Mark Francis, general manager of Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows // © 2016 Mark Francis
Feature image (above): Travelers to Samoa will often visit To Sua Ocean Trench. // © 2016 iStock
In 2012, Cyclone Evan lashed the South Pacific nation of Samoa with powerful winds and heavy rain, doing extensive damage to one of the country’s most iconic landmarks: Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows. Overlooking the harbor in the capital of Apia, the property dates back to the 1930s, where it later became a favorite haunt for American servicemen during World War II.
The 175-guestroom hotel has since completed a multimillion-dollar overhaul and reopened as Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows this month. We spoke with general manager Mark Francis about the property’s extensive renovation, why Samoa might appeal to Americans today and what Sheraton’s entry into the market means for the destination.
What makes Samoa a destination that might appeal to U.S. travelers?
I think first and foremost, it’s a very safe, English-speaking South Pacific country. The people are exceptionally warm and friendly and offer genuine Samoan hospitality, and Samoa itself is a living culture. On the drive over from the airport, you pass through Samoan villages, and each one has its school and its church. The people are living life like they have for hundreds of years. The culture is still very much alive. It’s not another Maui, and to me, Samoa is still quite wild. It also has a lot of activity attractions, such as swimming with sea turtles, snorkeling and diving, and it has some really unique places, such as the To Sua Ocean Trench.
You can see a different way of life here and participate, and to be welcomed into the culture here as you are is quite unusual. It’s also pretty easy to see a great deal of Samoa, as the country isn’t all that large. You can just get a rental car and drive around, although Americans would need to get accustomed to driving on the other side of the road.
Tell us a bit more about the property’s history and what it offers travelers.
This property is quite unique. It has heritage back to the 1930s, going back with founder Aggie Grey and Hollywood, [when people such as] author James A. Michener and actor Marlon Brando stayed at the resort. Grey inspired the Bloody Mary character in Michener’s book “Tales of the South Pacific” and the subsequent “South Pacific” musical, so the property really has some interesting Hollywood heritage.
We have 26 “fales,” which is a Samoan word for “bungalow,” and two of them are two-bedroom fales. Then we have the hotel building block with rooms that all have views of Apia Harbor. We also offer casino rooms — large rooms over the top of the casino — that have city and harbor views as well, with nice balconies looking out over Apia. The pool is right in the center of the resort and surrounded by the various fales.
The resort itself is in the center of Apia, and the way it’s designed, the resort looks in on itself. So the fales are all in the middle of the resort, with the hotel building and those accommodations all around the outside, and a large fale in the middle, which is our all-day dining room with an international-style open kitchen, similar to what you would see in a modern Asian Sheraton. We also have a Sheraton spa and a fitness center.
What did the hotel’s renovation work entail?
The resort was destroyed by the cyclone in 2012, and it has been completely rebuilt, but there was a major focus on maintaining the look and heritage of the hotel. For example, the original fale roofs were retained — the roofs are about 50 years old, and the detail work is very impressive. However, the hotel is now also up to five-star Sheraton standards. We have a new casino and some extra accommodations.
The hotel is essentially a brand-new hotel. It’s not like we did just a refurbishment where we put in new carpet. Everything was stripped down to concrete, the bathrooms were all redone and just about everything was completely started over.
What does the hotel’s recent Sheraton rebranding mean for Samoa as a destination?
The owners of the hotel and the government of Samoa recognize that it’s really important for Samoan tourism to have an internationally recognized brand like Sheraton to help it develop as a destination in the South Pacific. We’re the first international brand here. For sure, when an American travel agent is looking online, clicks on Samoa, looks at the hotels available to them in the GDS and sees Sheraton, they know they’ve got safety, that there is a certain tourism infrastructure in place and that they can comfortably send guests to Samoa with a little bit less worry.