An authentic (and exceptional) luxury experience on the Sabah coast

Interview: Fiona Hagan, General Manager of Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club

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Fiona Hagan – GM of Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort and Spa, Sabah

Fiona Hagan, General Manager of Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club on the coast of Sabah describes her resort as an “authentic luxury experience for guests”. We asked her to tell us more…

I would use the word “experience”, because we have the nature reserve, we have the sea, and 85% of our staff are from local villages – they are not necessarily from Kota Kinabalu, but from the local district. I describe this as a really authentic experience that is wrapped up in a luxurious parcel, comprised of the location, the services and the facilities. We are built on 460 acres of land. Of that 200 acres is developed, with a golf course, a 64-acre nature reserve, and three kilometres of beach front. The property was built 24 years ago on this land, and the whole design narrative from the outset was about the environment and its commitment to the community. This property has had a really long history with Sabah, with the Sabah Government, with Sabah Parks and Sabah Wildlife. Back in 1996, when the property opened, at the same time, we entered into a partnership with Sabah Wildlife and set up an Orangutan sanctuary. It ran here for nearly 20 years as a joint venture with the government predominantly as a rescue centre, specialised in orangutan babies. Then after two or three years, after the orangutans had been rehabilitated and were well enough, they would be sent to the Sepilok centre. That was done in conjunction with the owners and Sabah Wildlife as the commitment from Shangri-La. The programme came to an end about two and a half years ago, as no baby orangutans had been rescued for some years, and the Sepilok centre now also caters for babies with a wonderful orphans’ facility.

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Rasa Ria Resort and Spa

Shangri-La as a company is really focussed on the community it belongs to and how to contribute to it… and that’s what you see now. The Discovery Centre is a new facility, but the 64-acre nature reserve has been there since the beginning. We still have a lot of scheduled animals in the reserve, such as the Slow Loris, civet cats, scarce birds, and so on, so rather than shut down the programme, what we decided to do was to showcase what we have, and help visitors who are here really learn about where they are. When you visit the Discovery Centre, you will see information about the wetlands, information about the different kinds of flora and fauna that we have, as well as about conservation. Inside the resort in February 2018, we stopped serving plastic straws, and that was really driven from what we do inside the nature reserve. It was actually driven by our staff. We used to do beach clean-ups and you would pick up 300-400 plastic straws off the beach. So as a team, everyone felt very strongly about that. So now we have no plastic straws, and we’ve done a global disclosure project. We were the first hotel to actually go through and measure our plastic footprint. It was very interesting and quite eye-opening. It’s actually not the plastic straws that make a big difference. But that, I think is what’s so special about Rasa Ria. What is so unique about this resort is that we have a commitment from our owner and our management company to do the right thing when it comes to the environment and the community. But that, coupled with the amazing people we have working here makes it what it is. When I meet with the guests, that’s what they all talk about; they talk about the people.

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Main pool at Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort & Spa

The resort is lovely and the beach is beautiful, and the swimming pools are lovely and the food is great in the restaurants… but it’s the people that people come back for. I talk about the Sabahans, but it’s not just the Sabahans, it’s the people who live in Tuaran – close to here – it’s quite different to Kota Kinabalu. KK is more like a city resort, but here, people “belong” to Rasa Ria. Rasa Ria means “Happy Place”, and it really is. It gives people a sense of belonging, and the staff here make people feel welcome. They provide a much more authentic experience, because they share their stories, they share their ethnicity. They share if they are from a Bajau tribe or a Murut tribe, and you don’t see that in KK, you only see it here. I get stories … Some guests were just sharing with me that one of our staff was teaching them how to speak Dusun, which is one of the local dialects. He had a little check list of how to say “hello”, and “thank you” and so on. I think that is really special!

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Beach at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa, Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club, Sabah

So, is this something that filters down from the top? It’s something you actively promote?

Yes, you have to lead by example. In the past, I had worked in a lot of city hotels, which are very different, and most recently opened a hotel in China, and so it is a very different pace. Sabah to me is a very special place, and when I came back here and had the privilege of working with this team, I found they have so much to give. It’s about people. They operate best in an environment where they can make people happy and can share their experiences with people. And that’s not for me to change as a General Manager, that is for me to foster, and grow and encourage. It’s something our whole leadership team wants to foster this culture. For this, we also have a lot of team building. We take our housekeeping team and go for walks on Fridays up into the nature reserve. Our security team go running together on the beach to keep fit. Our life guards, every morning, do a surf lifesaving beach run.

What other CSR activities are you involved in?

We have a programme called “Embrace”, which is a Shangri-La programme, where we commit a certain amount of our annual revenue towards infrastructure improvement projects. Here in Sabah, the most relevant is schooling. We have two schools at the moment, where we have been building new recreation halls, walkways, even access roads. We just recently re-built a dormitory for a school quite close to here. And we also bring the children into the hotel, and experience life in the hotel. Something I am really proud of this year was a food hygiene programme. We put together a manual on basic food hygiene… How to store food, how to look after food, how to prepare it safely. We translated it, took it to the school, trained their canteen staff, and then once a month our food hygiene team go back and check whether everything is up to standard.

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View from hilltop lookout at Rasa Ria Resort towards sea and mountains at sunrise

You have won many awards – far too many to talk about here. But what are some of the most remarkable ones?

I think the most recent one was the Five-Star Kids prize from Australia. They rated us the second-best family hotel in Malaysia. Probably the one that makes us the proudest is the fact that in 2017, in the Sabah Tourism Awards, which are run every alternate year, for the fifth consecutive time we won the best five-star hotel award, as well as best hotel restaurant – for our Naan Indian Restaurant, and also for the first time they presented an award for best service on a golf course, we won the award. So, we won three awards in the Sabah Tourism Awards.

Tell us a little more about the golf course.

It’s magical! It was designed by Arnold Palmer. We have a programme called Safari Golf for non-golfers. They take a buggy and drive around the golf course, and go wildlife spotting. We have 64 species of birds, we have a family of otters, we have monitor lizards, and many of our guests now, even non-golfers, will go for a tour with a golf buggy. I had a guest write to me on the weekend, saying that was the very best hour of his experience here across ten days.

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Lobby – Rasa Ria Resort, Sabah

What would you say are the three key “selling points” of this place for travellers from Europe?

Our three-kilometre beach. There is nowhere else in Malaysia, or probably even in Asia, where you have a single resort on a three-kilometre beach. The whole beach is ours, and the land that is to the left of the Ocean Wing as far as you can see is all ours, and it’s all undeveloped. Secondly, the Ocean Wing really sets this resort apart, because you can experience absolute luxury, with the beautiful guest rooms, you have your bath tub on the balcony, you have a different swimming pool, you have a different breakfast experience. However, as a family, you still have access to the Garden Wing, that has the kids club and the swimming pool with the water slides and all the activities there. So, it’s this luxury family experience which really is quite unique, because at many family resorts, you are “up into the thick of things” all the time. And we find a lot of families really enjoy the space here. The third thing is the Rasa Ria Reserve. This is quite special. You get access to unique, beautiful experiences that are only a five-minute walk from your guest room. The rangers that take you up into the reserve are fully qualified and fully trained. They can even take you up into the mountains to the other national parks because they are fully accredited. So, I think it’s the credibility of having a nature experience without having to go trekking three days into the jungle.

Why come here rather than somewhere in Thailand or Indonesia?

I think you’d come here for the culture. Sabah as a destination is still somewhat undiscovered – especially if you compare it to Phuket or Bali, which are much more commercialised. Here, your experience is still very authentic, with the genuine spirit of the people, and that’s the feedback we get from guests who keep coming back here.

Many people talk about deforestation and the orang utans dying-off. As someone who has been here for a while, what are your thoughts on this?

I think the state government has done a wonderful job. They are protecting the rainforest they have left. There are very strong programmes in place now to build wildlife corridors – particularly through Palm oil plantations. I have been there and seen these one kilometre wide corridors being established. I think now there is an appetite now in Palm Oil to become more sustainable and they are becoming partners in solving the problem. I feel very strongly about that, when there is negative press, because I think people don’t understand the efforts that are being put into the protection of the sentries that are left. I think people are ill-informed. It was one of the first things the new state government did within their first weeks in office – to ban the export of all timber. But I think even the previous state government had a strong commitment in this respect. I talk about the wildlife corridors, and that’s really important, as the animals can travel from Sandakan almost all the way down the coast. And they were not there 15 years ago.

So, the government has been listening to the people and stopping the damage?

I believe so. When I was in the Kinabatangan, our guide, Jamie, shared with me a story about David Attenborough, who has a very close affiliation with Sabah. At that stage, the local government wanted to build a bridge over the Kinabatangan. The locals in Sandakan contacted David Attenborough, and he apparently got on the phone, spoke to the then Chief Minister, and the project was stopped. When I heard that story, I thought “That’s wonderful”. There are some amazing local people doing amazing things for the environment.

Do you think there should be more recognition of the “good” things that are being done, rather than dwelling on the negative?

There should be. That is partly the responsibility of Sabah Tourism, and it is something I want to get on the Minister’s agenda. Particularly in Malaysia, there are more stories to tell, and we have a responsibility, because it has to do with the wildlife, the rainforest; what the visitors come here for.

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Aerial view looking southwards towards Rasa Ria Resort (centre right)

What makes you the most particularly proud of this place?

The first thing that comes to mind is the people. I think that the people in Sabah are extraordinary, and here at the Rasa Ria, it’s on another level still. It’s the authenticity. When, people smile, they mean it. The state government has a very interesting policy on immigration. In West Malaysia, you have a lot more foreign workers in hotels. But here, if I want to hire a foreigner, I need to get the approval of the Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry has a committee, and interviews the hotel about why they need to hire a foreigner in a particular position. We have to justify that, and only after the State Ministry of Tourism has given its approval can we go through the Federal process of immigration. That makes me incredibly proud to work in Sabah, because what it means is that when you are here as a guest, you are actually talking to Sabahans. The majority of our staff are local, and that is a real credit to the government, because not only does it drive employment, but it means the guest experiences on the property are authentic.


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