A natural paradise
Andy Thesen, the founder and owner of Hermitage Bay, the award-winning, all-inclusive, 5-star resort on Antigua’s western shore, never intended to be in the hotel business, at all. “I was planning to be just an investor,” he says, “rather than getting so involved. But I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. It’s been an extremely rewarding journey – and one that I’m still on.”
Thesen, the accidental hotelier, was in the venture capital business in England in 2003, and his initial interest in Hermitage Bay was simply to explore the possibility of investing $250,000 to buy a two-bedroom villa on the beach. “That’s why I went to Antigua,” he explains, “to see the beach. There wasn’t anything there; it was a completely virgin beach – the villa was only planned. At the time I went to consider buying, the guy who became my partner, and his son, were trying to raise equity to build the hotel by selling off planned villas.”
At some point, though, Thesen decided to join the venture – but only as an investor. Or so he thought. “I thought I’d do the investing bit, and the business plan bit,” he recalls. “Get the money raised and swan out there occasionally to collect my dividend. But, just as we were coming up to open, there were all sorts of glitches going on and I suddenly felt that someone’s got to get hold of this and make sure we get open. And then I got swept into it, emotionally, when we started having guests there.”
After the hotel had been open for a few years, Thesen ended up buying his partner out. “And not long after opening in December 2006, my wife and daughter moved out to Antigua because I was spending so much time there,” he says. “So, we lived there for two years and I kind of became a fully-fledged hotelier.
There were some pretty tough periods, but now it’s all reward. It’s going very well and I have a great team there, and I’m grateful to the staff for making it a huge success.”
Calling Hermitage Bay a success is hardly overstating the case. The resort is a five-time winner of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence Award, which puts it in the travel site’s Hall of Fame. In 2014, Hermitage Bay was listed as one of the Top 10 Caribbean Hotels by Condé Nast Traveler, and in 2015, it made the Condé Nast Gold List of the 100 Top Hotels in the World. “And that’s a pretty impressive accolade for a small hotel in Antigua,” Thesen states, proudly.
Indeed, with only 27 rooms, Hermitage Bay is a small property – even though the entire resort is surrounded by 140 acres of lush, undeveloped land. “There’s a real sense of space and seclusion,” Thesen says. “The waves on the beach, the breeze in the trees, and the chatter of birds; it’s the perfect antidote to modern, hectic life; a true hermitage.” All of the hotel’s villas were designed to blend in naturally with the bay; ten of its individual suites are positioned right on the white-sand beach and the remaining 17 were constructed on the hillside, overlooking the water, to maximize views and privacy. And all of the villas were made from sustainably-managed wood from forests in Guyana, staying true to Thesen’s ethos as an avid environmentalist. The hotel still adheres to environmentally sustainable principles with its “reduce, reuse, and recycle” policy and its conscientious efforts to use solar energy technologies, natural detergents and beauty products, and locally grown fruits and vegetables.
And yet, Hermitage Bay doesn’t scrimp on luxury. Pristine white linens, ivory cushions, and creamy white walls soften the rich hues of the wooden floors and furniture. All rooms have outdoor showers and slatted louver windows, a flat screen TV and DVD player, Wi-Fi, ceiling fans, air conditioning, and natural bathing and skincare products. And the food is superb. “We’ve always held that the food has to be excellent,” says Thesen, “because at the price point where we’re selling, our people are used to eating out regularly at very good restaurants. So the food is very good. We use as much locally-grown and organic produce as we can, and are very proud that we have our own organic kitchen garden, onsite.”
But Thesen believes that the strongest differentiator between Hermitage Bay and other nearby hotels and resorts is his 100-members staff, who have been in charge of the hotel’s daily operations ever since Thesen and his family moved back to England, a few years ago. “We’ve drawn on the natural Caribbean hospitality and culture of the islands and they’re doing a great job at looking after guests and providing top job service in a very human way,” he says. “To me, it’s really important that everyone is local. There’s no foreign, first-worldy, European or North American in there to run the show. And I think that message is extremely powerful. And that’s why guests feel that it’s a special place.”
Initially, many of those early guests came from the United Kingdom. “We started off very strong in the U.K.,” Thesen says, “but in the Recession, we swiveled our sights onto the U.S., because it’s nearer and fairly easy to get to. So now, the U.S. is number one – it’s the U.S., the U.K., and Italy.” According to Thesen, the hotel sustains its 86 percent occupancy rate by reaching out to potential guests in a wide variety of ways. “The main one would be tour operators,” he notes. “And we deal directly with larger travel agencies in the U.S. We work on our online presence; we invest quite a lot in search engine optimization; we’re doing quite a lot of pay-for-click work now; and our rates are available on Google, Trip Advisor, Kayak, Trivago – all the meta-sites. We’re on the cutting edge of what hotels are doing in the online space.”
Thesen says that even though he is planning to add three new rooms this year, during the hotel’s seven- or eight-week, summer downtime, he’s in no hurry to expand Hermitage Bay too quickly. “You have to allow it to evolve and be particularly wary of not damaging what we already have,” he explains. “I listen to guest feedback and they like it to be small and intimate, so that’s something that I’m very keen to preserve. We probably need to go to a second restaurant at some stage; we probably need to expand our fitness facilities and expand our spa, but no big changes. We don’t want to rush anything; we don’t want to make any changes because it’s working very well as it is.”
Thesen, the accidental hotelier, says he is thinking of writing a book about his experiences as the owner of Hermitage Bay, hoping to isolate and explain the ways in which this ten-year old enterprise became so successful. “Because I think what we’ve done there has been extremely powerful,” he posits. “And I’d like to explore whether it’s transferable, which I believe it is.” And perhaps, after that book is written, and his work is through, Thesen, himself, will decide to relax in the Caribbean comfort of his own Hermitage Bay.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Hermitage Bay
WHAT: A 5-star, all-inclusive resort
WHERE: St. Johns, Antigua
Island Provision Ltd. – Established in 1981, Island Provision Limited provides fresh, frozen and canned vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, poultry, drinks, and dry goods to the hospitality and retail industries in Antigua. It is one of Island Provision Ltd. Group of Companies that also includes Best Cellars Wines and Spirits, and Gourmet Basket Supermarket. – www.island-provision.com