Saletoga Sands faces uncertain future

Since the country went into a State of emergency (S.O.E.) and the borders closed, the team at Saletoga Sands Resort and Spa in Matatufu has been refurbishing every inch of the property.

The site has had a fresh coat of paint, and all the fales have new balconies. 

The unused second restaurant has a new roof, and 12 brand new fales opened in April have barely been booked. 

Owner and Manager, Gavin Brightwell, said he has sold around $500,000 worth of assets, including a fleet of courtesy cars and his generators, to keep his bills paid, staff employed and the site maintained.

“We figure we might be able to get through till Christmas time but after that it is pretty much an unknown whether we are going to close down,” he told the Samoa Observer on Wednesday. “We have exhausted a lot of our sellable assets to keep going and all our spare cash.”

The big spend is all part of an effort to ensure his resort stays up to scratch until overseas guests can return. Mr. Brightwell said it would be cheaper to actually close the resort and keep a small maintenance team working, but it would not be enough to ensure the resort stays in shape.

He said Samoa cannot risk tourists arriving after a long period of no-travel to find themselves disappointed at shabby, “tired” looking resorts. 

Today, guest bookings down to a trickle and weekend trade has been stilted by State of Emergency restrictions.

Monthly expenses are still around $60,000, and Mr. Brightwell said it is never obvious where that money is going to come from.

They have had just three busy weekends in the last five and a half months: Father’s Day, Independence Day, and Mother’s Day. They are holding out for a decent White Sunday weekend too.

“You can’t survive on four days a year,” Mr. Brightwell said. 

Domestic tourism has been positive and locals are coming out to support the resort but can only do so at prices the resort cannot profit from. And with no swimming or alcohol sales permitted on Sundays, very few people are spending their weekends at the beach.

“I can’t quite understand why we are in lockdown when we don’t have the virus here and we have got the borders closed, it doesn’t make sense to me. People who come out here for a special occasion, come out to eat, drink and go for a swim. Why would they want to come out if they can’t do that.”

Mr. Brightwell and his wife Lou opened Saletoga Sands in April 2014, and have been employing between 120 and 130 people in recent years. 

Majority of their staff over the years have been first generation employees, and as well as the necessary staff they have been able to hire their workers’ parents or relatives for odd jobs around the place.

Mr. Brightwell said the Government needs to take care of the businesses that have been investing in Samoa.

“I came to this country as a foreign investor. The government dangled the carrot for me to do that, they said come here, we’ll give you a tax incentive, we’ll give you duty free concessions.

“And we have done everything we’ve been asked of. We built a resort, we spent all the money we’ve earned from profit on growing the resort and marketing overseas. We’ve done everything possible to support Samoa but in this time of need I feel tourism in general is being let down.”

Restrictions on Sundays and on trade during the week under the state of emergency are actively taking away money making opportunities, he said.

“The Prime Minister made a statement, he said lower your prices and make it affordable for Samoan people. We have done that, dropped our prices to the lowest possible we can, where we don’t make money out of the room.” 

One major hurdle to keeping doors open has been a more than $20,000 investment into the Government mandated tax invoice monitoring system, requiring brand new hardware and software to be installed at the resort.

“We are not even going to be paying tax for the next few years, so what is the point,” Mr. Brightwell said.

“We’ve been a bit disappointed on some of these policies, [they’re] not helping us whatsoever.

“This government has got to realise that even though we are privately owned we are the backbone of tourism. If that asset is destroyed or folds it is only going to come back and hurt the Government.”

One positive out of the pandemic experience has been a chance to get creative on expenses. 

The resort now has solar panel lights illuminating the pathways instead of electrical lights, and using more tank water than before, made possibly by a wetter than usual dry season.

Mr. Brightwell said the lockdown period has been an opportunity to look more closely at financial strategies and prepare for the industry’s return.

He is not optimistic that the resort will be making any profits in the first two years of regular operations, however.

Last year he embarked on an NZ$12,000 (T$20,800) a month marketing spend targeting tourists in New Zealand and Australia, and was looking at bookings in 2020 filling the resort to capacity.

When the pandemic hit, he began sending tens of thousands of dollars a month back to guests in refunds, with only a third happy to leave the money, hoping to use it in 18 months. 

That 40 per cent deposit per guest has been spent, Mr. Brightwell said, so when those guests do make it to Samoa their stay will come at a loss.

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