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October 2013

                               October 31, 2013


To Members and Friends:

Today is the last day of October and it is Halloween night.  I am writing this in a bit of a rush, because I don’t want to miss any of the festivities at Balesin this long weekend.  We will be having some 600 members and guests at the island this long weekend and fortunately, the typhoon (Vinta) that was bearing down on Luzon, has decided to take a northerly track and we expect to have good weather this weekend.  
It is an understatement to say that the month of October was an eventful month at Balesin.  First there was this typhoon “Santi” which tried to fool everybody by taking a leisurely stroll across the Pacific, and then at the last minute revving up and skirting Balesin as it veered north at the last minute and missed the island by only about a hundred kilometers.  It was a weekend and we had several hundred people on the island but our staff made sure to keep everybody safe and sound.  Interestingly, the brunt of the typhoon was felt at about 10 pm on that Saturday night October 12, and exited before dawn, such that on Sunday, believe it or not, we had a beautiful day.  There was absolutely no damage on the island except the usual banana trees that quickly surrendered to the winds.

At this juncture, I might mention that, in determining the specifications for all of the structures at Balesin, we were guided by a very conservative target such that all of our structures can withstand even a direct hit by a typhoon of over 300-kilometer per hour winds.  Each of our villas and structures has a minimum of three meters’ foundation into the bedrock and while this results in rather expensive structural costs, we chose to spend the money to make sure that the structures are safe, even in the face of the harshest typhoons.  “Santi” is now the third typhoon that has been felt at Balesin in the last two years, and we are happy to say that we have had no damage to any of the structures in the island.

The other event that happened in October, and a most unfortunate one, was on October 19 when a BAE-146-200 which we had chartered from Skyjet and had flown to Balesin more than a dozen times, suddenly overshot the runway.  The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) has been undergoing a very thorough investigation and while there is no officially made conclusion, everything points to pilot error.  The BAE-146-200 is specifically a short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft, and I have flown this many times at the London City airport and Florence airport, which are both under a thousand meters long, as compared to Balesin’s 1,530-meter runway.  Unfortunately, the pilot touched down past the halfway point on the runway, bounced a hundred meters, and headed into the sea, about a hundred meters past the cemented strip. Fortunately, it was low tide and the passengers were able to alight without difficulty and without any injury.  As in any traumatic and stressful event like this, both passengers and our rescue teams on the island were put to a test, and I think we came out with quite satisfactory results.  

Balesin is fully equipped for emergency situations such as this, and I think you have noticed the two fire trucks and the ambulance that is always ready whenever there is a landing or a takeoff on the airstrip.  We have a total of 10 professionally trained firemen and rescue operations team who were, on that occasion, assisted by another 50 of our security and other personnel on the island.  I am convinced that we did our best but under the circumstances, nobody’s best is good enough and we had the usual and understandable complaints from our members and their guests.  

Under the excellent leadership of Mike Asperin, our Island CEO, we were able to make the best of what was obviously a seriously stressful situation.  I received many letters praising our rescue operations, but also several letters complaining about small mishaps.  I was quite amused by one letter that their group was not treated well, had a very stressful afternoon but they then proceeded to Mykonos where everyone had “a wonderful dinner.”  

Much of the complaints were the day after the accident where we had to scramble to get as many aircraft as possible to make sure that everybody scheduled to return to Manila was able to do so.  While we successfully achieved the objective of getting everybody back to Manila except those who chose to extend for another day, we had several complaints about their flights being delayed or the passengers not being able to take the flights that they preferred.  In fairness to our Aviation staff, when you lose a 94-seater plane and you have to scramble to get everybody back, it takes quite a feat to do so and obviously, it is not possible to satisfy everybody’s flight preferences.  I would ask our members and guests to be more understanding with our personnel on the island who really did their best to accommodate everybody.

While on this subject, I would like to focus on an issue which our Aviation management and Reservations group have clearly been remiss in not keeping our members and guests informed.  Since about a month ago, when the flight manifest for the next day started having to be submitted to the CAAP for approval, normally the approval did not come until late in the day and normally, it would be too late to notify our guests that the flights that they preferred, had been rescheduled by CAAP.  Clearly, the delayed flights and rescheduled flights are totally beyond our control.  Our shortcoming was in not keeping our members informed that flight changes are inevitable and even if we “confirmed” a flight departure time, CAAP could reschedule it in order to take into account the traffic in what everybody knows is a very congested NAIA airport.  So normally, other than the first flight at 7:00 am, flights that are confirmed for that day subsequently are generally subject to change and it is simply beyond our control.

I think this problem will not go away but in fact probably be aggravated as we get more members, more flights and more congestion at the NAIA airport.  We have for the last year been working on obtaining an AOC (Aircraft Operations Certificate) which would then give us priority with CAAP in the flight scheduling process.  But obtaining this AOC license, which is again beyond our control and which normally takes more than a year to obtain, may take a few more months.  We would be grateful if our members and guests would appreciate that this is a situation beyond our control and bear with us a bit more.

I have also directed that we examine a land/sea route to get to Balesin.  An air-conditioned bus (starting early in the morning), would take the three-hour trip to Infanta/Real and then cross over by a fast boat.  We are looking at a catamaran craft that can make it to the island in about an hour and a half from Infanta, a 29-mile journey.  We are concerned though, that when it is bad weather for flying, it is also when the seas are rough and this may not be solving the problem except for those who have a real phobia about flying and would prefer a land/sea trip to get to Balesin.  We are doing careful studies, and will be back to you as soon as we can.

Now, back to more pleasant subjects.  I was at the Mykonos Beach Villas two days ago and was absolutely amazed at the beauty of the architecture.  My partner, Rico Sison, has really outdone himself this time.  I sat on the veranda of the Poseidon building with its indoor/outdoor pool enjoying the breeze of the Pacific Ocean and I tell you, I did not want to leave.  I have asked that we have opening cocktails this Friday, in order to introduce you to what in my view is the best spot on the island.   I will look forward to welcoming you and your guests at 5:00 pm where we shall serve gyros, souvlaki and wine to our guests, with our compliments.

The day after, on Saturday, we are also inaugurating the Family Picnic Grove with its organic vegetables and freshly caught fish.  This is perfect for a family outing and we want to make sure that our members see another new feature which we have created for you.  The merienda will be at 4:00 pm and will feature a Treasure Hunt for children.  The Picnic Grove is on the way to Phuket and Costa del Sol Villages on the south side of the island.  

I would also like to tell you all that I have just appointed my son Julian as Creative Director on the island.  After many times trying, he has finally convinced me that I am rather obsolete in my attitude about “sessions” and other events, and members and guests are always looking for some event that is scheduled on the island especially on weekends.  Julian, who is in his early 20’s, is quite clued in to what the members and guests who visit the island want to have on weekends and he has in fact had several rather successful “sessions.”  One of the most successful ones was a DJ called Nix Damn P, which was held at the Mykonos Cove Deck and was apparently greatly enjoyed by our members.  He now is working on a full calendar of “sessions” as we come closer to the holiday season.  If any of you disagree with my appointing Julian as the Creative Director, please let me know and I will immediately fire him! 

Finally, Toscana with its 32 rooms is fast taking shape and will be ready to accept reservations by the end of November.  Rico Sison, who spent a weekend in my villa in Tuscany, has again gone overboard in displaying his incredible design talent and I can tell you that the villas really remind me of my home in Tuscany!

I cannot end this update without telling you about Abu Dhabi, where I spent four days last week with the powers that be in that fabulous Emirate.  The architecture and the obvious opulence is really mind-boggling.  Without exaggeration, the Royal Suite that they gave me at the Jumeirah at the Etihad Towers, which is the best hotel in Abu Dhabi, and owned by my friend Sheikh Suroor, is half the floor of this enormous building;  and it takes quite an effort to go from one end of the suite to the other, particularly at night from your bed to the bathroom which is so enormous that you have to allow for sufficient time to get to the loo so that you do not have an accident on the way!  

Sheikh Suroor’s partner, His Excellency Hussain Al Nowais, who is Minister for Public Development for Abu Dhabi, spent four days in early October with me in the Philippines, looking at the various Alphaland projects and was particularly impressed and awed by Balesin and what we accomplished in such a short time.  They now have a working team in Manila this week looking at the various Alphaland projects and are spending the Halloween weekend in Balesin.

Stay tuned for further developments!  

 

ROBERTO V. ONGPIN