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The Making of a Legacy

Q&A with Nathalie Raguž Fusillo, Founder of The Zanzibar Collection Luxury Hotels and Resorts

The southeast coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania is one of the most exotic and stunningly beautiful destinations on earth, yet, until thirty years ago, this paradise was untouched. This changed however when Nathalie Raguž Fusillo, graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Management, and her sister Paulina Raguž Macksoud founded The Zanzibar Collection Luxury Hotels and Resorts and worked together with their family to build a lasting legacy. Now, these breathtaking beaches are home to some of the most celebrated and sustainable hotels in the world and their family has become an icon for what positive development can do for a region and her people. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Nathalie and learning about her family-run business and the elements that lend to the success of these extraordinary properties and how their family has set a new standard in how they are owned and operated. 

What inspired you to found the Zanzibar Collection?

Having grown up in Nairobi, Kenya, we were always inspired by the incredible sense of hospitality and genuine friendliness of the East African people. When our father first traveled to Zanzibar in 1991, quite truthfully on a whim, tourism on this now-famous Island was nothing but a dream — an idyllic Indian Ocean that reminded him so much of what the Kenyan coast used to be when my mother and he moved to East Africa in 1975 with my sister Paulina and me in tow. We chose the “ideal” spot on the quiet South East Coast of Zanzibar, with no water, no electricity, and no road, and it really was a dream…and a major challenge! As graduates from the Cornell School of Hotel Management, my sister Paulina and I always knew our destiny was to return to Africa. During our summer breaks, we traveled the bumpy road to the hotel site of Breezes Beach Club, Zanzibar, where we sketched furniture and designs for the 85 local artisans to replicate. What an opportunity it was to be one of the very first to develop a resort on this remote Island almost 30 years ago. We also knew we had to do it right. We had to respect the local people, the customs, the environment and more. 

Can you explain your philosophy and approach to hospitality?

As professionals in the industry, I believe that we must always push ourselves to be better. Complacency is always the biggest danger. We need to push our product to improve and constantly be in touch with what our discerning guests are looking for but still always remain true to the fundamental principles of true genuine hospitality and service. Our vision was always to offer visitors to the magic Island of Zanzibar, a genuine authentic experience and to ensure that there was always a sense of place. We wanted to make sure that our guests knew when they opened their eyes in the morning that they were not in the Caribbean, not in Fiji, not in the Far East, but in the magical Island of Zanzibar with its rich culture, heritage, and beauty. Having opened Breezes, we built The Palms, Zanzibar with just 7 private villas and then Baraza Resort & Spa, voted among the Top 25 Best Luxury Hotels in the World for three consecutive years and finally Zawadi Hotel, Zanzibar which offers the most beautiful views of the Indian Ocean on the Island. When we are in Zanzibar, we always take the time to personally meet with our guests and to listen to their feedback as this the best way for us to learn about their expectations. As a family business, we are very involved in the operations and are proud to have created and designed all our properties ourselves. 

What’s been the hardest part about building a business like this?

I don’t think it is quite possible to describe the difficult conditions when we started our business. I don’t know if anyone would believe it. It was a far cry from the scenarios described at Cornell because Africa brought different and exciting challenges. On the southeast coast, there was no water, no power, and no road — not the ideal scenario in which to start a business. However, we plowed on and the challenge always motivated us to be the very best we could be. “Nothing is impossible,” our mother always says, and if we are to take the example of The Zanzibar Collection, I guess this is really true. We employ about 600 people at our properties in Zanzibar, many of whom have been with us for over 20 years, and this makes us extremely proud because this is a significant contribution to the local community. All our employees have gone through in-house training and, when opening each of our four properties in Zanzibar, we always hired young people out of school and trained them in-house, thereby creating new jobs on the Island. 

What aspect of the Zanzibar Collection most excites you?

We have seen so much development in Zanzibar, especially on the northeast coast, where there are many hotels, side by side, resulting in a large number of people on the beaches. Taking this into account, we are happy that we made the choice to locate our properties on the quiet undeveloped southeast coast. To see our hotel Baraza Resort & Spa voted among the Top 25 Best Luxury Hotels in the World for three consecutive years, The Palms Zanzibar voted among the Top 10 Small Romantic Hotels in the World, and Zawadi Hotel Zanzibar listed on the New York Times List of New Hotels has a great achievement. It has been an honor to welcome many celebrities, like Brian May who said he found “a different kind of magic here” at Baraza. I think if you are passionate about your business, you can always look ahead and challenge yourself to meet new targets and goals in the interest of improving your business. Our commitment to reducing plastic pollution is something that we are very proud of and continue to strive towards, while our work in supporting the local community school as well as building a maternity clinic and raising funds for a neonatal clinic is also something very important to us. 

What advice do you have for females looking to establish their own businesses?

The importance of empowering women in today’s world cannot be overemphasized. Both my sister Paulina and I have daughters, and we often stop and wonder what the world will look like for them in a decade or two. I think there is little doubt that if more women were in power, then our world would be a better place. Women are compassionate and great at multitasking and problem solving, and these qualities are key in establishing and running a successful business. Sadly, today’s young girls are greatly influenced by social media, where many feel they have to look and behave in a certain way to be accepted. In Africa, it is said that changing the lives of women in a positive way will undoubtedly change society in a positive way. We are proud to employ many women within our organization, who have risen through the ranks. At the end of the day, in order to be successful in business, I think you have to be able to learn and adapt but also motivate and inspire the people that work for you. 

Do you have any closing thoughts? Despite the challenges that we have endured over the last thirty years, it has been an honor and privilege to be able to say that we were pioneers in a destination. Not many people can claim this. Our education at Cornell gave us many strengths, however, I believe that life experience and the wisdom of our parents were paramount in building a business with a solid foundation, which continues to grow and stay relevant to discerning travelers and true to the wonderful Island of Zanzibar. What more can one ask for?

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