Potato Head Family found and CEO Ronald Akili took to the stage to talk about his lifestyle brand’s approach to sustainability. In his conversation with Skift On Experience columnist Colin Nagy, Akili made it clear his company doesn’t compromise guest experience with sustainability.
So much of Potato Head’s choices for hotel building materials and design, partnerships, resort activity selections and more center on the Bali cultural tenet of “duality,” which is about a blending of two apparently conflicting concepts.
Check out the full video of this discussion. You’ll get to hear Akili tell great stories of his first-hand experiences with environmental destruction in Bali and how they motivate him to take sustainability seriously.
Colin Nagy: Hello. So, I’ve been writing for Skift for a long time, but one of my favorite columns that I’ve ever written is about this guy and his brand. And we also have an extra guest on stage here, which seems like it’s in violation of the Skift brand standards, but I’m sure we’ll talk about that in a second, because it has a good backstory to it. So, Ronald, I want you to explain and set the stage for Potato Head, what it is for those that haven’t had the privilege to visit you in Bali, but also your entrepreneurial vision behind it and then we’ll unpack that a little bit.
Ronald Akili: We started Potato Head about over a decade now. We started as a restaurant. I’ve never came from the hospitality industry. We opened up the restaurant, I’ve always into design art and my wife was a chef and we wanted to open something for her. So we decided, hence the name Potato Head. It was supposed to be a fun project and we grew it from there into beach clubs, hotels and so on. And then now I think we wanted to, we’ve been in the journey of transforming Potato Head into a lifestyle brand that really with the mission of enabling people to a better way of living. So we do that to our product, services and experiences. And in Bali we have a creative village by the ocean and it’s a big playground where music, art, design, food, wellness come together. So people simply go there to have a good time. They go there together to learn, to share. We have hotel rooms, we have restaurants, we have music recording studio, an amphitheater, a gallery space. We have a sustainability lab. So like I said, it’s a big playground.
Nagy: And what’s exciting to me, and fortunately we have some reference visuals here, to really see the scope and scale of what they’ve created. What’s on the screen now is the beach club. Huge, huge, elements but there’s been a tremendous amount of consideration with the design, but also the community elements and the sustainability, which we’ll get into in a second. So now that we have some visuals on the stage, explain to people the vibe, because what stood out to me and when I wrote my column, it’s not just the cool kids, it’s not just international hipsters. There’s like grandmas, there’s like families, there’s, there’s a very interesting vibe that you’re putting together. So on a good night picture for the audience here, what the feeling is of the place.
Akili: It’s an all day thing during the day. You see people coming in, in the morning for wellness program, people meditating, people doing sound meditation, people doing yoga, all the way to just people spending families, grandma’s, kids spending their time on the beach. And we have a space where people work now, as people work more remotely. And during the day, we also have a space in the whole creative village where we have a lab, an R&D center, and we invite designers, we invite artists, musicians to do recording. We invite them to find basically solutions together that help regenerate the whole island. So it’s kind of like a working lab. And as sunset hits, the whole place is transformed into a very lively energy with the background of tropical baller vibe. And it just goes all the way until nighttime, the restaurants is buzzing and then the parties, the performances. And …
Nagy: What’s exciting to me is it’s the aggregation of all these things that create something special. You might have a very interesting famous music act that’s there for a month recording, but they’re hanging out. You have the F&B scene buzzing, you have a beach club. But as we’ll get into, what I love about this is it’s not superficial. There’s so much depth to the community aspects, but also the sustainability aspects. But we’re going to get to that in a second because there’s more to unpack. So the other really interesting thing about this project and Ronald’s work around the world is he’s really exporting and reframing Indonesian culture in a really interesting way. I think sometimes the world thinks about Indonesian culture, perhaps in Bali, a lot of people have been to Bali, in maybe certain dimensions, but help this audience understand the creative class and the energy that’s coming out of Indonesia right now.
Akili: When people think of Bali, they usually think of temples, nice beach, spa, and the typical cliche of an exotic island destination. But on the other side of that, there’s very strong interesting culture that’s coming out of traditional wisdom, but still very much relevant to the younger generation. And the Balinese believe on this idea of duality where in life everything has to be balanced. For example, when there’s black, there’s always white. When there’s a joy, there’s always sorrow. And the aim is to not choose either or, but to find that balance and live with both. And that’s like the culture we want to showcase where, like you said, it’s a lifestyle where the roots based on this philosophy where we believe it’s just always about finding balance between the old and the new, the modern and the ancient craft. Where everything it’s more timeless rather than it’s being trendy.
And we strongly believe as well with this culture that whether that’s from an artisan side, whether that’s from a design side, whether that’s from a music side, that good times can lift side by side with doing good. I think that’s the roots of the culture that we’re trying to showcase.
Nagy: What I love is the actual bricks that the buildings are constructed by have a story. So I wanted you to …
Akili: Yeah, we have so many ancient temples in Bali and then it’s all made by handmade bricks. So when we first started the project, we wanted to showcase that, but most of the factories that produce this handmade bricks are already taken over by industrial ones. So we work with one village in Bali, on the north side of Bali, where they still have a small production, but it wasn’t enough for them to build our hotel. And so we commissioned them, we worked with them, we built with the village a new factory for the bricks. And over two years we produce over 1.8 million bricks. And the whole hotel is handmade, hand press, hand installed, with all these amazing, beautiful bricks
Nagy: Which I think is a perfect metaphor for what you’re trying to do in general. It’s like create partner with interesting artisans, enable the community. It probably helped their business quite a bit as well. So it’s being a participant in that ecosystem. What was the moment with plastics where you realized that you really needed to do something to solve the waste problem and create something new? I think you were surfing with your son, was it, or?
Akili: Yeah, when you live in Bali, I think you see it in news and stuff about environmental impact, but when you live in Bali, it’s really within your backyard. You open the door and it’s there. Years ago I was surfing up with my son. We were 500 meter out in the ocean and we were still swimming with plastics and trash. And when we got back to the beach, the trash was about the knee high, as far as their eyes can see. The following year, that year, Bali declares national emergency caused by garbage and they had to use tractors to the beach because the locals couldn’t pick it up anymore. And for me it was just a big wake up call where I couldn’t sit still, and being an entrepreneur, being I have a hospital, the company, I made a commitment that I wanted to find a way to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
So that’s when, from that day on, we focus on three things. Like the first one, we wanted to go to zero waste. And because in Bali the waste management is very poor. So most of the waste in Bali, they just get sent to a landfill and it sits there and brought, and it’s a big carbon emission issues, is a big social impact issues and the rest of it goes to the ocean. So we invite engineers to help audit our operation. So back then we found out in 2016 over 50% of our waste was being done to landfill. And we serve about 3,000 people daily. And we’ve expanded as well since then. We have 225 room hotels and so on. So we wanted to find a way to start reducing that. So every single year we made a commitment to make progress and then we work really hard for it.
And as of today, we only have 5% left to landfill. We manage 95% of our waste. And the second priority we want to do as well was to help create awareness. And for us, we don’t want to tell the doom story, we don’t want to preach to people because we feel like people tend to reject right away. So we wanted to find a way where we can inspire people and create awareness to this idea of beautiful sustainable. So we work with amazing architects, designers, artists, musicians. We create festivals, we create beautiful products, we create beautiful experiences that just so happen to be more sustainable.
Nagy: And we can talk a little bit about this guy here.
Akili: So this is an example when we created a hotel, we wanted to find a way where, from the design, from the day one, whether that’s the room interiors, to the hotel amenities, to the operation, to the architecture materials, to be made out of organic materials or to be made out of waste. And waste that comes that we produce or waste that’s being stranded in the island. So this chair, we’ve invited Max Lamb, who is a good friend of mine, is an amazing product designer from the UK. So he came and we work with it where each chair is being made from over about 800 plastic single bottles that was safe from the ocean. And so we produce all of the chairs in the hotel is made out of this. And it’s the same for the restaurants, we start producing.
Then we start learning. We work together with Green School. Green school is an amazing school in Bali. And we work together with the high school students and they help us to find a way to recycle all of our used cooking oil and turn that into candles. So all the candles inside the hotels, the restaurants, and the whole village is made of bio candles. And then we replace all single use toiletries in the hotel amenities from toiletries to amenities with recycled styrofoam that is refillable and recycled plastic bottles and so on.
Nagy: What’s so exciting about this is I get a lot of press releases, I read a lot of things. Every brand is saying, “Oh hey, we’re going to do this by 2028 or breaking news, we just got rid of plastic straws.” But this is this is just step functions above and beyond what’s happening. And what’s exciting to me is the most important message that I think Ronald is bringing to the world is sustainability without compromise. So explain to me what that means to you.
Akili: We believe it’s easier for people to change when they don’t really have to compromise. Like On the beauty, on the comfort, on the accessibility and the function. At least that’s what we’ve seen in our journey. And personally for me, it doesn’t really matter how eco friendly your hotel is if it doesn’t look beautiful, if the experience is bad, I wouldn’t want to stay there just because you said it’s sustainable. And I don’t think it’s fair to shove it up to people that you cannot have, for example, we refuse to do buffet in our hotel, but instead of asking the guests, Sorry, you have to compromise on your experience. We work a lot and we work hard that the alternate dining experience has to be better. So they don’t have to compromise on that.
Nagy: And that’s the most important thing is when people are spending their money for their much needed vacation. If they feel like there are corners being cut under the pretense of sustainability, they feel ripped off. But if you’re giving them a more creative experience or more interesting experience, that’s important. Also, with your collaborations with artists and designers, talk a little bit about OMA and some of the other kind of people that you’re bringing into the creative village.
Akili: So over the years we’ve been fortunate to build amazing relationship that becomes really, truly friendship. And it’s mainly with people that truly shares what we do, what the vision that we have. So the whole creative village is designed with OMA since 10 years ago, and we constantly build it together along their journey. We start inviting, again designers, people from like Max Lamb, from FAE Too Good, from Kango Kua, from Marshall Kogan, all of them wanted to participate in the small project considering to what they do, in the tropical island of Bali, just because they believe in the vision, they believe in the mission and they wanted to be part of that.
Nagy: And they can also learn in the process.
Akili: And we learn a lot. And they also learn a lot from throughout the process. And so we have residencies where we invite all of these designers, they usually stay, and then we invite engineers, we invite change makers, and they usually stay, whether they stay there for a couple of weeks, they stay there for a month, and they help work in our lab, they help work with the community, they help work with the local schools in trying to find all of the solutions and obviously try to make it beautiful.
Nagy: Cool. We have a video that can set the stage for some of this stuff. So if we could play that team, that’d be awesome.
So that gives a nice little snapshot very quickly of the depth of this commitment. It is important to work with a biodynamic farmer to get it some produce, but the 360 stereo sound of what you’re doing is very important. I wanted you to talk a little bit about the idea of regenerative hospitality. Some of the relationships with farmers and the people that you’re bringing in, what does regenerative hospitality mean for you?
Akili: I believe regenerative hospitality is the future of hospital, is the future of the industry. And I believe the idea of mass expansion, hyper growth everywhere and the way the travel industry and stuff has been going, I don’t think it’s sustainable anymore. Someone or something is paying for it. And I think if you want to make the industry more sustainable, we want to inspire this change of mindset where we look at the destination as not just a place to exploit, but how could we grow the destination in regenerating the destination that we’re in. And I think if we can inspire and shift that mindset for travelers, for operators, for developers, I think the travel industry could be such a powerful force in making the world a better place. You’ve seen the impact during the pandemic. I think if you can help regenerate not only the environment, but the social and the economic and coming in with that mindset, it’s a very, very strong force.
Nagy: It’s a perfect segue. There’s a very thoughtful question from the audience, so it’ll take that. How does your staff help drive the experience and share real Indonesian culture with guests? And a little quick preface to that, you are creating jobs, a lot of the staff are young Balinese kids that are learning the craft of hospitality. So there is also an economic upward trajectory that you’re building there. But how do they share modern Indonesian culture with the guests and what are people taking away from those interactions?
Akili: And that’s goes back to what I was trying to explain earlier. I think we want to showcase what do we mean by in addition culture, right? We don’t want to showcase that you go to a ceremony, you go to this and stuff. There’s a lot of people that’s doing that. I think it’s really great. But our journey so far can be achieved just because of our staff. Just because of the team. And we create a platform for it. But when we first started, the first thing, like we said, we wanted to create awareness. The first thing we wanted to do was to our team, because in Bali, the hospitality school is very poor. Back then they didn’t even know what carbon means and they didn’t know that dumping everything to the landfill, thinking that one day it will all goes away.
And also we teach them, we show them what the impact is, in return, they become eco champions. So they’re the one that starts showcasing that in the village. They start helping to educate the local villages, the local kids, the local this, and telling them that single use plastic bottles is not right, and what this is the impact it makes to the environment. And so when guests comes now, to there’s a Potato Head, they’re truly inspired just because the team believe in it, the team live and breathe with it. And the team show this in like this is the journey, the one that’s running the lab, the ones that’s running our waste management center. And the one that’s working together with the designers is all our team. And they’re showcasing this culture based on ancient wisdoms. For example, in Bali as well, there’s three philosophy that people believe in. One is to respect the God. Second is to respect the environment and to respect the people. And that’s what they try to showcase it, that’s relevant to in a modern context.
Nagy: Last time I was at Potato Head, there was a huge group gathering. And our next question and probably our final question given we’re probably about two minutes is, how do you incorporate your culture into some of these larger scale group business things when people come and visit?
Akili: So we had for the East last time as a group that came to Indonesia, that is, it has mainly people coming from the industry, but now we also have groups that comes and do events and take over the village and so on. So for us, every time that they come, we try to create it as much as possible. Look, this is the wellness arm that we do. This is the music side, this is the art side. But by the way, this is a sustainable side that we have. So if you want create a stage, if you want to create this, when we have festivals, when we create festivals for them, we create stage from recycled materials. We try to everyone that they come, for example, we had an event where we provide every single attendees with a simple act of just a Tumblr and a zero waste kit back, and which they carry throughout their stay. And hopefully they can take them back with them to replace that habit as well.
Nagy: Sure. One of the funny stories, I introduced Ronald’s to a friend of mine, Matt Orlando, who runs a restaurant called Amass in Copenhagen, who’s just a pioneer in zero waste. And not only did Ronald already know him, but they’re already working on a project together in Singapore. So what’s amazing to me is that how your community and other like-minded people are starting to link up to create new things, which is really exciting. And I think it’s a testament to your approach and also the Indonesian creativity that you’re bringing to the process. So do you want to talk a little bit about the Matt project at all, or is it still coming-
Akili: No, I mean …
Nagy: You don’t have to if you don’t …
Akili: Yeah, Yeah. I guess going back to what I said earlier, where we’ve built this community where people just get excited to do things together. So I was introduced to Matt, and Matt is probably the best out there in terms of culinary that does everything into zero waste. But every single dish that’s being put on the table is not only beautiful, it’s not only sustainable, but it’s really delicious. And then we’re discussing with Matt, how do we help create this platform where it’s not just for the Michelin Stars, it’s not just for the people that can afford it, but how do we make it a platform where it can grow this movement and it can also help share your talent and everyone else.
So we decided to open up in Singapore, a project where it’s a cooking campus. And the idea is a farm, it’s a cooking campus to teach not just professionals, but amateurs, home cooks and stuff, and how to cook more sustainably and how to celebrate everything for the love of food. And even the restaurants will be, not just Michelin type of restaurants. It’s going to be delicious, it’s going to be this, but it’s going to be accessible to a wider demographic of people.
Nagy: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. This has been really inspiring.
Akili: Thank you very much.
Nagy: I’m so happy to have you here.
Akili: For having you.
Nagy: Thanks everyone.
Akili: Thank you.