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The Sarojin owner Andrew Kemp, relaxing at The Edge

Secrets of The Sarojin, an Andaman Superstar

Thursday, July 3, 2008
Contender for Business of the Year 2008
THE WORLD TRAVEL AWARDS are often likened to the film industry's Oscars.

If that's true, then The Sarojin resort combines not just the beauty of the Andaman but the talent of Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn.

This year, The Sarojin won the prestigious award as 'Asia's Leading Boutique Hotel' for the third year in a row. Three industry ''Oscars'' straight is an amazing tally.

In 2006, the vote by travel agents around the world could have been said to be in sympathy for Khao Lak's post-tsunami recovery. In 2007, perhaps, it was a measure of loyalty.

But three years running? Against the best that all of Asia has to offer? That's astonishing.

My last visit to The Sarojin was in 2006, before the first award. The place looked good, but the landscaping hadn't had the chance to grow properly.

Nor for that matter had the staff.

So Phuketwan headed to Cape Pakarang, north of Khao Lak, to see how the Andaman coast's star resort is performing in 2008.

What's different at The Sarojin? Just about everything, and in another sense, absolutely nothing.

The philosophy behind the success is rock-solid and unchanged.

For anyone who dreams of opening a small resort, or for people who wish to improve existing resorts, a visit to The Sarojin should be obligatory.

The management here is not given to outlandish claims, but if there is a zone beyond five-stars, then The Sarojin is in quest of a higher standard.

Yet it's luxury without pretense, class without clap-trap. This resort has become a happy blend of hard work and level-headedness, of driftwood and divinity.

To recap on the remarkable beginning, The Sarojin was preparing to open when the big wave of the tsunami swept in on Boxing Day, 2004.

Owners Kate and Andrew Kemp, a couple of British expats, were showing visitors around Phuket. Andrew returned to Phang Nga and spent the day helping amid the chaos at Takuapa Hospital.

Fortunately, The Sarojin staff had been given the day off.

Amid the ruins of their dream resort, the Kemps decided to build it all again, and continued to support and in turn be supported by their loyal staff.

By coincidence, there were 56 staff and 56 rooms. So in tribute, each room was named in honor of one of the workers.

''We agreed that I would build The Sarojin and Kate would fill it,'' Andrew told Phuketwan. ''I had the easier job because of the support of the staff. Kate was on her own.''

After the tsunami, many resorts simply waited for people to return. Kate Kemp went out and sold The Sarojin and its core philosophy to the world.

Today the room tally remains at 56 but the staff has grown hugely to 245, a surprising total considering that most resorts along the Andaman holiday cost are culling or carefully capping numbers.

Among the staff are two fulltime English teachers and an Imagineer. And that's really what sets The Sarojin apart.

Another key change is the decision, a somewhat reluctant one, to not accept children uner 12. Sarojin guests now consist of couples, of all ages, holidaymakers or honeymooners.

''Even my children can't come here now,'' Andrew says. ''They used to, but they can't.''

The Sarojin is also exploiting adventure, going off-menu in food and beverage, as well as in the spa or in activities for guests.

A Caribbean-born Imagineer, Jowell Philemond-Montout, has a particularly important part to play, conjuring up ideas for individual couples to enjoy beyond champagne over breakfast.

''Actually, all the staff are Imagineers,'' Andrew says, ''even if they don't know it.''

He has just come from an introductory briefing for 14 new Sarojin employees.

The continuous education process, with English at the core, will broaden their natural Thai hospitality and develop their confidence to engage with guests.

It becomes almost intuitive. For example, a guest who said she liked a particular plant found a small version of the shrub on her doorstep the next day.

Staff learn about ''passing the ice cube,'' taking responsibility for a problem and pursuing a solution with teamwork until the ''ice cube'' is returned to the guest.

At the regular weekly cocktail session where Andrew announces that The Sarojin has won its third World Travel Award, the staff mingle with the guests and raise their glasses with them.

The star itself, The Sarojin, remains uncomplicated, and uncompromising.

Rooms sit around a large, lush quadrangle that invariably draws the eye to ponds around the stylish Ficus restaurant.

The visual delights flow on down to the swimming pool, the Pathways spa and The Edge, a second bar and restaurant, on a stretch of white sandy Sarojin beach.

Three styles of rooms each retain superb large wet zones, dappled with creekbed pebbles that contrast and blend with the living space.

Every room contains a 20-bottle wine stack.

New ideas keep coming. Andrew says they have just invested in a wine preservation system, Le Verre de Vin, that will enable guests to drink a wide variety of wines by the glass over their stay.

As with so many Sarojin innovations, he is not yet sure how the idea can be made to pay. But he is certain that guests will enjoy it.

The Sarojin's room rates have risen with its standards, but Andrew makes the point that the rates have simply returned to the levels of the original business plan after post-tsunami reductions.

Despite its successes, numbers at present are down a little on the low season last year. But bookings are stronger for next January, February and March.

Andrew says The Sarojin achieved 96 percent occupancy rates through the 2007-2008 high season.

''I don't have the sense that people are tightening their belts at the moment,'' Andrew says. ''People do feel, perhaps, that they need to be more careful.

''In terms of The Sarojin experience, it's exactly the same during the low season as the high season, We do everything absolutely the same way. The only difference is whether you go brown or not.''

Seven out of 10 guests write back to Kate and Andrew after a stay, giving them an insight into the views of customers that is perhaps more frank than what might be related to a manager.

''We have happy guests,'' he says. ''If there's a quibble, it's usually because one member of the couple has been less well informed about what to expect.''

True to the quest for perfection, The Sarojin recalled landscapers Belt Collins to recommend new plantings.

''I think this is probably first time we have been invited back,'' the landscapers said.

New general manager Leisa Kenny is taken with The Sarojin concept. As Andrew says, ''We don't need a gm to run it as you would a conventional resort, but to change things for the better.''

The intimate relationship between owners and staff remains a key, but the resort itself always takes top billing.

When Kate returns from an overseas trip, the Kemps will continue with plans for a new project.

All Andrew will say at this stage is that it will complement The Sarojin rather than replicate it.

And it's not in Thailand. But inevitably, he adds, the Thai staff will have an important role to play.

*Phuket's JW Marriott was also among this year's award winners as Thailand's Leading Hotel.

Contact: The Sarojin, Paul Counihan Director of Sales: +66 (0) 76 42799-4 E:

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