, check­ing his phone for any in­dis­cre­tion. The con­stant bick­er­ing made him want to spend more time out of the house, working – which only fed the fire. The saga cul­mi­nated when the women ganged to­gether to get Flohr de­ported. The su­per­vi­sor’s wife tried to pry her pass­port de­tails out of the com­pany secretary, to re­port her to immigration. She had al­ready won over the palah, the vil­lage chief, with her ac­cu­sa­tions of adul­tery, based on pure spec­u­la­tion. Only via the in­ter­ven­tion of the secretary, head of se­cu­rity and gen­eral man­ager did they defuse the sit­u­a­tion. Flohr would have no pri­vate con­tact with the men; the wife learned the con­se­quences if she kept med­dling in com­pany af­fairs.a vil­lage-wide meet­ing cleared the air. “That’s how I learned that as a buleh, you don’t count for any­thing,” Flohr says. “You are com­pe­ti­tion for ev­ery­one. As a woman you have to be very care­ful.” The Ger­man ad­mits the ru­mour mill isn’t any dif­fer­ent in a small Bavar­ian vil­lage. But she ac­cepted her place. “I un­der­stood that they will never ac­cept me as part of the com­mu­nity, no mat­ter how good I do my job,” Flohr says. “On their pri­or­ity list, you al­ways come last." At t he best of times, she s e es ev­ery­thing run­ning ef­fort­lessly, feels the full sup­port of the staff. "That gives me so much en­ergy to go on," she con­cludes.

WOODN'T IT BE NICE? Off-the-wall de­sign con­cepts in­cluded tree houses in a spot where ter­mites gnaw through trees.

THAT'S JUST 8,244,140,000 RU­PIAH The new re­sort will cost more than US$600,000 to build – plus a lit­tle ex­tra for Indonesian of­fi­cials with their hands out.

MORE OF A BUILD­ING, LESS OF A "BUILT" Flohr some­times found that con­struc­tion had stalled half-way through the con­struc­tion of a build­ing be­cause an es­sen­tial ma­te­rial such as wood was miss­ing. Mean­time the struc­ture stayed open to the el­e­ments.

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