COMO Shambhala Estate (www.como.bz) is located to the north of Uma Ubud, Bali, about one and a half hours north by car service from the Denpasar International Airport. With 40 rooms, this resort is truly dedicated to the well-being of its guests.
Having spent several nights at the property, I was awestruck by both its remarkable beauty and its commitment to exceptional guest service. The staff is particularly friendly and ceaselessly helpful. I had the opportunity to discuss this with John Halpin, the General Manager, to explore the essence of the fantastic COMO experience.
How did you get into the hotel business?
When I turned 13 years old, I asked my parents to sign a permit allowing me to work in a local restaurant outside of school hours. In the summers, I’d work at a family friend’s restaurant in Cape Cod. After high school, I went to The Culinary Institute of America and worked my way through most sections in the kitchen. Later I went back to school and earned another degree from Florida International University in Miami, and was recruited by Hilton Hotels to work as a Food and Beverage Outlet Manager at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
When was COMO Shambhala Estate built and what is the property’s history?
COMO Shambhala Estate was formerly known as Begawan Giri, which was built by Bradley and Debbie Gardner. It first opened in 1998 in its extraordinary 23 acre (9.3 hectare) location, flanked by jungle-covered riverbanks on three sides, a brisk 15 minutes away from Ubud. In 2004, COMO Hotels & Resorts assumed management and ownership. The Estate is a haven of peace and quiet, and is privy to beautiful natural surroundings. The Estate easily manifested into the flagship of COMO group wellness brand – COMO Shambhala. Substantial health facilities were added along with five new villa accommodations. Experts in wellness, yoga, Pilates and master therapists all contribute to this unique property, offering extraordinary services and holistic therapies. All staff work together to devise a personalized holistic experience for each guest. Well-being packages are tailored to each individual’s personal requirements, including fitness, detoxification, stress management, or just time out from the world’s many rigors. Specific treatments are paired with a daily activities schedule, which can include morning yoga, exhilarating walks, hydrotherapy, or Pilates sessions as well as our healthful and delicious COMO Shambhala cuisine.
Tell me a little bit about the COMO brand philosophy and how you apply it to the COMO Shambhala Estate?
COMO Hotels & Resorts offers customized luxury travel experiences. The five pillars of the COMO brand really do all culminate here at COMO Shambhala Estate. The combination of wellness, culture, adventure, design, and cuisine drives all our programs, fully customizable for each guest to make their stay as enjoyable as possible.
COMO services begin right from the moment the guest steps off the airplane. Can you elaborate on the steps you take to ensure the guest takes their mind off of work and gets down to the serious business of relaxation?
The COMO experience starts with a personalized airport pick up by our driver who can also facilitate ‘fast track’ custom/visa immigration for our guests. This continues with a greeting from your butler upon arrival at the Estate with our COMO Shambhala Invigorate scented hand towels and drinks. You’ll then have a pre-arranged personal consultation with an Ayurvedic Doctor, Fitness Professional, or a Nutritionist to better understand your goals and helping you make the most of your stay by planning activities, holistic therapies, Asian inspired treatments, exercise training, cuisine, or just some down time. Each guest is assigned personal assistant who will (in their friendly Balinese way) ease you along every aspect of your vacation. Of course, if one just wants to enjoy the healthful tone and natural surroundings, The Estate is readily available for a simple relaxing holiday.
COMO has a second property, Uma Ubud, about 15 minutes away, which you also manage. How do you split your duties between the two, and what are the advantages/disadvantages of this joint management program?
I am very lucky to have great managers looking after all of the various departments and taking care of our guests. Between the two properties we employ 400 people! Being the manager for both can be a challenge, but the value of having a team of dedicated and qualified managers cannot be underestimated. The main differences between Uma Ubud and COMO Shambhala Estate are that at Uma, we encourage our guests to explore the cultural and adventurous sides of experiential travel. Uma is within walking distance to the town, with art galleries, local markets, temples and rice fields at our doorstep. Uma guests get to enjoy commonalities with elements of wellness weaved into the overall experience. Pursuits such a, healthy menu choices, daily yoga classes, morning rice field walks and a team of local expert guides to make sure you experience the ‘Best of Ubud’, are all at hand. At COMO Shambhala Estate, our focus is more on you and your well-being, and the environment there is very conducive to self-focus. Both Uma and The Estate have different themes and designs, but the overall feel still lets you know that you are staying with COMO. The most difficult thing for me is making sure that each property gets my equal attention.
Just over five years ago, Bali suffered through a horrific terrorist act that claimed the lives of many Australians visiting the country. Has this incident been forgotten, or is it still impacting business growth?
The most horrific terrorist attack in Bali was in 2002. There was another smaller incident again in 2005. It was so sad to see an island known for welcoming tourists to its shores suffer so much. Innocence was taken away from the Balinese. It seems ironic, but the attacks have in fact made Bali a safer place to visit. Geographically Bali is easy to get to from Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. Tourist arrival numbers for Bali keep growing year on year.
In terms of staffing, it appears that you rely mostly upon the local talent pool. Do you find enough qualified people to meet all jobs, and what training programs do you have to maintain this human asset?
Bali has wonderful talent! We have promoted some of our Balinese staff and you can find Balinese working at Parrot Cay, The Metropolitan London, and Cocoa Island. We have a full time training manager working with us, and programs to develop our team to prepare them for bigger and better things. We have activities and programs that help our teams embrace COMO’s philosophies. Staff yoga classes and environmental programs, as well as community outreach programs, are all part of working with COMO. Of course, some of our experts are internationally sourced, such as our group executive chef Amanda Gale and Dr. Deepak, our Ayurvedic expert, as well as certain specialized therapists and nutritionists. We combine an Asian Balinese spirit with international expertise; the best of both worlds.
How do you compare your product with key competitors such as the Four Seasons Resort in Ubud?
Well, if you just compare rooms and occupancy, I am sure we could categorize Four Seasons and other hotels on Bali as our competitors. COMO is something completely different though. At Uma Ubud, we encourage our guests to go out and explore the local village life, see a Balinese dance, visit a temple, and take walks along the terraced rice paddy fields. At COMO Shambhala Estate, we encourage our guests to focus on themselves purposefully. This differentiation really sets us apart and is what COMO is known for, garnering an ever-growing fan base.
What is your geographic customer mix, and have you experienced any new trneds in this?
We really have guests from all over the world. The economy in Australia and the strength of the Australian Dollar has shown a big increase in Australian guests for the past few years. Chinese visitors are also increasing. Guest from other major Asian hubs such as Singapore and Hongkong, Japan, the UK, and USA markets are stable at both properties.
With the average guests staying three or more days, and rarely leaving the Estate, how do you stay innovative with your Food & Beverage programs?
The food we offer at The Estate is very honest and thoughtfully sourced. Our group executive chef, Amanda Gale, has gone to great pains to create menus that are healthy and delicious. One of the things we really want to share with our guests is that healthful cuisine can be innovative AND fully appetizing. The Estate’s award winning wellness concept includes the cuisine and advocates enzyme-rich, nutritious menus with a strong focus on organic ingredients and simple, natural preparations. Ingredients are locally sourced, some from our own vegetable gardens and fruit bearing trees, and delivered from field to table with minimum delay.
With new staff joining each year, how do you imbue the COMO philosophy of guest service excellence?
We have a great program to induct newcomers to our group and our brand. We also make sure we select the right people from the beginning. The island of Bali has some very good hotel schools and many of the graduates have had training abroad. This really helps us source great teams. We do not have much staff turnover, other than those who we promote to our other properties around the world. As COMO has grown, the group always looks internally and creates opportunities for its team members. The philosophy is simple – you need great staff to feel great so they can in turn make your guests feel great!
What lessons can you give other properties striving to achieve service excellence?
It is never a one-man show. All of the team needs be on the same wavelength. It is vital that everyone is accountable and able to adjust the service levels to suit the individual guest. Serving people is a very intimate relationship. Like any relationship, there needs to be a certain level of trust. It’s imperative that you trust your team and share a clear vision of expectations from the brand and guests.
What has been your greatest achievement?
In 1998, I stayed as a guest at COMO Shambhala Estate and it was the greatest hotel experience I ever had (at the time). I never thought that 10 years later I would be the GM here. There are many miles ahead of me and I plan to keep looking ahead rather than looking at my past achievements. What makes me smile is that I never dreamed, as a little boy growing up in suburban Massachusetts, that my career would take me to places like Bali and Bhutan. For now, I’m going to keep looking ahead, not back!
(Article published in eHotelier on November 10, 2011)