The Sailing Club has long been an iconic destination in Nha Trang for travellers and locals alike. On the 20th anniversary of the venue, Sailing Club founder and general director of the Sailing Club Group Peter Vidotto talks to Brett Davis about two decades of fun, adventure and success. Photos by Philip Deans.
What was it that originally brought you to Vietnam?
I first came to Vietnam coming back from the UK. It was 1992 and I stopped here for a holiday. I hung out up there for a month or so. I met a Vietnamese guy on the beach in Nha Trang, and he said he had access to this place on the beach. It was a small Vietnamese café, plastic chairs. So I went back to Aussie for a while then came back, and that was the start of the Sailing Club in 1994.
What was the original place you opened in Nha Trang like?
There was nothing there. On the beach in Nha Trang, people didn’t realise the value of what the beach was worth. It wasn’t a place where they went to have coffee. They wanted to go into the centre of town. The beach was a place only tourists went to and in those days we would get together, light a fire on the beach, get a slab of beer and start sitting around and that is how it all came about. It was pretty obvious what was needed. The original building was bamboo. What we got was about 2,000 square metres on the beach. I only took 1,000 and then I got the other 1,000 square metres about three years after that.
You have had challenges along the way. At one point you had to fight in the courts to keep control of the venue. What was that like?
The foreign investment law when I first came here was very different to what it is now. I had to use a nominee person to represent me in a joint venture with a government company. So, six years down the road, when the laws changed, I applied to get a foreign-registered company. At that time my Vietnamese partners were hesitant to change and it was a difficult transition. It ended up going to the authorities and the authorities backed me up a hundred percent. Because my staff backed me up and I paid my taxes, and even back then the Sailing Club was the place to go. It’s always been the place to go in Nha Trang. The local authorities, when they have a foreigner come to town, they’ll bring them there for dinner. I had that support and they supported me. But it was a tricky situation. It was touch and go.
The Mia resorts are now part of the Sailing Club Group. What made you try your hand in that business?
Mia Mui Ne opened around 2001 and Mia Nha Trang in 2011. In Mui Ne, I had heard about an area that all the backpackers were going to and it was supposed to be really cool and the local government supported foreign investment. We went down there and initially opened up a budget backpacker place. Bars, restaurants and resorts in a sense are all intertwined. The only difference with a resort is it needs to have a different vibe because it is a 24-hour thing with people staying there. I think our average room charge was about 30 bucks a night. I was pretty young at the time, and we sort of grew with the business. As we got older we started making a little bit of money and started renovating, upgrading here and there. So we grew with the business, we grew with the market and we still do that today. Mia Nha Trang, I had the right partner who had the right land and we certainly raised the bar and it’s a very special place.
Which is easier, running a bar or a resort?
I’m contradicting myself in a sense. They are the same but they are very different. The resorts you need to have a different vibe. It’s more of a down vibe. Everyone is very chill. Whereas Sailing Club was always something that started out early in the morning and by about 8-or 9-o’clock, the vibe starts picking up. If they are both running at full capacity, what’s harder to control? The Sailing Club, because you’ve got 2,000 people in there and most of them have had a few too many drinks. And when the resort’s full, it just rolls along.
What properties and venues does the Sailing Club Group now encompass?
We’ve got the Sailing Club, and we have two resorts. And we are really proud of Mia Nha Trang and we were able to put together something really special. The next stage of that is Mia residences, where we are building 12 five-bedroom villas. And the other one many people don’t realise is that Louisiane Brewhouse is part of the group, and that’s 80 percent Vietnamese clientele. And what we are really proud of there is that the Sailing Club and Louisiane Brewhouse really complement each other. They’re not stepping on each other’s toes. Someone who has a drink at Sailing Club at night will go to Louisiane the next day and vice versa. So, that’s good for Nha Trang city.
Twenty years ago, did you ever imagine Sailing Club would be what it is today?
No, absolutely not. The first 10 years was possibly the best time of my life. I came to Vietnam when I was 26, and it was new and exciting. I met my wife at the Sailing Club, so it’s really special to me. Having the right partners who have faith in you and trust in what you are doing has made all the difference as well.
What has been the key to your success?
Now it is a lot different to before. Before you had to maintain good relationships with the the locals. Now it is like anywhere in the world where you have to keep ideas fresh. As I tell the general managers, if you are not moving forward you are moving backwards. So you always have to create something fresh and something new. It’s all about going forward and never getting complacent because before you know it you’re out the back. The other thing is don’t try to do too much, just concentrate on one thing until that is working well. And keep it personal, because once your heart is not in the business, then you really don’t understand the business, especially with hospitality.