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.
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.
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.