Behind the Kounta

Tavarua – The Story Behind The Mother of World Class Surf Resorts | Behind the Kounta

Q&A with Dave Clark, founder of Tavarua, The Mother of World Class Surf Resorts.

By Will Deagan

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We’re chatted to Dave Clark, founder of Tavarua about taking his dream from idea to success, and what he’s learned along the way. Founded in 1981 during a surfing trip, Tavarua Island Resort was a little uninhabited heart-shaped island in Fiji and is now an icon amongst the world's top resorts.

How did Tavarua start?

I discovered Tavarua island during a trip to Fiji in 1981 with my cousin Norm. We camped on this beautiful uninhabited 20-acre atoll for $3 a day. It was an awesome little spot, and during our stay I realised that it was only a matter of time before the potential this island had was discovered. I kept thinking about how it would probably end up overdeveloped and ruined. I couldn’t let that happen.

I had this vision to build an “eco-resort” – a small Fijian-style complex that blends with the landscape and the people, bringing out the best of the island without destroying its natural beauty. So, I sourced some financial backing from Funk and the rest is history!

With the help of the local Fijians, we built and opened for business in 1984, it caught on like a 15-foot wave and is today legend among surfers. The cool part is, it’s a legend people can actually experience and be a part of today.

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Can you describe the journey you’ve taken to be where you are now?

It’s been a bumpy ride with lots of learning curves. Hospitality is a hard game no matter what, but add to that stringent government regulations, the logistical difficulties of living on an isolated island, and unpredictable (sometimes catastrophic) weather conditions, it has been interesting to say the least.

The journey itself though has been a very organic one and has progressed with respect to our surroundings. We’ve never succumbed to creating the stereotypical islander experience, where you arrive, and someone puts flowers over your neck and you see the locals dance in the evening.

The experience we offer is true to Fijian traditions and showcases the environmental and cultural aspects of the island.

What has been your biggest learning curve?

As relaxed as Fiji seems, running a business here is very bureaucratic with a lot of red tape, multiple tiers of government regulations, permits and more. We have to get approval and report – in an incredible amount of detail – to the Tribal owner of the island, and we have to maintain in-depth and 100% accurate financial records, like what we’ve sold, to whom, and be able to break our sales down by the different segments of our customer market. It’s pretty hectic.

What has been key to your success?

Our location has obviously played a huge part in our success. However, our focus on the customer experience and making it an immersive, stress-free experience of island life has been our differentiator. A lot of Fijian islands cater for the ‘booze and surf’ crowd, and we target a different market.

Another major contributor to our success is our loyal customers. Over 50% are repeat visitors and most of our new guests hear about us through word-of-mouth, so making sure that we provide an unrivalled experience – one that gets us referrals – is key.

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Image source: Tavarua Island Resort

How do you keep the customer experience stress-free?

We focus on the experience, and ensure they’re bothered as little as possible with the technical or administrative aspects of their stay. That’s why we make access to amenities like boat drives, surf and paddle boards available all day without the need to fill in any paperwork or book anything.

We use Kounta on a few iPads to track bills easily – whether a guest has a coconut on the beach or buys a t-shirt from our boutique – and we train our staff to confirm, rather than ask our guests about room numbers and billing. And of course, the natural Fijian ability to provide amazing personalised service just makes everything smooth.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of so many things, but mostly of the fact that we’ve been open, successful and continually growing and improving for 34 years. I am also really proud of our staff and the overall standards we provide in hospitality.

We’ve successfully maintained the cultural heritage of Tavarua; we use local and organic meat, source everything sustainably, have a rain catchment program and also policies around conserving energy.

Going from being a totally uninhabited island to a hub and running the place in a way that still deeply respects the nature of the location – that’s it for me.

Being a standalone island resort, how do you manage supplies and deliveries?

We get what we can locally, which is basically fish and coconuts. The rest of our produce is delivered by boat daily from the main island, and that includes dry stock, meat, eggs, fruit and veg, alcohol and more.

What have you done to help maintain Tavarua’s sustainability?

One project we’re working on is to help conserve giant clams, which were basically extinct in Fiji after Cyclone Winston damaged one of their largest hatcheries. Because of its pristine ecosystem and clean currents, the Fijian Fisheries Department selected Tavarua as the ideal location to re-grow the clams, and I’m happy to say that we welcomed 500 baby clams to the island last year alone.

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Within that, we provide employment for local villagers from Cuvu, Nabila, Momi and Yaku, and offer scholarships, medical assistance and housing solutions as needed.

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What advice would you give other hotels and resorts?

Build on what you’ve got – whether that’s location or passion and skills – and never compromise on the customer experience. Work out the key factors that affect your customers experience and focus on making sure the processes and training are in place to deliver this to the standards you’re after.

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