Managing Director Paul Zway explains what makes Exclusive Tents such a reliant company. Good relationships.
Irrespective of whether a destination is a glamping site, a hotel or a resort, innovation in hospitality is often reliant on the pioneering spirit of the suppliers. It is a cycle of challenge and solution. This dance of supplier and customer is the engine that produces the marvellous and out-of-this-world destinations that enthrals, and delights travellers like us.
Not only one of the leading suppliers of safari tents globally, but also one of the most trusted, Exclusive Tents are often found wherever there is a new idea or a “never done before” project. With Founder Paul Zway often standing right in the middle of it in his khaki shorts.
Featured several times already by The Logbook, Paul has always enjoyed being in the thick of it, whether it was his seventeen years working as an anti-poacher in deepest Africa or his twenty odd years producing the most incredible tented projects. He is in every way an all-or-nothing kind of guy and this counts for a great deal for his customers and clients, or as he would refer to them, his friends.
4 Rivers is a floating lodge resort in Cambodia, that Paul and his team have worked with for roughly ten years. Being the first floating lodge and floating glamping site in the world, 4 Rivers is owned by Valentin Pawlik who built the lodge from scratch. Valentin has worked hand in hand with Paul to create a resort that stands as a testament to ambition, pioneering and friendships.
“It is a two way street,” Paul admits, “That is how friendships work, Valentin and I have worked together for over a decade and I learn as much from him as he does from me.”
Customer relations is easy when things are going well, but a relationship’s strength is tested the most when things go wrong. This was the case just over a year ago when 4 Rivers Floating Lodge was struck by one of the area’s worst floods in recent history.
Paul, who is a self -confessed weather junky, explains that he always has a satellite weather window open on his computer to keep aware of what is taking place. So, he was aware of the weather that Cambodia was having at the time but not the severity of what was taking place on the ground. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that he received a message from Valentin telling that he and his family were safe.
“The lodge had survived inclement weather for years without any problems,” Paul reveals, “But this was an out of the ordinary flood and when it struck early in the morning Valentin’s wife and kids and some staff were on the lodge.”
It was a matter of life and death and it was the local villagers who got into their boats and braved the water to go and help rescue the people off the lodge. Then they had to abandon the lodge until the waters had died down.
“Valentin literally had to watch the business he had built largely with his own hands get swept away down a river,” Paul relates.
Once the waters had died down, they then had to track down the lodge and luckily it had been caught on the bank further down the river and had not been dragged out to the ocean, but it was completely wrecked.
“To his credit,” Paul says, “Despite seeing the wreckage he didn’t think for a second of giving up.”
Instead, he called Paul and they began making plans. For those who know the pair this sort of “get busy” attitude is a characteristic that they share. Paul told him to assess the damage first and to let him know what Exclusive Tents could do to help.
THE ADVANTAGE OF REBUILDING
According to Paul, Valentin has been an absolute inspiration during the period of rebuilding. Despite the insurance money and compensation that he was due not being received and having to pull themselves back to their feet with next to no budget, he took complete control of the lodge’s rebuilding and set himself the task of applying all the lessons that this tragedy had taught him.
“As Four Rivers was one of the first floating lodges, Valentin didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice on repairing nor could afford to pay any professional consultants,” Paul explains, “He started off having to be a one-person expert out of necessity and found himself having to do the same thing over again.”
They salvaged what they could and fortunately had some new tents in storage that they could erect. The original platforms had done the job very well but some were seriously damaged but with lessons learned, Valentin came up with a floating concrete concept which would be way more stable a platform. He designed them and then made the new platforms which have made a huge difference and created more versatility to the floating concept. A great amount of the repair work had to be done for the tents and the furniture inside. What followed was a process of engineering genius as Valentin manufactured his own replacement parts for the steel frames and recruited a sail maker who came in to do the best stitching repair work ever seen, or not seen as it were.
“We supplied them with various replacement tent parts and the smaller component parts such as eyelets, punches and zippers,” Paul says, “We stayed in regular contact offering advice where it was needed and generally just making sure that things were going the way he wanted.”
During this period, Paul also took to task to make sure that people knew that Four Rivers Floating Lodge was reopening. Sharing this story of triumph and doing his bit to help market and encourage the regrowth.
4 Rivers Floating Lodge is now opened again and benefits from all the hard lessons learnt. 4 Rivers is now much stronger, safer and ready for guests to enjoy the tranquillity that this experiential destination offers. Valentin has developed and manufactured the new floating lodge which is now tethered to the island where the water has less velocity. Also, he used to run power from the island through the river, that has changed and been redesigned to be more practical. He has also evolved his platforms from hollow vessels to floating concrete platforms and he has figured out how to do it on his own.
Now, easily one of the most experienced and skilled engineers in the realm of floating lodges, Paul has brought in Valentin as a consultant for a project in the Maldives where a floating lodge concept has been put forward.
“You cannot put a price on the experience he has in this field,” Paul says, “On all sides of it.”
He adds, “What Valentin has told me about this experience has been a learning curve. I’ve learnt enough about it to talk about the floating lodge concept which many people are getting excited about.”
THE FLOATING LODGE CONCEPT
In locations with sensitive eco systems, such as jungle islands the floating lodge concept allows the creation of a hospitality destination that doesn’t leave any footprint. This has always been something that Paul has favoured, his tents after all offer permanent structures that can be easily moved and re-erected somewhere else.
The idea of a lodge floating on a concrete platform, anchored to the floor of a river bed or the protected ocean floor also produces many other benefits than just bringing the guest closer to nature in a unique environment. For islands it means that the island can remain practically untouched, opening up more opportunity for engaging and educational tours on the land itself. Also, a floating lodge with an anchor would create natural shade and becomes a haven for marine life and if the lodge wanted to expand it could do so without damaging or disrupting this ecological benefit.
Paul explains that to pull off such projects, like the one that is planned in the Maldives, it takes knowing which suppliers to rely on to handle the logistics.
As an example, the question of dealing with waste material is an obvious one that keeps bobbing to the surface.
“You have to consider these things at the planning stages,” he says, “And I already work with a manufacturer in the UK who specialises in containerised sanitation and we’ve been speaking about how he could integrate his system into a floating platform.”
Paul goes on to explain that his supplier’s system produces grey water from waste which is clean enough to be purified into potable drinking water. This is useful if the lodge is on a remote island away from a natural water source. Or if necessary, it can be released safely back into the ocean.
THE ROI FOR INVESTORS
Whether you’re a hospitality investor or just a traveller, the concept of a floating lodge and the obvious benefits in today’s eco-engineering conscious environment should get you very excited. For those seeking a calculable ROI there are other important things to consider.
Firstly, staying in a tent is sexy. You’re protected from the elements but in direct contact with nature so whatever is in the environment, be it grass lands or trees, or water, you’re going to feel involved in all of it. Put that on water and you have another element that enhances that feeling. You get all the sounds, sensations and movement. According to Paul, it creates a far more dramatic connection with your environment.
“Let’s say that you create an opening in the platform, you close that up with glass, then you set the tent up over that and you get a direct view into the ocean,” he says.
Another example of the greatest advantage for ROI, would be, if you have a small island with maximum space for ten tents. By using a floating lodge system, assuming that it works with the coastline and the currents, you can double the capacity on a floating lodge, so instead of getting a return on ten tents you can get forty etc.
“In French Polynesia and the Maldives, you get these concepts on stilts because it offers guests a different feeling, however it is still a hotel, just on stilts,” Paul says, “But experientially a floating lodge is different to everything else out there. You could even do it on lakes, shallow coastal locations and of course rivers.”
Then, if you want to move the lodge you can tow the entire hotel to a new area.
Paul goes on to point out that water is not an asset that has been used for building and there is always a distance between guest and water. This concept narrows that gap more than ever before.
“We are going to see more of this, the concept is picking up,” Paul says, “And it is only fair to say that Valentin is very much the pioneer responsible.”
Exclusive Tents International Ltd