Interview with Song Saa founder Rory Hunter

Interview with Song Saa founder Rory Hunter

Song Saa Hotels & Resorts founder Rory Hunter, has been selected as a Young Global Leader for 2015 - the only nominee in Cambodia. This accolade from the World Economic Forum recognises leaders under the age of 40 who commit time and talent to make the world a better place. 
Hunter was nominated for his “outstanding professional accomplishments, his commitment to society and potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world through his inspiring leadership.” 
On top of this recognition Song Saa Hotels & Resorts has just relocated their Head Office to Hong Kong and is looking to future hotel developments in other parts of emerging Asia. So we thought it was a pretty good time to catch up with Rory.

• How has life at Song Saa changed since the opening?
In many ways we're accidentally hoteliers, so opening Song Saa was certainly an adventure and one we undertook with all the enthusiasm that only naivety allows. In the three years since opening, the learning curve has been steep and challenging, at times exhausting, but ultimately, incredibly rewarding. We've been able to build a team we're immensely proud of and have built a resort and a brand that both reflects our values and our ambitions, which can now form as a spring board from which to grow.

• What has most surprised, pleased and disappointed you since then?
Surprised - more than anything. It’s been the sheer force of will required to get the resort operations to the standards we expect. When you start dreaming about a project like Song Saa, you always look at the finished product and think once you get to that stage, ie the construction finished, the hard work is done. We couldn't have been more wrong as that’s when the hard work really begins.
Pleased - because both Melita and I have been so happy with the sheer number of our guests who reflect our values and our goals for conservation and community development and that they too believe that luxury travel has a role to play in preserving and protecting remote parts of the world, such as the Koh Rong Archipelago.
Disappointed - There many set-backs along the way and the challenges were far greater than we could have expected, however there are no regrets or disappointments and I wouldn't change any of it if I could do it over.

• Do you feel you’ve proven that the luxury sustainable hotel model works?
I do. The biggest part of our success has been separating out the conservation and community development work we do into a separate Foundation - the Song Saa Foundation - as this allowed for a singularity of vision under the Song Saa brand with a duality of execution, where both organizations have a clearly defined mission and governance structure to ensure they're able to deliver on their mandates, while working symbiotically towards a shared goal.
We've also seen firsthand how much our guests care about the work we do and how it plays into their purchase decision. It’s also a very good commercial decision as it allows Song Saa to differentiate itself from other luxury hotel brands in a meaningful way and position the brand to allow for the greatest possible financial success, while at the same time doing great science lead marine conservation and needs driven community development.

• Tell us what this Young Global Leader nomination means to you and to Cambodia.
It is a great honor to join the Forum of YGLs, and I am proud of the time and energy expended over the past decade to achieve what the Song Saa team has tirelessly worked towards. But for me, this honor is less a personal accolade and more an incredible opportunity. We are no longer forging ahead in isolation, but are among other likeminded thinkers, business professionals and leaders, whose inspiration, support and assistance will be invaluable in expanding our outreach and growing every aspect of what we do. We intend to continue on our path, drawing on the wonderfully diverse YGL community which has the tools, skills and experience to amplify the results of every initiative we have launched and will launch, with the hope and goal of preserving a unique natural environment and bettering the lives of those who depend upon it. It is humbling to see what doors will open, and Melita and I are excited to embark on the next stage of Song Saa’s journey with the support of an organisation whose values are so perfectly in tune with ours

• What are the things you’ve done in the country you are most proud of?
The two that stand out are creating Cambodia's first marine reserve nearly 8 years ago, which paved the way for the development of one of the largest marine reserves in South East Asia (400sq/km) which is just about to be legislated by the Royal Government of Cambodia and which we've developed a partnership with His Highness, Prince Albert II of Monaco to manage. The second is the annual medical missions we do in conjunction with International Medical Relief. These missions are the first ever medical outreach programs for the people of the Koh Rong archipelago, who had effectively been forgotten by other health organisations, to address issues like malnutrition (which stands at 75%), women's health, dentistry, general nutrition and hygiene.

• Are you worried about increasing numbers of tourists heading to Cambodia’s coasts?
Knowing we were the first to develop an island of any form in Cambodia, we knew that it came with a deep responsibility to lead by example and show that conservation and community development aren't mutually exclusive to resort development. What's desperately needed now is government oversight to ensure development guidelines are put in place and managed so that development happens in a controlled manner taking a long term view so all stakeholder's interests are considered and protected.

• What impact has Song Saa had on the environment and communities that surround it?
More than anything we've tried to be a good community member in the Koh Rong Archipelago and we hope and believe that we've been able to help protect large parts of Cambodia's marine environment, provide jobs and a future for local villagers who otherwise would have been caught in a dire poverty trap, improve livelihoods through support for local farming and artisans, educating the children of Prek Svay, improving access to healthcare via IMR and the monthly boat of hope program where we visit remote villages and deliver much needed medical supplies and hold various educational workshops.
All of these are small steps, which we plan on building on over the years to come and scaling up the Song Saa Foundation by accessing donor funding and bilateral aid, while leveraging the core infrastructure of the island. For us, the journey has just begun.

• What are your hopes and plans for the next year, five years and beyond? Personal and for the Koh Rong Archipelago.
We recently moved to Hong Kong to focus on growing the Song Saa brand (both Resorts and the Foundation) within Cambodia and other parts of emerging South East Asia. We hope to be able to announce the details of our second Song Saa by the end of the year and to be operating in countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia within the next 5 years.
As for the Koh Rong Archipelago, I hope that as development slowly evolves that it does so with a respect for the environment and the local communities with a view to the long term, and not driven by those looking for a quick buck.

• What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since the day you decided to create Song Saa?
The power of dreams are incredible and real. Almost anything can be dreamt into reality if you're prepared to disregard the risks of failure and persevere (ie NEVER give up!). It’s truly remarkable what can be achieved when you open your heart and dare to dream.


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