The Shorts-Wearing Banker who Built a Unique Hotel
AFR Sophisticated Traveller, August 1 2019
Being put on the spot by an awkward question led banking executive Neal Cross to spend $1million plus creating two eco-resorts in Indonesia
This is the version as filed, including a section on Banda Aceh that did not make it in to print. See the AFR Sophisticated Traveller version as it ran here
On an island off the coast of Aceh in the far northwest of Indonesia, Neal Cross is sitting in a treehouse.
It’s not just any treehouse: it is a work of some skill, high in the boughs, linking directly to the upper floor of a house he has built here next to his boutique hotel, but without a single nail into the tree nor any permanent connection to the house itself. It drifts back and forward in the wind while he looks out over the Andaman Sea while writing presentations on his laptop.
They said it couldn’t be built this way, but it got done. Which is no surprise, if you know Neal Cross.
Cross was until recently the chief innovation officer for Singapore’s DBS Bank, considered among the world leaders in digital initiatives in banking. He is famously disruptive, both in the sense of bringing innovation to established business norms and in just being downright contrary in everyday life, refusing to wear a suit in any circumstances.
Earlier today he has plunged off his scooter while trying to navigate a downhill track past a badly-signaled road crew; this is a remarkably frequent occurrence for Cross and the livid shin injury probably still won’t be enough to get him out of his usual cargo shorts and into long trousers. After all, he wore shorts to speak at the G20.
Here on the island of Pulau Wei (Sabang, to locals), Cross has brought his sense of it’ll-get-done belligerence to the hotel industry. The Pulau Wei Paradise is the second time he has built a new boutique hotel from scratch in Sumatra – the other, the Hotel Orangutan, is in the village of Bukit Lawang on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park – without consulting an architect on either occasion.
Both hotels combine big ambition to build high-end hotels in places that lack them, bloody-minded gumption in terms of getting the things built at all, and a strong sense of social purpose. One of the missions of this hotel off Aceh is reef protection and education; in Bukit Lawang, it’s to protect Sumatran orang-utans.
Both hotels were also built while Cross was pretty close to full-time at DBS in Singapore; he has flexible working hours (and has recently stepped back to a more part-time, advisory capacity) but nevertheless had to be in Singapore during the week and so developed the hotels on weekends, flying in to Sumatra with suitcases full of ceiling fans and other paraphernalia, spending hundreds of hours in transit. He has probably spent more time on MI234, the Silkair Friday evening flight to Medan in Sumatra, than most of the cabin crew.
The result is two distinctive boutiques, open for business. But the story of how it got to this point is the interesting bit.
Cross has done a lot of strange jobs on his way to banking – leaving school at 16 to become a computer game programmer, teaching kung fu to bodyguards, DJing, running an online aquarium business – but the last role before DBS was at Mastercard Labs, where he held an innovation role.
He had been trying to build what he calls a universal problem-solving framework, and was looking for a case study to try it out with his team.
He had always been interested in orang-utans. “I’m just fascinated by the fact that they are so close to us DNA-wise,” he says. “So I thought: why don’t we test out our framework on how to save the Sumatran orang-utans?”
He and his Mastercard Labs team set off to Bukit Lawang, an arduous four-hour drive from the nearest airport in Medan, to do field work in the village, a pretty spot on a river, where there is a modest backpacker tourist industry based on people taking guided treks into the jungle to try to find the animals in the wild. They were guided by the imam of the village, Abdullah Togap, who is also a trekking guide.
They spent time in the community understanding who all the stakeholders were, from tourists to villagers and trekking guides to government and plantation operators. Then they started brainstorming. “The place is full of European backpackers,” he says. “When places are three dollars a night there’s not much income coming in, and the people have no local power. They fall in love with orang-utans, but then they go home and it is difficult for them to influence change.”
The solution they hit upon was to build a high-end boutique hotel and market it to wealthy executives and their families, or, better still, people who will go on to be leaders in Asia, “and have decisioning power. Or will do in the future.” Get themto understand the threat, and to care about it, and you have finally reached people with the power to make effective change – palm oil policy at the corporate level, for example.
The training exercise completed, Cross and his team went home. But two weeks later, Abdullah called him. “Abang(brother), when are you coming back?” Cross, by now interviewing for DBS, explained he was busy, far away, and had never intended to actually build the hotel. “So you’re not coming back to help?” said Abdullah. “No, I’m not,” said Cross.
“And it just didn’t feel good, or right. It got to me. I sat at my desk and I thought: if not me, then who? If you’ve worked out how to make an impact here, why don’t you just do it?” He called Abdullah back and told him he had changed his mind.
I visited the hotel in September and found it complete and impressive, clinging on to a cliff face through several levels of smart and well-furnished rooms to Cross’s own residence way up the top, with the finest view in the village; even the stairs to get up there look like a major engineering challenge.
But Cross and Abdullah sought no professional guidance and just learned on the job, sometimes the hard way. They bought the town’s former tourist office, which now serves as reception, set about clearing the cliff above, and began building, doing everything themselves from architecture to construction to interior design.
Every trip involved not only the flight to Medan but an arduous four-hour car journey through the expanding London Sumatra plantations to the jungle.
But it got done, and today I see tourists breakfasting downstairs before heading into the jungle with Abdullah or other guides. In a morning here I see three orang-utans in the wild, including a normally elusive male, massive and rugged yet moving with gliding grace in the trees.
Job done. And you would think that would be plenty. But it apparently wasn’t enough.
“After I finished the Hotel Orangutan, it had been incredibly hard doing that on the weekends, and I vowed I would never build another hotel,” says Cross, this second interview taking place in Aceh in November. “But after three months, I started to get the urge again.
“I’ve learned a lot from my previous adventures, and I actually grew up in a seaside town in
England [Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset], so I thought: I want to do a beach hotel.”
Abdullah, by now formally Cross’s business partner, was once again instrumental to the whole enterprise. When he was younger he used to play guitar in the guesthouses on the island of Pulau Wei, so he suggested they go and look there.
The two scoured the island with little luck, but eventually found a plot of land 200 metres by 40, still covered in jungle, but with a rock-covered blackened beach. “It didn’t look particularly appealing, but I thought: actually, knowing what we did in the jungle, cutting into a mountain and putting stairs in cliff faces and bringing everything we needed for construction on motorbikes, we can pretty much do anything.” He bought the land.
This was, in many ways, an even bigger enterprise than Bukit Lawang. It’s even harder to get to from Singapore than Bukit Lawang, always requiring two flights and often a ferry.
A private beach resort clearly needed privacy, particularly given that Shariah law is particularly strong in Aceh so it was prudent to separate any bikini-wearing backpackers from the local community, so they ended up having to build 250 metres of wall two metres high, which cost about $40,000 on its own.
Then they needed to build a sea wall, partly just to ensure the stability of the land, but also to allow the sand to return to its natural golden colour, rather than being blackened by soil being eroded from the shore behind it. That required 25 steel and concrete boxes three metres high and five long being built and dug into the sand, most of it now invisible beneath the surface; off went another $100,000. “You’d never think: I need a sea wall,” says Cross.
“That was a massive undertaking, a big engineering task. But you can’t have it failing.”
Where motorbikes were the only way to get materials to the site in Bukit Lawang, here he was reliant on ferries. The huge floor-to ceiling reinforced glass panes at the front of the beachfront rooms were particularly difficult to bring in intact.
The social impact angle here was about reef preservation. There is a decent reef off the beach, with a type of coral that looks like pages of a book in particular abundance, but it is at risk from local fishing methods. “In these countries there’s a lot of people trying to influence change, but I feel there is a simple formula: making the locals more money doing good things than bad things. That’s it. It works every time.”
With Abdullah’s help he struck a deal with the local village, again starting with the imam: the locals make all the money from transportation related to the hotel, as well as various other jobs, and in return they don’t fish that particular beach. “It’s not to do them out of fishing: we are a very small part of the coastline. But it’s enough to create a place where fish can breed and be safe. It’s better for fishermen in the long run and they see the direct correlation between the quality of the reef, the success of the hotel, the number of guests who need transport and the money they get. So of course they want us to be successful.”
Much was learned along the way, chiefly about the value of local knowledge and making sure everyone gets heard – a lesson he applies in business. “We didn’t understand how the sand drifts up and down the beach at different times of year. Once I turned up and a load of the sand from one end of the beach had disappeared. I said: ‘Oh no, I need to go and buy truck-loads of sand.’
“And the locals said: ‘Well, you can go and buy a truck-load of sand, or you can wait two months and it will come back on that side.’”
This hotel combines high-end rooms on the beachfront with some cheaper dorm accommodation in a main building, but perhaps what is most interesting is the location. Banda Aceh will forever be remembered for the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 (see box), but this island, reached on a one-hour ferry ride from the city, is the mainstay of the region’s tourism ambitions. It has a decent shot of being bracketed with more celebrated southeast Asian resort islands in Malaysia and Thailand, though it needs a lot for that to happen, starting with more convenient flights.
It is less well-known that Bukit Lawang suffered a devastating disaster of its own a year before Banda Aceh’s devastation. A flash flood hit the village, caused by illegal logging upriver, totally destroying it and killing 239 people. “Aceh and Bukit Lawang have an affinity and relationship because of that,” Cross says.
Is the sense of building in a hard-hit place part of the appeal? “If you’re going to do something good, do it in a place where you can do good,” he says. “I meet so many people who say: ‘I’m doing good, I’m living in Seminyak in Bali and they need help.’ Bali’s got more money than the rest of Indonesia put together. Indonesia is a huge place and not many people are helping outside the main tourist areas.”
A final lesson he has taken from his adventures in tourism is what he calls non-instant gratification. “These things are a long burn,” he says. Some of his happiest memories of building the second place – again on long weekend trips from Singapore – involve the construction team, who built him a tin shack next to their own temporary accommodation. Simple and rustic with just a mattress and a mosquito net (but equipped with four power points, since they’d seen how much time he spent on devices), it became known as the Marriott Room, and he slept in it every weekend, woken at 4.30am by the sound of his team getting up to pray.
“I always stayed there rather than the guesthouse down the road, because I really felt the love from that. Connection isn’t measured by bars. It’s measured by experience and trust and how people feel about you.”
BOX: BANDA ACEH
In the Aceh Tsunami Museum in Banda Aceh, on one of the upper floors, there is a simple model, made from what looks like varnished papier-mâché. It shows people running for their lives froma vast, angry, cresting wave, 20 times their height. On first glance it looks cartoonish, absurd, an exaggeration for effect. But it isn’t. It is to scale.
The 30-metre wave, one of three that hit over the course of several minutes on Boxing Day 2004, created unimaginable devastation in Aceh. The town of Banda Aceh is flat and low-lying but surrounded by hills; the full force of the wave went straight through the town, at one stage moving at the speed of a jet aircraft.
Locally they estimate that 230,000 people died in the province. There is one cemetery near the town which holds more than 46,000. Absolutely everyone you meet has appalling stories: my driver, who was in Jakarta at the time, lost 16 members of his family in a village where only a mosque remained standing afterwards. A young guide at one of the memorial places was in the hills at a school; of all of her extended family, only her father lived.
Watching footage of the event and its aftermath, it is hard to imagine that any place or population could recover. But it has.
Queasy though it is, tsunami tourism is something that local agencies recognize and encourage. The Aceh Tsunami Museum, a long curved building that also serves as an emergency disaster shelter with future waves in mind, is the focus: visitors enter it through a dark and narrow corridor where water drips down from above, intended to convey the claustrophobia and fear of the tsunami. In addition to educational exhibits there are emotional ones too, such as a dark room whose walls are emblazoned with names of some of the dead in tiny script, disappearing out of sight above you, thousands upon thousands of the lost.
But perhaps the most striking sights are two places where boats have been left in place where they landed after the tsunami. One, the PLDT Apung 1,is so big it simply beggars belief to find it where it is, a good five kilometres from the harbour: it weighs 2,600 tonnes. An electricity-generating barge that was moored in the harbour at the time, it now houses exhibitions on the tsunami in its hold, and visitors can clamber to the top of it: it is higher than almost anything else in the entire city.
Elsewhere, a fishing boat has been left where it landed on the roof of a house. A much smaller vessel than the huge ship, this is in some ways more powerful because of its very weirdness, dangling incongruously in a suburb while life goes on around it. More than 50 people were saved here by clambouring through the house, upstairs to the roof and on to the wedged boat; rather less fortuitously, so was a large crocodile that was swept into the house.
But Aceh wants to present itself as more than just a place that suffered (it had undergone years of conflict prior to the tsunami too – in fact, the wave effectively ended the war, by destroying one of the armies). And this is where Pulau Weh comes in.
The island, reached by a comfortable one-hour ferry from Banda Aceh, is rugged and mountainous, and consequently escaped the worst of the 2004 disaster. It is a peaceful, low-key place best explored by scooter, and today mainly attracts scuba divers or people who want to see the coral from glass-bottomed boats. It has some war history – various Japanese materiel from World War Two is being cleaned up for visitors – and offers jungle hikes, some of it on an active volcano.
Cross’s hotel is one of only two on the island you would call high-end tourism. But sitting in the restaurant watching the sunset and eating lobster caught locally earlier that day, it is easy to imagine the island developing much further.
For that to happen, it needs more flights. The island has an airport, Sabang, but at the time
of my visit no flights are going there as someone has accidentally severed an undersea data cable that links it to the mainland. Assuming they resume, there is normally a flight from Medan, which in turn has easy connections to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Failing that, visitors have to come in to Banda Aceh, which has non-stops from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, including Garuda and budget carrier AirAsia.