Friday, 4 October 2013 00:00
By Cassandra Mascarenhas
Building a luxury lifestyle brand in a market as small as Sri Lanka is, at best, a daunting task, but this is the challenge that has been boldly taken on by the partners of Cantaloupe & Co. A name now synonymous with up-market leisure offerings and extravagant events, the partners involved in the diverse operation are well on their way to creating an empire.
The men behind the scenes at Cantaloupe & Co. are Founder/CEO Dmitri Jayasuriya, Director/CFO Yasser Farook, Managing Director/Group CEO Tareeq Musafer and Director – Sales and Marketing Nadeem Rajabdeen, all of whom boast experience and skill in a range of sectors and professions, and each harness their individual expertise to play a vital and dynamic role in Cantaloupe’s day-to-day operations as well as the company’s ambitious plans for expansion. The fifth partner, Amril Sammoon, saw the potential in Cantaloupe in its infancy and was quick to hop on board, and is now an investor and director of Cantaloupe Jewels and Cantaloupe Villas.
Cantaloupe’s leisure arm, Cantaloupe Villas, represents its core business, in addition to its jewellery – Cantaloupe Jewels, events – Cantaloupe Playground, design – Exotic Melon, retail and investment – Cantaloupe Boutique, as well as various other properties.
2013 has seen Cantaloupe embark on a variety of new projects, recommencing its events arm Cantaloupe Playground, focusing strongly on the leisure sector, with the setting up of new hotels in addition to its first hotel, Cantaloupe Aqua in Thalpe, and expanding into restaurants and lounges, the first being Glassé in Colombo. Yet, they aren’t done for the year, with more on the cards during these latter months and Dmitri Jayasuriya, Yasser Farook and Nadeem Rajabdeen revealed what is to come, while describing Cantaloupe long-term goal of building a luxury lifestyle brand and expanding on other plans for the future.
Kicking off 2013 with a bang
Cantaloupe & Co. commenced the year in style, re-launching its events business Cantaloupe Playground, seeing the year in with a New Year’s Eve bash at the Hilton which attracted a crowd of over 2,500 people. And judging from the reviews, it certainly was a successful start to the year for the five partners. “People say it was our best event yet,” Dmitri revealed. This was following a break of a year from event management, before which Cantaloupe had ownership with Amuseum special events.
After that promising start, the partners commenced proper on several large-scale projects for the year – setting up and establishing two restaurant/lounges in Colombo and two new hotels in the Galle district. “The locations that we have secured for 2013 have been a key factor,” Yasser noted.
Entry to Rumassala
The first hotel being planned is a hilltop property in Rumassala, a location that the partners have had their eye on for a couple of years. Called ‘Levels’, it may be the first commercial hotel in the area as acquiring land there is a difficult task, stated Dmitri. “It took us three years to get this land and we finally did it. Levels will be a 10-room, high-end hilltop property overlooking the Galle town, Galle Fort and Jungle Beach. It’s also right on top of Jungle Beach and will have direct access to the beach.”
Rumassala is also an area steeped in ancient history and is mentioned in the Rama-Rawana war as depicted in the Ramayana, and furthermore is home to a variety of indigenous plants. This, coupled with its accessibility to Galle and Jungle Beach, makes it a prime location.
In concept, Dmitri explained that it will be slightly more high-end than Cantaloupe Aqua and will offer a spa experience, ideal for relaxation. The name ‘Levels’, they added, came about as the hotel is being built on different elevations and it is scheduled to open quite soon, by end-November or early December at latest.
The second hotel named ‘Soul Surf’ took a great deal of planning, according to Dmitri, but construction has now commenced on the 35-room property in Midigama, a world recognised rated amateur surf point popularly known as the ‘Lazy Left’. “The concept at Soul Surf is based on the surfing culture and again, much like the previous Aqua concept, we are targeting a slightly different demographic, a more sports-oriented clientele,” stated Dmitri.
‘Soul Surf’ is scheduled to open about 11 months from now, in September 2014 and is currently the biggest project that Cantaloupe & Co. is working on. In addition to the hotel itself, the property will also comprise of a surf school, diving school, beach club and spa.
“What we’re trying to do is to make the surfing culture mainstream so that people come there to learn more about surfing, not only as a sport but as a lifestyle,” said Dmitri, with Yasser adding: “The fact is that once we launch this and the concept we are bringing in, it will be the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, an up-market themed hotel based on surfing.”
“Sri Lanka now has a lot of surfing going on with people flying in from abroad just for it. We want to be able to influence the local culture, for people from the city to be able to go there for two or three days and learn how to surf,” explained Nadeem. “And five minutes away from Midigama is Weligama, one of the biggest amateur surf spots in the world.
They also see it as a way of empowering the local surfing community. “There still isn’t a lot of money thrown at surfing,” Dmitri noted. “But the moment you sustainably commercialise it without overdoing it is when the positive connotations of surfing could be taken to another level.” While there is a lot of surfing going on at the moment, they are under-budget with surfers not being given the necessary training and facilities, and so for Cantaloupe, in addition to setting up a hotel and enhancing its leisure arm, this is also a way of commercialising surfing as well.
Moving into the east?
When asked if Cantaloupe intends on moving out of the southern belt at any point, Dmitri acknowledged that they plan to do so eventually but their strategy with setting up down south is based on the highway and ease of access. While the east has shown huge appeal following the end of the war, Cantaloupe’s business model has been structured in a way where the hotels require constant occupancy.
“We can’t set up something that will generate business for only six months because then it will be a compromised project. So right now we are focusing on the south and will develop the business to a certain point after which we could afford to take that business model to the east,” Dmitri stated.
Projects within the city
In Colombo, Cantaloupe is currently working on a lounge/restaurant, which will be located at Union Place, called ‘Clique’ and this is scheduled to open in November of this year. Inspiration for this concept has been drawn from a variety of concepts, including old-school supper clubs, and will fuse food, drink and entertainment in one location. Targeting a corporate clientele, it will feature private dining rooms, one which will be named the ‘Boardroom’.
“We see a lack of places in Colombo for entertaining and for private functions, apart from the standard hotels. In concept and design, we will combine very old-school aspects with a lot of new technology and innovation,” Dmitri noted.
Cantaloupe & Co. also launched ‘Glassé’ recently in the heart of Colombo, a joint venture with the owners of Skky Lounge which was previously located on the property. The partners explained that in concept, Glassé is neither a lounge/bar nor a nightclub but instead is trying to bring about a culture where people can eat and drink at the same place, as in Sri Lanka, it’s usually only one of the two.
“So far, it’s worked quite successfully and we’re still fine-tuning it,” said Dmitri. “The feedback has been good in terms of having Japanese food combined with the lounge concept.”
Even while undertaking so many large-scale projects in this year alone, Cantaloupe’s design arm also designed and set up its second Heladiv Tea Club at the Liberty Plaza Arcade, following the first one at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. The design division, Exotic Melon, handles the company’s graphic and spatial designing and branding, and came into being as Cantaloupe never outsourced this type of work and chose to do it in-house.
How it all began
Cantaloupe & Co.’s diverse and ambitious operations were built up in less than four years and when asked how it all began, Dmitri pulled out a thick, fairly battered book full of his scribbles, designs and plans, and started flipping through it, pointing out the various ideas they had all come up with over the years and documented, focusing on certain aspects over time.
“We initially wanted to design spaces. We had a passion for trendy things because if you take a lot of brands in Colombo, they are beautiful but we saw that they needed some youthful infusion due to the fact that in design, it all tends to be very traditional as people are reluctant to move out of that realm,” Dmitri explained.
It was at this point that he approached Yasser, with his background in gem-mining and interest in designing jewellery, and this was incorporated into Cantaloupe’s start-up strategy, which included custom jewellery design in addition to other design services. The leisure arm took off after they themselves went down south and found properties that showed promise.
Jewellery was Cantaloupe’s first venture and owning equity in Amuseum followed after Cantaloupe was approached to design it – this put the business on the map. While Amuseum was underway, Cantaloupe Boutique was set up at Galle Face Court.
“It was a long learning curve but finally, what made it work was the fact that we took a different approach to the concept of a store where we picked products that we would subscribe to. Even in terms of the design and layout, we made it very uncluttered – we didn’t want to have too many commercial products and that formula worked out well. Simultaneously, we set up out first hotel project – Aqua in Thalpe,” said Dmitri.
Plans on hold
Currently, many of their plans have been put on hold as the partners feel that they have initiated just the right number of projects – Cantaloupe a year from now will have tripled in size as a business – a long way to come in a short space of time as just a year ago, it was generating profits from only Aqua in Thalpe and Cantaloupe Boutique.
Cantaloupe Boutique’s lease has now been sold, in line with the company’s policy of letting go of certain aspects in order to make way for the bigger picture and further expansion. “We had just started the hotel expansion which was much more capital incentive than setting up a boutique or a restaurant. We were made an offer for the space so we had to make a choice, whether to think with the heart or the head, so we made a decision that we could always get back into this and by making that sale, it freed us up for our expansion,” Dmitri acknowledged.
“At the same time, the Cantaloupe Boutique operation wasn’t closed down completely. It was moved to Aqua and retails at Barefoot. Now, Cantaloupe Boutique has become our investment arm and is the boutique of investments,” Yasser noted. The plan now is to open a Cantaloupe Boutique at each of their beach properties. Dmitri stated: “So in a sense, every business has a connection to each other and feed off each other.”
Creating a lifestyle brand
“Initially, Dmitri’s dream I remember when we were starting, was to create a lifestyle brand – you eat with us, sleep with us, stay with us, party with us,” Yasser explained to a chorus of laughter. The partners added that they drew a lot of inspiration from lifestyle brands like LVMH Moët Hennessy, a French multinational luxury goods conglomerate.
“A lot of people ask us why we are involved in so many things but once you figure out the different aspects that can feed off each other and have mutual benefits, eventually you get to a point where on their own, they build each other up. Initially, it’s hard to establish but we are confident if we can pull this off over the next two years, it will grow into something bigger,” Dmitri said.
For instance, if someone attends a Cantaloupe Playground event and has a good experience there, understanding what the product represents, when they hear about Cantaloupe Aqua a few months later, it will have positive connotations as the consumer will be able to form a connection with the two and understand the entire experience the brand offers.
Cantaloupe & Co. is now bringing in people with similar ideas but don’t have the experience or resources to commence their own operations. “It’s about being bold enough to take that step forward and bring in creative concepts, and at the same time, creating platforms for different parties to come and work with us and be a part of the group,” Yasser noted.
The company follows a decentralised system where each department is given targets and then given the freedom to follow their own strategies, giving the head of the department a sense of ownership.
“We have found that even though this costs more in the short term, it makes them feel like they are part of the company and works out in the long term. Initially it stresses them out but when the passion is there, you put in that much more,” Dmitri added.
“In a sense, this is just the beginning. Hospitality – the hotels and villas – will be our signature, that will always be prominent, but we hope to create a lifestyle around it, from creating a music culture, maybe even a fashion culture and as a fantasy, we refer to it as the building of a kingdom. A kingdom too starts from nothing but is built into something great, an empire.”