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Slice of paradise

Shayal Devi
Thursday, February 01, 2018

ANDREW Turnbull has achieved a lot in his working career.

And the Australian pins his success solely on the passion he has for every job he has undertaken — whether it was selling confectionery as a young man or in operating one of the most successful resorts in Fiji.

The 75-year-old still carries the same zeal for life as he did in his youth, and he says the decision to dive into Fiji's budding tourism sector in the 90s was one taken after much consideration.

By then, tourism pioneers such as Dick Smith and Reg Raffe had already found success in the industry, leaving Mr Turnbull with a one-star Mamanuca property that was in desperate need of upgrade and renovation.

Fast forward almost two decades and Tokoriki Island Resort is basking in raving reviews from visitors. These accolades have made Tokoriki Island Resort the number one tourist property on renowned travel website TripAdvisor for the fourth year in a row.

Tokoriki Island Resort was named the number one hotel in Fiji in 2018, as well as number one for Fiji Romance and Fiji Service. The resort was named as the number three hotel in the South Pacific and number six and 21 respectively for South Pacific Romance and South Pacific Service.

Elated and humbled by the achievement, Mr Turnbull says his personalised home away from home had grown in a way he never expected.

Beginnings

Along with his wife Yvonne and daughter Jenna, he came to Tokoriki with a friend in the 90s.

"We had never heard of it and we arrived here in 1995 and my daughter, who was then 12, and she said to me, 'hey Dad, it's for sale'," he shared during an interview on the island last week.

"My wife looked at me as though it was stupid because I started to look at why we might look at buying it. It (the property) was very tired, I mean so much so that you could smell the previous guests in the pillow and the first two lots of sheets I had, my feet went through and that's how bad it was.

"We walked around and it was a lovely beach, faced west so we had glorious sunsets, so what was built here lacked style and it gave us what I thought were bones because in the candy business, which I was in, I travelled the world all the time looking at candies, we knew what sort of hotel to stay in and where we want to go for a holiday."

He says he had just sold his main business and had time to spare so they decided "to go for it".

"We bought it, not knowing anything about landowners or Fiji issues like coups or cyclones but we battled through it and we would take it from being a one-star family resort and decided to turn it into a four-and-a-half-star couples only resort, and the reason we stopped at four-and-a-half-star was because you can over deliver. When you start as a five-star, it's very hard to over deliver.

"Our guests do get a five-star experience hence so many great reviews. One of the first jobs I had, had a slogan, 'Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten', as long as people remember the experience and they say, 'what an amazing holiday' so guests are happy."

Recipe for success

"It's all about the staff."

When it comes to recognising the success the resort has enjoyed over the years, Mr Turnbull does not hesitate to commend his staff for their role in ensuring guests have the best Fijian experience.

"People say to me, how do you go from selling candy or confectionery to tourism. Really, to be successful in business you only need three key things — hard work, common sense and people skills," he said.

"People say, how do you make Tokoriki different? There are hundreds of thousands of places around the world that have sun, sea and sand. There are hundreds of places in Fiji that have got sun, sea and sand. So how are we getting these reviews? Easy. Our staff.

"Our staff are our family. We know when they have babies, we know when they need a new tooth because in most cases we pay for it because we are family. We know everybody.

"They've seen my daughter grow up from a 12-year-old to a mother now. We have grand kids here that they've seen grow up, grand kids that speak Fijian as well as they speak English and it's just a great, big, happy family.

"We'll share the accolades for this and I know some people think we overreact to winning this but it is something worthwhile. They remember all the guests.

"Our guests couldn't believe our staff knew the history of each of them and it's one of our key selling points that we want to be a personalised resort.

"We could build another 20 and 30 (bure) but it would take away the personalised side of it. You've got to be very selective as to what you want to offer visitors".

Ongoing renovation and upgrade works have also been instrumental in keeping the resort "modernised".

Mr Turnbull said over the past two decades or so, he poured almost $30 million into the resort.

"If you stop swimming and just tread water, you will sink and we want to stay ahead.

"We upgrade each year and now have private pools in 24 bure and villas, with a plan to have all 36 accommodations with private pools.

"There are lots of other people who try to emulate what we've done and so far, we've been fortunate enough to stay ahead of the pack and it's getting tough, every time a new resort opens."

The bula factor

Fiji is on track to welcome one million visitors.

Mr Turnbull says when comparing the marketing budgets of Fiji and other Pacific destinations, Fiji punched well above its weight.

"For example, Tahiti, backed by the French Government, spend hundreds of times the amount we do," he said.

"We're just a little country and what we've got going for us is Fijians, Fijians and Fijians — the bula factor.

"You see what Fiji Airways has done with 'welcome to our home' and it's just very simple things like that.

"It doesn't matter how much money we spend, without the Fijians doing what they do, it would just be nothing. If I didn't love it with a passion, I wouldn't do it.

"I'm 75 now and I fortunately have always loved my work. I love the business and if ever I, or my kids, didn't have the passion to follow it through, I'd sell it.

"I'm not a hypocrite. I can sit here and talk to guests and tell them stories because I enjoy it. When you spend as much time as I have here, you are part Fijian. Of course I'm Australian but I'm part Fijian too."

He says staff at the resort do not put on an act or a false bula.

"They're our number one asset and it is generally very happy and personalised.

"They're good people and nobody works for us. They work with us."

Relationship with landowners

When Mr Turnbull initially took over the reins at Tokoriki Island Resort, he says they did butt heads with landowners at times.

Today, that partnership is a solid foundation from which both parties benefit.

"That's an important part and it's something I knew nothing about initially but I saw that there needed to be respect from both sides," he says.

"The working relationship is amazing and it is one you do with respect, firmness and it has really just been a learning curve.

"We reinvest, we're building a school and we are looking at building a four-and-a-half-star family resort.

"We've earned the respect of the locals and landowners because we work on a philosophy, which is a win-win situation.

"If you have anything that is a win-lose situation, it won't last.

"One of my father's sayings was 'If you let the next man make a profit, you'll never make a loss'.

"In other words, don't be greedy."








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