IAN WHITE, MANAGING DIRECTOR, NIHI SUMBA
From surf shack to surf chic, NIHI Sumba has come a long way. Emma Kennedy caught up with the resorts new MD, Ian White, to discover a little about its history, a lot about its future, and the importance of riding a wave.
The physical journey to NIHI Sumba, begins with a short flight from Bali, followed by a 90 minute drive across rough terrain, to the resort that describes itself as being ‘on the edge of wildness’. The emotional journey, however started in back in 1988, when surfers Claude and Petra Graves, embarked upon building NIHI Sumba’s original incarnation Nihiwatu – a low key retreat for surfers. The narrative which ensued is fascinating with all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie, but that as they say, is another story.
Fortunately for this story, Ian White is on hand—or on Zoom to be precise—to bring me up to date with the latest instalment of the resort’s narrative. Having first been aware of the surf resort from his traveling days back in the ‘90s and subsequently becoming a repeat guest, he was a natural choice when owner, Chris Burch was looking for an MD. Following our introductions, and pre-empting my opening question, Ian begins.
“My connection with NIHI is quite funny actually. During the pandemic, when the rest of the world had closed down and was having a terrible time, I was the General Manager at Amanyara, Turks and Caicos Islands, which was still open. It was 2020 and we were riding the perfect storm. Occupancy was high and business was booming because there was nowhere else to go! Flown in on the back of that perfect storm was Chris Burch. I remember quite vividly looking through the guest list and seeing his name. I made a point of meeting him on arrival at his villa and told him straight away that I was a huge fan of NIHI, having been there many times, and we got to know each other during the week. After several breakfasts and coffees together, he said ‘come on, I want to know your story.’ So, I told him.”
Having initially studied hotel management in his hometown of Nottingham, Ian’s first job was as a pastry chef at Claridge’s, London, where he stayed until his desire to travel became too strong to ignore. Along with hip-hop and raves, the nineties saw the rise of the ‘back-packer’ culture, and all of a sudden it appeared twenty-somethings everywhere were on the move—hungry to discover what was out there—and Ian was one of them. “To be honest, at the time I just wanted to get as far away from the UK as possible,” Ian laughed. “Trailfinders and The Lonely Planet guides were leading the way and I took off for Thailand, Australia, the South Pacific and finally USA. It was along that road I came across the Amanwana nestled away on Moyo Island, Indonesia. I heard they were looking for employees and I joined as a Scuba Diver of all things!’’
This unlikely introduction to the Aman group was the start of a long and successful career spanning two decades, several continents and a succession of managerial roles. However, it was back in the early days of his tenure, that Ian came across what was to become NIHI Sumba. “It must have been about 1998, when I first visited. Some friends I had been working with in Indonesia, were caretaking it for the previous owners when they took some time off. It felt so wild and utterly adventurous. Some years later when I was managing Amanwana we introduced the luxury Indonesian liveaboard boats, and I happened to take an English couple around Sumba in about 2001. We took a dinghy to shore to explore and for me that was it, I just fell in love with it and returned many times as a tourist.”
Attributing much of his success down to the fact he invests in people not companies, on hearing Ian’s story, Chris Burch simply said “I’d love you to join NIHI.”
Most of us appreciate the power of being emotionally drawn to something or somewhere, but to walk away from the security of a career with a well-established brand in pursuit of that something is a bold move. I ask Ian what his reaction was to the invitation. “I said straight away I was interested,” he smiles. “I knew it was a risk to leave Aman but I am a risk taker, and I was ready to move on. I had been with Aman for a long time, and I believe you’re in your prime as an ultra-luxury GM when you’re in your late forties, early fifties, which I am, so I was excited to join a new brand. Currently NIHI is just one property, and I know to expand you need hoteliers with global experience, which I have… I just knew I wanted to be a part of this, so I said, ‘let’s do it’.”
The original NIHI was born out of a desire to create something that simply didn’t exist—a remote haven for surfers to stay on their seemingly endless quest to ride the ultimate wave. That wave in Sumba is Occy’s Left.
“However, what I have learnt in my very short four or five months at NIHI is that ultimately not all about the wave,” Ian continued. “it’s true this place would not be here without the wave, but the wave is not everything. Chris and James have created something magical here, that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Nowhere has this vibe. When people ask me what the difference between Aman and NIHI is, my answer is always ‘the vibe’. The Aman’s have their own thing, but nowhere has a vibe like this.”
In 1982, the surfing community weren’t particularly well served when it came to hospitality. Lamenting the plight of finding decent accommodation, the original owner Claude Graves was challenged by an observer to go and build one. So he did. Feasting my eyes on the raw luxury NIHI represents today, I’m keen to know how much it has changed under Chris Burch and his business partner, seasoned hotelier, James McBride’s ownership.
Ian is thoughtful and a little hesitant before he answers. “A lot” he says. “There’s been a lot of real estate added to expand it. When it was first born, it was very ‘surfer shack’, but interestingly, over the years, surfers with money began to build luxury villas here on Sumba, which was key in NIHI’s development.” With affluent surfers aplenty, as hungry for some barefoot luxury as they were for Occy’s Left, development began.
There’s a reason why NIHI has been voted The World’s Best Hotel* along with a host of similar accolades. Located on a deserted stretch of golden beach, with a backdrop of tropical jungle, NIHI comprises a collection of 27 private villas and a treehouse, along with the rather mysterious sounding ‘Secret Villa’ and the ‘Owner’s Estate’. The construction has been guided by the traditional Sumbanese architecture, allowing it to fit in seamlessly with the neighbouring villages. Grass thatched roofs, with distinctive high-pitched peaks sit upon timber frames. Local textiles and artworks adorn the clay finished walls, while floor to ceiling windows gaze out over the ocean. Outdoor sitting rooms end where the infinity pools start. It really is the stuff of dreams. Marrying the natural beauty of the island with modern luxury has been done with inert sensitivity. Design decisions are evident throughout, and the layers of luxury sit quietly alongside the traditional, to offer a raw polished beauty.
With NIHI Sumba now fully established, all eyes are now on the company’s future growth and there are already a host of properties and locations in varying stages of planning. “Part of my scope is to find parcels of land to build on and in the short term we are looking for more locations in Indonesia, along with Rote and Costa Rica. Rote is an island 200 miles north of Sumba, so it’s even more remote, with an interesting history. It’s going to be another beachside property with great surf and the same laid-back vibe and slated to open in 2024.” Casting their hospitality net far and wide, in the long term they are looking at the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and North America. Taking the NIHI team’s creativity and passion in a new direction, Ian will play a key role key in all the new developments, many of which will be unveiled this year.
Ian’s enthusiasm for NIHI combined with his zest for life is infectious, and it isn’t hard to see why Chris Burch was quick to appoint him as MD. Along with Founding partner and CEO James McBride and CCO Dan Miller, they make a formidable team and I for one will be following the future of NIHI with much anticipation—so, watch this SPACE!