Enriching Someone’s Life with a New Culture & Perspective — A trip to our island is a culturally enriching experience for our guests. They return because the experience touched them. Guests not only request the same Bure Mama but have invited staff to their own homes and kept in touch over the years. When they return to Turtle Island, they are greeted by old friends, instead of people who “work at a resort.”
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Evanson, Jr.
Richard Evanson, Jr. is the Managing Director and Owner of Turtle Island, an intimate five-star private eco-resort in the Yasawa Islands of Fiji that boasts a guest return rate of over 50%. Richard’s father, the late Richard Evanson, founded and built the Fijian island resort over 40 years ago and Richard Jr. began managing the island in his mid-twenties. He now takes his father’s place in leading the private island resort which consists of a team (affectionately called the Turtle family) of over 100 people while building upon his father’s legacy of conserving the environment, celebrating the culture and traditions of the local Fijian people, and supporting health and educational initiatives within the local community, while delivering a bespoke world-class Fijian experience to the few guests that visit each year.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up on Turtle Island, and as a child I was very close to my father, everywhere he would go I would be right next to him. This was at a time when he was building and creating his vision for Turtle Island. I recall sitting on his lap while he drove a D4E Bulldozer to build our water catchment that we call the Dam. It holds some 9 million gallons of water. I was so glued to my father that I would even sit through countless hours of business meetings, and enjoyed accompanying him on various projects that were happening at that time from a very young age. Keep in mind that this was all happening on a 500-acre private island away from the hustle and bustle of city life, so excitement for the project was naturally generated. It was this exposure and experience as a child that brought me into this career path. I shared my father’s passion for our island home and my father, and I often talked excitedly about how we could improve the island.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
On Valentine’s Day in 2012 we awoke to 14 baby Turtles washed up on our beach. This was the first time this had ever happened in our 32 years of operation at that time. What are the chances that it happened on Valentine’s Day, there were 14 baby Turtles, and we only host a maximum of 14 couples at a time? It was definitely a memory I will not forget.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistake was allowing my fear of making mistakes to hold me back. I quickly learned in my time on Turtle Island, alongside my father, that making mistakes was necessary if you were going to approach things in a more innovative way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For me, it was definitely my father, the founder of Turtle Island. Not only was he a great father, he was a great mentor in business and in life. He taught me that no matter how long you have been doing something, you can always improve it, and it’s important to your success that you find the joy in doing and consistently improving. He taught me that mindset is very important, and that it’s more about the questions you ask rather than the answers you can give, and that whenever life throws you a lemon, make lemonade. In other words, look at every situation or problem as an opportunity.
My father was very observant and sharp to pick up on things. He was also a numbers guy; he could multiply any number in his head within five seconds. He had a way of asking questions that really challenged your thinking around the given subject matter. For example, in our general daily morning meeting with staff, most of the questions would be asked by him and then my father and I would spend countless hours discussing the answers and next steps.
Within my first year, I was tasked to project manage the installation of what would have been the largest privately owned off-grid solar power system in the South Pacific at that time. My father was very observant and sharp, and I would always try to anticipate what he might ask me so I could provide an accurate explanation. The solar array’s location was a field that was originally intended to be a vegetable garden. One morning, when all the solar arrays were up, my father came into the morning meeting and posed the question of why the solar arrays were so far apart, and that this could be resulting in the underutilization of the land. Fortunately, given the years of working alongside him, I had learned to observe projects and then identify potential shortfalls that could be addressed beforehand. So that day, I was able to get ahead of his more technical questions and explain the reasons and even show him the Google sketch I had prepared to explain that my positioning of the solar panels was to anticipate the shadows simulated throughout the year.
I also learned to focus more on what was not working, and on each problem individually. In my father’s words, “don’t try to reinvent the wheel.” He would often also say, “if you have a flat tire, you replace the tire, not the whole vehicle.” It was in this philosophy that we also approached how to make small incremental improvements to the Turtle Island product and guest experience.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
My father would often quote his Harvard business professor as saying, “be unique, don’t compete.” My father loved doing things that were different, he was never afraid of trying new things, especially if no one had done it before or if it was not widely done, especially if the task was risky, if it aligned with our values. Since I took over from my father, it did take me some time to land on solid ground for defining what being unique meant for me, and what it would mean for Turtle Island.
I have come to appreciate that being unique is not necessarily trying to be different, but rather being true to yourself. Being genuine and authentic. There is so much that is unique about every member of your team, the locality, the culture, and the traditions, so by embracing this and reflecting on this in your guest experience, it would be impossible to replicate anywhere else. This is why there can only be one Turtle Island. It can be difficult for some to understand what I mean by this, the best way to understand it is to come and experience it for yourself. It’s one of the main reasons why we have over 50% of our guests committing to a future trip before they leave the island.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Our approach is really about providing a genuine authentic experience that is very human. Many talk about how the island is their second home, and how the Turtle family is their second family. Guests still get to experience the sun, beaches, amazing beachfront villas, and a private island experience with exceptional service, but there is something more purposeful and soulful in the way you experience it all at Turtle Island.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
I believe that Covid-19 made many in the world question the quality of their lives. Now people are inspired to seek out more purposeful, meaningful, and soulful travel experiences.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I love discovering new things. That said, any experience that creates a connection between myself and the local people and culture is sure to be a more memorable experience for me.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
I love how you mention connecting in travel because we believe it is a vital part of wellness. On Turtle Island our key pillars that guide all developments are conservation, commerce, culture, community, and connection. When making decisions we ask ourselves if it has environmental integrity. Does it make financial sense? Does it benefit the local community? Does it celebrate the heritage and culture of Fiji? Does it create a genuine connection between our guests and the island and its people?
We’ve always believed that creating a space for meaningful connection to the Island and our people is one of the most important parts of the guest experience and their wellbeing. Some examples of how this is done on Turtle Island is by inviting our guests to plant a tree during their stay and limiting wi-fi access to allow people to disconnect so they can be present and connect with their environment and those around them. We also encourage guest and staff interaction by inviting our guests to join our team for nightly kava where they participate in laughter, singing and sharing exciting moments about their day and stories about their life. Due to the relationships that are formed, it isn’t uncommon for a staff member to visit a guest that they remained friends with or for returning guests to request to visit their village to meet the staff member’s family. This genuine connection to the island and our people is why we believe our guest return rate is so high.
Over the forty years we’ve been in operation, we’ve certainly made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience. Wellness is a broad term and on the island we focus on the physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness of our guests and team.
We have the addition of our spa, activities such as archery, yoga, watersports such as the subwing, and the expansion of our vegetable gardens and island farm to provide fresher and more sustainable food. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in guests partaking in standup paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking around the island, and being more mindful of the food they consume and also more interest in non-alcoholic beverages.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Meaningful Connections — Our guests return year after year not just for a peaceful retreat and to relax on private beaches around the island but because of the genuine connections they make with the Turtle Island family. Guests have requested the same Bure Mama and Papas, Bula buddies, and nannies each year due to the connections they make with them. Also, we invite our guests to share a table every day and night for meals and dinner parties so they can get to know their fellow travelers. From these experiences, guests have made lifelong friends and sometimes even return to the island together.
2. Traveling with a greater purpose — More than ever people don’t want to just go lay on a beach, they want to experience the culture of the place they visit and help make a difference. It was always my father’s view that he came to live with the Fijians, not them with him. When establishing the resort, he vowed to observe the cultural traditions and practices of the Fijian people, like myself. One of my goals was to make sure our activities continue to be in harmony with the traditions of the Fijians, respectful of our laws and customs, and that Turtle Island will not only protect but embrace Fijian culture and heritage for future generations. These founding values are followed to this day.
3. Thoughtful Communication — Even after a guest has left the resort, we ensure that all of our communications with them are meaningful and thoughtful, not just blanketed marketing emails. For example, we had a guest who was not able to return to the island due to health reasons and so our team sent them a personalized video message along with a jar of sand they had requested so they had a piece of Turtle Island with them.
4. Listening and Remembering our Guests’ Preferences — Everyone on Turtle Island knows the guests names, and usually their preferences as well. Our team gets to know much more than just how guests like their coffee and can anticipate what guests might want next, such as their favorite drinks or snacks. Additionally, every guest fills out a survey before they arrive on the island that asks about their preferences. These surveys, along with their preferences when they reach the island, are saved on file for the next time they visit Turtle Island.
5. Enriching Someone’s Life with a New Culture & Perspective — A trip to our island is a culturally enriching experience for our guests. They return because the experience touched them. Guests not only request the same Bure Mama but have invited staff to their own homes and kept in touch over the years. When they return to Turtle Island, they are greeted by old friends, instead of people who “work at a resort.”
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
If the goodness of the world includes starting small, we have definitely shared our success with our neighboring communities, which triggers a chain reaction with our guests who also want to share their goodness with our community. Examples of this are: investing in the education of local youth by providing up to 35 Secondary School Scholarships annually for students from the region to attend High School on the main island of Fiji, donating a year’s worth of school supplies to the neighboring villages, hosting Dental Clinics (an idea from a past guest who graciously donated their skills and time), providing ongoing cyclone rehabilitation to neighboring islands, and more. During the height of Covid, our guests from around the world donated over FJ$310,000 to provide essential staple foods that could not be easily sourced in the region, such as rice, flour, sugar, biscuits, yeast, and baking powder. Resort staff delivered the essential food supplies to over 520 families in the community.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would try to get as many people to greet everyone around them, by name if they can, on Turtle Island we do this with a “bula” or “bula vinaka” (means hello and good health). Do it with a smile — it’s hard not to smile when you say, “Bula.” This small gesture can make all the difference in someone’s day, and the ripple effect can be magical.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instead of following me on social media, I invite readers to pick up a copy of my father’s biography, Fiji Island Refuge, shortly available on Amazon. Turtle Island can be found at @TurtleFiji on Instagram and @TurtleFiji on Facebook.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!