We speak to Frank A. Liepmann, CEO of Sutera Harbour Resort Group
Where is the Sutera resort and what does it offer?
Sutera Harbour Resort is an integrated resort on the coastline of Kota Kinabalu city centre in Sabah, Malaysia. It has a mix of high and low-rise hotels with its own island across the water, which includes our private beach. There is a 27-holf golf course which also holds night golf and we offer plenty of activities both in the water and around the mountains; the adventures, nature and climbing in the area is incredible. Within the mountains we have four resorts and our North Borneo Railway, which is the oldest running steam train in Sabah and is a real nostalgic trip. Staff wear colonial uniforms, passengers get a stamp on their passport and it takes trips through villages and beaches. We also have our own yacht which can be hired out for a trip or function and in-resort our facilities include squash, Pure Tennis, a bowling alley and theatre.
How has the resort performed in recent years?
Last year we finished with 57% occupancy and this year we are looking at 71%, so this is steadily climbing. China has huge potential and as its youth market has no loyalty we hope they will be able to switch over to stay with us easily.
The North Borneo Railway has seen occupancy of 90% and is still running on wood as it would have when first in use.
What new developments are in plan for the resort?
We are currently going through renovations in the rooms; I felt there were too many suites in the hotels so we converted some of these to family rooms. These have two bedrooms and two bathrooms and have been well received by our top markets. All the floors in the rooms have been changed to teak wood so it’s not as pungent, which we had found with having carpets.
There are also new food and beverage concepts being developed and a tennis village. We plan to launch diving expeditions soon having just signed up to hold PADI diving courses in our marina. Family, sports and nature are the key focuses for the resort this year.
Soon we will have a new boat named Columbus which was built in 1911 and will be used for parties and functions. It will match the heritage we have built up around the North Borneo Railway.
We are in talks with an US operator to get a plane on lease, although it is expensive to maintain a flight path. The 12-seat aircraft would be used to get divers from the island or to take guests to the national parks and sightseeing.
How has TripAdvisor sparked these renovations?
TripAdvisor is a great tool for us to see how we are doing and forces us to respond and push hotels to set standards. One thing that comes up all the time is the marina and previously guests had commented that our rooms looked old because we had the big ‘box’ televisions. When the renovations started, we removed those televisions and replaced them with flat-screen televisions and new units. Once we made this change, no-one commented on our ‘old’ rooms anymore.
How have you been promoting the resort in Europe these past weeks?
As well as our stand at ITB Berlin I have been conducting roadshows around Europe and the training has been very fruitful. Our 380-hectare resort and product offering is great for the European market and visits were up 30% last year. This year the market has started slow but is still a key target.
Flights were cut from the region last year, are there plans for new connections?
We have joined the government in trying to get more flights into Sabah after Malaysia Airlines chopped its Perth and Japan flights. We are trying to get charter services and other airlines to fly into the region.
There are good feeder flights from Kuala Lumpur and although Bali gets the majority of on-going visitors, it is picking up here too.