MOST people visit Bali, enjoy a couple of days at their resort, go to the beach, do some temple sightseeing, then head home.
But not Gilbert Gagnaire. While visiting Bali about four years ago, he became friends with the Balinese family that managed the resort he was staying at. Fast forward to today, the Frenchman is now the owner of a resort in north Bali, called Sanak Retreat. "I did not want to own a resort, it just happened . . .," says the former software engineer, who now runs a robotics company.
The story goes of how he passed by the village of Banyuatis where he stayed a few days, and was amazed by the scenic and peaceful area that was far from the usual tourist haunts of Seminyak and Kuta. He thought that his new friends, the Balinese family, were owners of the resort, and was surprised to hear that they were employees.
Mr Gagnaire, 54, came up with a proposal: "I would help them build their own guesthouse, by providing the funding and the architect and builders, and my new Balinese friends would operate the resort."
He came up with the proposal because in Bali, "if you are born poor, it is difficult to change your social situation. You have a basic job, and whatever you make is just enough for survival, with little left to pay for your kids' education or for medical fees", he says. "I wanted to be able to help my friends and other locals break the poverty cycle."
While finding the right piece of land, Mr Gagnaire got caught up with the project, and "stopped being just a financial partner".
He explains that "I wanted the resort to meet all the criteria that I think a resort should provide - not just about the level of comfort for guests, but also what a resort should provide to its surrounding".
Sanak Retreat, a S$4 million investment, is a three-hour drive away from the airport, and about two hours away from Ubud. The resort has 10 bungalows, with either one or two bedrooms, and a three-bedroom villa. The resort is surrounded by verdant rice fields. Room rates start from US$146 for a one-bedroom villa during low season.
"The resort is not an artificial haven isolated from the real Balinese world by a high wall. It is totally immersed in the local life and in every direction you look, there are farmers maintaining the rice paddies, harvesting clove trees, chasing birds or guiding a herd of ducks," says Mr Gagnaire. "Sanak means family in Balinese and that is how I would like the resort to feel."
But Sanak is more than just providing guests with a place to stay. Mr Gagnaire takes pride that he actively involves the villagers who live nearby. His Balinese friends work at the resort, arranging excursions for guests as well as playing the role of facilitator between Sanak and the villagers. Other villagers work on the resort such as in the housekeeping department.
"My goal is to eventually help my Balinese friends become managers of the resort," says Mr Gagnaire.
His other goal is to try and change the behaviour of the villagers living around Sanak, by bringing the concept of sustainability there. He admits that sometimes it can be difficult to change the mindset of villagers, but he hopes to influence the children there to do some good.
He cites an example of how garbage, particularly plastic bags, are randomly discarded in the rice fields, which can be both an eyesore for guests and also villagers. "The resort works with the children to organise weekly garbage collection, where they collect garbage in exchange for food," he says.
Mr Gagnaire is upfront about how he has no prior experience in running a hotel. "But I'm a frequent traveller, both for business and for leisure." He took a three-year sabbatical from 2009, and travelled much of Asia. "I have stayed in hundreds of accommodations, ranging from backpacker inns in the middle of nowhere to five-star hotels. Staying in different types of accommodation does not mean I know how to operate a resort, but these places have set my expectations, so I know the direction that I want Sanak to go," he says.
"I want Sanak to be a resort with all the creature comforts, but also a place where guests can meet other guests, so that no one ever feels alone."
He has a team of professionals to help him run the resort, such as the general manager, a Frenchman with 16 years in the hospitality business. The resort's chef is Balinese, who has worked several years on a cruise ship. "It can be difficult to find people with the right skills, such as those who do accounting, so I've had to hire people from Denpasar," says Mr Gagnaire.
The resort opened in February and enjoys a near 100 per cent occupancy rate. Nearly half of the guests are French. "I don't know why but north Bali is very popular with the French," quips Mr Gagnaire.
Despite the resort's popularity, Mr Gagnaire has no plans to open a second. "I don't consider this a 'proper' business. The resort just happened because I met great people with good hearts who are really smart but didn't have the chance to be exposed to many opportunities in life, and I felt I could do something about that."