Alison Roberts struggled to make a successful career as a TV producer work once she had her daughter Maya, and found herself reduced to applying for mundane jobs that failed to match her experience or interest. So she decided to make a long-held dream come true and moved to a remote Indonesian island to build and run a luxury boutique resort. Two years on, she shares the ups and downs of life as a hotel owner and working mum with us.
What did you do before you had your daughter, Maya?
I worked in TV production as a freelance production manager, based in London. It was a great job, with much celebrity, glamour and international travel for shoots. However, it was also very stressful, with lots of responsibility. I managed the financial side of the projects and made sure the shows came in under budget. I often had to work long hours and weekends, there’s no such thing as nine to five in telly. We moved out of London the day I started my IVF treatment and that also meant I had a 2 hour commute each way when I was on a job.
How did work change for you after Maya?
It became harder as I had to find jobs that were office based as I couldn’t really do location shoots anymore. It was also difficult to find jobs that were flexible with a manager that understood that I had to leave the office at 6pm make my train, even then only getting home at gone 8pm! In TV there is a strange culture that nobody leaves work on time, in fact that kind of practice is quite frowned upon. I was working 14 hour days with my long commute and I wanted to be home more with Maya. I had to compromise and I started to look for work that was less skilled and mundane so that I could work remotely from home, often at a lower rate of pay. Also my focus changed as my priority was Maya and paying the mortgage rather than furthering my career.
What inspired you to build a resort in Indonesia?
I had met my husband in Indonesia and had lived there prior to returning to the UK. We had always dreamed of starting a business in Indonesia but once we had Maya that dream seemed unrealistic. My husband is a chef and we would frequently host dinner parties, at which friends would insist that we should open a restaurant. We found the courage to make the move back to Indonesia just before Maya was about to start school. We teamed up with my brother and developed a true family business – a small boutique resort on the beautiful paradise island of Gili Meno. The trigger was to make a change before Maya started school as this would have presented more logistical problems with work, commuting and childcare arrangements.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Where to start! The first challenge was making the decision to emigrate and taking a leap of faith. Even though life was tough in the UK we had a beautiful home and fantastic friends so it was a huge wrench. The resort build itself was beyond challenging as we project managed the first stage of the development. We had no previous building experience and there were many dark moments of despair with the project that very nearly broke us. The development is based on a tiny island with limited resources and immense logistical and linguistic challenges. There were times when we thought that we would never achieve our goal. Then came the hotel operations, which was also a huge learning curve. Only my husband had any previous experience in the hospitality industry. For me and my brother it was a matter of learning on the job whilst keeping up the appearance of seamless operations in order to build a resort with the reputation that we desired.
A huge achievement was actually launching the hotel after the long build process. However, probably our biggest achievement to date has been our quick rise to the top. In our first year of business we were awarded a TripAdvisor Traveler’s choice award. We are currently TripAdvisor number one hotel in the Gili Islands. We have also had considerable press and magazine coverage. It’s really astonishing for us to achieve such quick success – it means that our determination, hard work and commitment is paying off. Also our guest satisfaction matrix is beyond our wildest expectations. That gives us the biggest sense of achievement – knowing that we have created something truly special, and that the dream is becoming a reality.
How do you fit establishing a business around childcare?
It’s very tricky, and as a mother I constantly feel guilty. I resisted having a nanny which is a part of the expat culture here; it was something that felt quite alien to me. So there was a lot of extra pressure in the early stages as I had to look after Maya. I felt that I neglected Maya while we were building the resort and also whilst we were building up the business. The first two years have been very intense and we have had to invest everything – physically, emotionally and financially – in making the business work. However, it’s starting to get easier now as we have developed a good team and I have employed a part time childcare assistant. I can now take more time away from the business and have more quality time with Maya. Part of the dream was to have more freedom and more time with my daughter and that’s now also starting to become a reality.
What about schooling for Maya?
At the moment I am home schooling as the local island school is not international standard. Home schooling has its own challenges but we are making progress and she is starting to read and write. She has learnt to speak Indonesian and she is also leaning Sasak, the local language of Lombok. She is also learning about her Indonesian culture, which is important for a child of mixed parentage. Maya is only six and in some parts of Europe and other parts of the world children start school much later than we do in the UK. The wider education she is experiencing living on a remote island is more than most children would experience in their lifetime. She is swimming with turtles and meeting children from many different cultures. She is a bright and happy child and she is the heart of the business and is adored by the whole team!
What are your plans for the future?
We will continue to build the business, both in size and in stature. We all want to it be a continuing huge success and that will take continued hard work. I realise now that running your own business is a massive commitment. We do plan to return to the UK within the next couple of years, mainly so we can get Maya into formal school.
How will you run your business from the UK?
I can work remotely on some aspects of the business. The PR and marketing I can manage from the UK. I can also maintain the website content, oversee the accounts and manage reservations remotely. My brother will remain on the island to manage general operations and we have a great service team to keep our guests happy. I will have the best of both worlds, I can live in a beautiful part of the UK, spend time with my great friends and Maya can attend a village school. And of course we can spend holidays in paradise – the ultimate dream!