When Renato Kümin and Jessica Fernando first came to Hiriketiya, a bay on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, in 2015, they quickly imagined themselves moving and living there. They each owned their own business and had backgrounds in branding and communication, but they were craving a new way of life. ‘We wanted to create a lifestyle that would suit us a bit better than the career-driven city life we were living in Zurich,’ they say.
For Courier issue 44, we caught up with the couple to talk about their journey to building MOND.
What was the motivation for MOND and how did you go about opening a hotel in Sri Lanka?
A. ‘Long story short, we scratched together every last cent we had and purchased a small plot of land. Over a beer with some architect friends, we came up with the idea of building something along the lines of a hotel. From January to October 2016, we were busy writing business plans and concepts. Then, we packed up all our stuff, shipped it to Sri Lanka and started building in January 2017. We realize now how different it was then – we paved the way for opening a small business as an expat or foreigner in Hiriketiya.’
And what were some of the challenges of being there in the early days?
A. ‘Our architects did the plans, but they weren't in Hiriketiya. So, we were very hands-on during the building process and were on-site pretty much all day. Resources – like food suppliers, materials and even expertise – were so far away, so we also took on the challenge of finding new ways to do things. Rather than going to the store to buy a lamp, we would try to design one ourselves and get it made locally. But the market here has grown so much: where we were once having trouble finding matte fixtures for our bathrooms, now, three or four years later, everyone has that.’
How have the last couple of years been for MOND and the local tourism industry?
A. ‘When Covid hit and we went into lockdown, we'd just finished our first full-on season. After two and a half years of building MOND, we were already quite exhausted, and then we went straight into operations. We were almost a bit happy about the mandatory vacation when we closed the hotel. We kept paying salaries, while giving everyone a bit of a break.
‘We then realized it was going to last longer than a couple of weeks and we had to sort out a plan on how to survive – in that moment, it was just about the staff. Because we're so small and compact as a business, we were able to scale down and cut unnecessary costs – that meant we could keep the payroll going a lot easier. And, when we were fortunate enough to [be able to] travel again, we had other hoteliers come and visit us, which was really special. Even though everyone's [hotel] rates dropped, which was a challenge economically, people started traveling locally and experiencing the beauty of their own country.’
What have been some of your biggest learnings over the past few years?
A. ‘You try to create this beautiful space that people can come and enjoy, and there's a lot of pressure on the hotel to create that magic. We realized that guests also have to come with the right mindset, because everyone contributes to that experience. We end up becoming friends with 95% of the guests. That's the magic of having only six rooms and being a small business. But it's also work – it can get exhausting when you're open for seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for six months straight. So, we need to try to find a balance, with a new baby also keeping us on our feet. We need to put structures in place and have the right staff to enable us to step back sometimes.’
What does the future hold for MOND, as well as hospitality and tourism more widely?
A. ‘We want to get MOND where we wanted to have it, and restart the work that got interrupted when Covid started. We opened up again a few weeks ago and we're already getting so many new bookings. MOND is still so young and we have so much work to do to perfect what we've built.
‘We're cooking up something called Studio MOND: an arm of MOND where we want to periodically release functional products, every two or three months. Guests are always asking whether they can buy stuff from the hotel [that we've designed] – people want to be able to take a bit of MOND home with them. We're in the early days of establishing an artists' residency as well – we've had different artists in residence and talks, which we want to keep growing. In the grand scheme of things, it's hard to say what will happen to tourism here, but everyone is very optimistic.
‘I think Sri Lanka made the right decision to open up – it's in a good position now to have a good [tourist] season. We haven't overanalyzed this, since we're a small operation – we only need six couples, or 12 people, to fill up our rooms. But it's nice to see that optimism, to see restaurants and local places opening up again and people coming back in.'
Renato and Jessica are the cover stars of Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.