We did it!
Opening the world’s most exclusive gallery – pr@hf – on the luxury island resort of PER AQUUM Huvafen Fushi is something we’re really proud of, and it’s now all set to grow in its brand new home. As the first ever photographic gallery that must be accessed by seaplane or speedboat, there’s something really cool about the new space, and guests are loving what we’ve managed to deliver.
But I thought I’d take just a few moments to explain the back-story to how this came about, and say a big “thanks” to everyone who helped get the whole concept off the ground. Starting with a great guy – Nick – at PER AQUUM.
In the middle of my California winter photo trip, at one of my favourite juice bars, I got “the email” – “Let’s do it!”, it read, signed Nick. “It”, being a concept we’d talked about before, but one that had been a little off and on to that point: “would it be possible to open a full-service gallery on a remote desert island, showcasing a selection of my landscape work”?
It turned out, finally, the answer was yes. The caveat? “Let’s do it!” (on this email) meant “get it live by the middle of January”.
With no time to really think through the impact of the decision, and following a breakfast “chat” (read into that: “having some sense beaten in”) with both a good friend out there as well as my partner, it was a case of “if not now, then when?” – so, the challenge was on. And challenge it was…
This was the second week of December. We knew it wasn’t going to be a low-cost project, we only had a few iPhone photos of the space and a roughly drawn plan to work from, we were 5,500 miles away from home and hadn’t even shot some of the images I had in my mind to display (we needed to head to Yosemite to shoot one of my highlight pieces!) Even worse, I hadn’t even managed to play PacMan yet at my favourite bar in San Francisco, the W, at that point…
So, for those interested, here’s how it happened… 🙂
Task 1) Finish shooting the images you want to display.
Of course, that was a big one, but at least we were on our way to getting that done! With “Zen” and “Eye Wonder” already in the bag, it turned out to be Yosemite’s “Faraway Tree” that was missing from the collection.
Task 2) Design the walls.
Difficult to do when you’re still shooting some of the images, but with a rough flow of prints in mind, we knew where the gaps would be, and what needed to be added. Part of one of the initial drafts went like this:
Task 3) Order the gallery prints.
Gallery prints are a different beast to a normal roll-tube photographic delivery. These things are big, heavy and delicate. And I was miles away from home. So, what to do? Well, one of the advantages of having a great relationship with my print studio in Shanghai is that they “know me”, and while risky, I trusted them enough to be able to print images that they’d never seen before in “my way” – and hope they got it right…
iPhone pics during the process helped, but still, this was always going to be our biggest risk: getting nearly 200kg of plexi-glass/aluminium gallery prints safely to a remote desert island intact, dry, colour-accurate, correctly sized and clear of import challenges.
Task 4) Marketing/PR collateral.
So, you can open a gallery on an island full of guests, but if none of them know about it – it’s going to be a very lonely space! Time to get creative, and everything from cards to giveaways to building signs needed to be organised. Not too much of a problem, normally, but this was a week or two before Christmas – and while I had the benefit of my prints not slowing down as China just keeps going over Christmas, pretty much everything else got a “stop” of some sort.
Now, here’s my “food for thought” moment, just quickly: BUY LOCAL!
While I know of many campaigns out there that suggest this is a good idea, I can now say hand-on-heart, personally, that without the support of people local to me at home, this would never have happened. Where every single national company I was relying on let me down in some way, shape, or form, the small businesses across my home-town in the South of England really did pull out all the stops to help at the eleventh hour.
From the director of a local printing business personally helping me cut and stick business cards the day before Christmas, to the local metalworkers and engraving experts who took time out from their holidays to help when I really needed it, this really was a humbling week as strangers pulled together to help me hit the crazy deadline we had in place.
Task 5) Get it all there (preferably in one piece!).
Anyone who’s shipped things across the planet will know just what a jigsaw the logistics can quickly become. Now, imagine shipping prints from China, candy from the USA, marketing materials from London, signs from Dorset – and yourselves – to all arrive on a remote island at the same time. In the meantime, the island itself would need to prepare the space with new walls, new lighting, new furniture and a change of location for a few things in order to fit the gallery into place.
One point to note here, of course, is when I say “remote island” – I mean exactly that. Every single thing that is consumed or built on the island has to be shipped or flown in, including all the pieces of my new gallery.
I’ve never spent so much time on one website in my life as I did on that DHL page for the days leading up to delivery, checking where everything was each and every hour. At times, we had concern (at one point, the prints got sent back by customs!) – at times, we had celebration, when things got through faster than predicted – but stress levels were high for around 10 days while all we could do was sit, remotely, and wait.
Even reaching the island didn’t help – most things were still in customs. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, we shot sunrises and sunsets to build up further image stock of this incredible place, but then one afternoon – we saw it: THE SUPPLY BOAT!
Running down to the guys, we got the confirmation we needed, the prints were on the island 🙂
Task 6) Walls need building, covering, painting, hanging.
Great, the prints were on the island, but now was the challenge of setting the walls to be “the right grey” and putting up the hanging structures. In a location such as the Maldives where most things are drywall/plasterboard and timber, metal and plexiglass prints would need considerable support to keep stable on these walls. The other problem with building on a luxury island full of guests: You really can’t make any noise…!
We knew this project was going to mean not much sleep, but here was our first confirmation: With the electricians, engineers, carpenters and rest of the backstage team working alongside until 3am (including Nick, who’d flown in), the initial setup was complete. It still needed a few finishing touches for the following few evenings, but things were starting to take shape – we even had a few brave “early customers” during construction who wanted a sneak preview… 😉
Task 7) Train the team.
We were very clear from the outset about the goals of this project.
First, let’s showcase some of the iconic shots from around the island to people who were guests there. Second, let’s bring some of the stunning scenery from around the rest of the world to people – meaning a truly international flavour for the images we were putting on show. Third, to add some colour to a specific area of the island. Finally, to allow customers to buy prints if they so wished.
In a dramatic departure from many of the traditional “gallery operations” out there, we would not have specific salespeople in the gallery. Instead, we simply provided the island “thakurus” (personal butlers, who look after guests during their stay) with all the knowledge, background, information and processes they needed to be able to talk to guests confidently about each image but not ever “push for sales”. The idea was simple – keep the gallery cool, inviting, funky, a place where people can go to relax and appreciate a window into some of the world’s most impressive vistas – don’t turn it into a pushy sales environment like so many have become.
On that, we’ve succeeded 🙂
Task 8) Open it!
Well, every opening needs a few celebratory drinks 😉
With champagne, cocktails, wine, canapés and live music, we finally opened our doors on January 13th 2016 – 30 days from that “go!” email in California.
A gallery 10,000 miles away from us at the time, prints travelling 4,000 miles from China, other material making it 5,500 miles from the UK, staff trained, PR activities done, TV adverts across the resort and an opening night full of happy guests – somehow, we’d managed it! (They even managed to get me a bucket of diet cokes waiting in my room after opening night to celebrate – I really do love these guys!)
Task 9) Leave it in their very capable hands.
It’s rare for someone to feel confident leaving their “baby” in the hands of others – but with the guys at Huvafen Fushi, I really did leave with more confidence than I ever thought I would. From the resort’s GM Shebo and RM Jay, to PER AQUUM’s creative lead Angeline, to the many, many, fantastic team members on the island who all played a huge part in getting it up and running, I can honestly say I have no worries about leaving them to do what they do best.
Sure, there are a few “tidy up” tasks – for example, we couldn’t print the guest brochures until we had the photographs of the finished building, but they’re all easy to fix.
Getting a gallery built and kitted out from nothing in 30 days flat, over the Christmas holidays? Now THAT was a challenge 🙂
…and yes, I would (and probably will) do it all over again in a heartbeat!