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Richard Pope

Developer of the newly-opened Kata Rocks, Richard describes the joys and challenges of leading a project to completion, and how settling in to island life has coaxed him away from his London home.

Tell us how you found your way to Phuket.
I came at the end of 2006 for the King’s Cup Regatta and ended up looking at property. I found this site in the middle of 2007. We bought it, completed the deal in December 2007 and launched Kata Rocks in February 2008. For at least two years, I spent three weeks here, then three weeks in the UK. Now I’m here about 85 or 90 per cent of the time.

Kata Rocks recently opened. How has that been going so far?
We’ve taken some early bookings at quite a big discount for our soft opening phase. But we’re not trying to get too many bookings until we’ve built up the team for the grand opening, later this year. It’s good for the staff and their training. We don’t want them overwhelmed, and it’s more important to get the correct procedures in place first so our guests will enjoy a six-star experience.

How are people finding out about Kata Rocks?
Mostly word of mouth so far. We’ve got a database of about 12,000 that’s organically built up of people who have inquired about Kata Rocks over the last few years. Plus we’ve got about 36,000 on Facebook following us. It just spreads from there.

A lot of people have come to do photo shoots for magazines because it’s so photogenic. And we do a mailing every now and then. We did one the other day with nine photos, including a really good one with a “wow” view of the island and the pool. It got a massive response.

Do you have any other projects in the works, in Phuket or elsewhere?
I’ve got a business in London, which is now mainly rental properties in Notting Hill. In Monaco I’m a partner in Hemisphere Solutions, a recruitment business for superyachts. We provide the captains, crew and many other solutions for the superyacht industry in that region. London, Monaco and Phuket are not bad places to do business. Quite nice actually!

I’m looking for the next property to develop. I’d like to do another one in Phuket because I’ve got a great team here, but finding a prime site like this is hard. It needs to be a six-star experience so it needs a six-star location. Design and build quality, staff and service are important, but if the location is second-rate you can never achieve any of that.

What have you learned developing your project on Phuket? How does it compare to your experience in the UK?
Many people think it’s very different from Europe but it’s not really. Business anywhere is fairly similar. You’re always just dealing with people, and people the world over are generally quite similar. You get frustrations in London and you get slightly different frustrations in Thailand.

In London, regulations are very strict to a point of over-regulation; in Thailand, things are a bit more flexible but there is the big issue of language and communication, which make the job harder.

Have you had any difficulties working in a different culture?
You’ve got to appreciate the Thai way. If you’re someone who loses his cool with people that’s not going to help you in Thailand. They don’t respect that. I’m not really like that anyway, but some people try to shout and scream and wonder why they just get a smiling face back and nothing happens.

I’m still useless at speaking Thai, but I’ve got some very good people who do that I can really trust, and that’s important. I think probably one of my biggest achievements in doing this project is that the first six people who came to work with me all are still here, apart from one who left to live in America. You can create an enduring business with that. They trust me to sort things out and they sort my problems out with language.

You live in one of the penthouse villas here. What’s that like?
You wake up, push the button on the iPad and the curtains open and you see that view. The other great thing about being in Kata Rocks is to have all these services just on tap. To be able to have full room service whenever you like, or to walk down to the gym. I’ve got no excuse now not to go to the gym, and the spa as well. It’s all on the doorstep.

What do you do with your free time, if you have any?
There hasn’t been a lot lately. Before Kata Rocks I got my life to quite a nice stage. I had developments in London, but I had a good team, so I got to a stage where I was working three or four days a week, with a nice house down in the country, an Aston Martin, a couple of boats … I had a nice life. Then I came out here to do this project and basically swapped three days a week for seven days a week, and swapped the Aston Martin for a Fortuner. My aim going forward is to get more of a life balance back again.

What do you tell clients with concerns about Thailand’s political troubles?
They haven’t even asked! I think it’s well known that Thailand has seen numerous political issues over the years, most of which have minimal impact on wider society. It doesn’t even come up in conversation. We’re dealing with clients who would typically be worth at least 10 million dollars, and they’re not going to be frightened by a bit of protesting in Bangkok. They probably already love Thailand and understand that this sort of thing goes on.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Phuket in attracting high quality visitors and investors?
They’ve got to sort the traffic out. You don’t come to a holiday island to sit stationary in a traffic jam. They need to encourage clientele at a higher level, and such clientele will be put off if there are a whole load of cheap package tours here.

What, in your opinion, are Phuket’s greatest strengths as a luxury destination?
I’ve always thought of Phuket as one of the main holiday islands for Asia. When you look at the Mediterranean you’ve got Minorca, Ibiza, places like that where Europeans go for their island holidays. For America it’s the Caribbean. For Asia, Phuket and Bali are the two main islands. Half of the world’s population is within a five-hour flight, which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. And many would generally agree that most of the world’s growth will come from Asia in the next 20 years.

Phuket has obviously changed a lot from its backpacker days. Some people don’t like that progress, but 25 years ago you couldn’t go to great restaurants like you’d find in the South of France, with great wines and that level of service. And what’s really good about Phuket is you can come in and have a six-star holiday, but you can also nip over to somewhere like Ko Yao Noi and have the old Thailand as well. When you look at it overall, where else do you get 28-30 degrees all year round, lovely beaches, sea the temperature of bath water, great food, perfect massages and spas, and a very friendly, peaceful environment? All of these things add up to a great place.