Gabriela Lo, managing director of Naked Retreats in Moganshan outside Hangzhou, came to Shanghai five years ago to work and to study Mandarin. In 2007 she co-founded Naked Retreats, an eco-friendly idyll set in the tea hills of Zhejiang province, with her business partner Grant Horsfield. She spoke with CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about integrating a resort with a small bamboo farming village, plans reintroduce wildlife to their new sustainable luxury resort, and coping with loose chickens.
Q: How did you get the idea for Naked Retreats?
A: I met Grant Horsfield in 2007. He’d had this idea when he was on holiday in Vietnam, wondering why their weren’t resorts like those in Vietnam here in China. He pitched the idea for an outdoor retreat to me, a way to get people out into nature. I’d been up to Moganshan already because I was sick of the city and wanted to get away. I pitched the location to him. A month later I quit my job. We refurbished three old farmhouses and had a soft opening. The next year we opened five more units. Now we have 21 rooms in eight units.
Q: What was the response like?
A: It was great. Until now, we’ve hardly spent any money on marketing. More than two-thirds of our marketing is still word of mouth.
Q: What were some of the challenges of getting started up here?
A: Sometimes it is not easy to run a retreat for people who have different expectations. It’s very difficult to integrate sustainability with luxury. For example, every single bamboo tree here is owned by someone – this is a bamboo farm. Right now it is bamboo harvesting time and you do get people going up and down the roads with loads of bamboo. Some think it’s charming, but others find it annoying.
Q: How so?
A: It can be quite noisy when they are dragging down the bamboo. Also, sometimes the roads get blocked. But we are in a village. It’s an authentic Chinese experience. There are chickens running around and villagers walking around. But our upcoming project will be much more of a resort than a village flavor.
Q: No chickens?
A: Maybe we’ll still let chickens in, but we’ll also have golf carts, so it might not be such a chicken-friendly place. At the same time, we want to bring back some of the animals that used to live in the area. For example, there are two species of deer we want to reintroduce.
Q: So what is this new project?
A: What we are calling it Naked Yizhan Reserve. In the old days a yizhan was where horses used to rest. We’ll have stables and some horses there. It will be a much bigger resort – 121 rooms, a swimming pool, tennis courts, conference centers, a wellness center and a proper restaurant. We plan to soft open in September, and we are aiming to earn a LEED platinum certificate for the facility, which is tough to do. If we get it we will be the first in Asia to do so.
Q: Any other expansion plans?
A: Yes. Our business model is to find places like this, hidden gems around big cities in China. We hope to be able to roll out another 10 of these over the next three to five years.
Q: Have you picked out any new locations yet?
A: We are opening a Naked Shangri-La, in Yunnan. That place will be a 23-room facility, similar to this one.
Q: A lot of people throw around the term sustainability, resorts in particular. What is sustainable about Naked Retreats?
A: Basically we have four main areas of sustainable practice; the way that we design the houses, the way we build them, and the way we integrate them with the local economy and environment. For example, our towels and toothbrushes are made from bamboo grown here. We also have a gray water system we use to flush toilets and so on. The new project will be even more efficient than this one. We also do educational projects. We are all trying to become more sustainable and we are all trying to understand more about how to do it. We work with a program called GECKO – it stands for green education something or other – with Greenovate. They come up and run courses. We just finished one course with the local school here. The trainers come to stay here for two days every other week, and they do a sort of environmental talk with the schools, which is very welcomed by the schools here. In fact they have started integrating some of that into their own curriculum. We explain what environmental footprint means, we do recycling exercises, we explain why you do it, how you do it, what it means in your everyday life to be more environmentally friendly. It’s very simple and very practical. We’re about bringing nature closer and more accessible to people.