Feb 14, 2024

Episode 125

Asher Warr + Robin Faulkner

Asher Warr Robin Faulkner Amarla boutique hotel


Childhood friends Asher Warr and Robin Faulkner, cofounders of Amarla, launched their first property in Cartagena in 2018. The 17th-century mansion, a former tobacco factory, celebrates the community via authentic experiences—a pillar of the newly founded hospitality brand. Next came Amarla Casco Viejo, the eight-room boutique that is reimagining Panama’s hospitality scene.

The British entrepreneurs are rethinking hospitality by creating hotels centered around what they call a heartfelt hospitality approach—one that transcends the property and immerses visitors into the location.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen:  Hi, I am here with Asher Warr and Robin Faulkner of Amarla Hotels. Hi guys. Thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?

Robin Faulkner: Hi, Stacey, lovely to meet you. Doing great.

Asher Warr: Hi. Thank you for having me. Very happy to be here.

SSR: I’m excited. All right. So let’s start at the beginning, Robin, let’s start with you. Where did you grow up?

RF: So amongst other places, a little town called Glastonbury, which is a super cool place, very interesting. It only has 10,000 inhabitants, but it’s probably the most hippie town in the world, or at least one of them. So when you walk down the high street there, instead of seeing your usual businesses, it’s crystal shops, maybe a wizard on a monocycle, plus paying some music and a very, very eclectic place to grow up. It was a lot of fun. And that’s where I met Asher, is in Glastonbury. I was there for many years, but before that I grew up in Spain and that’s where I got Spanish. I also speak Spanish.

SSR: And what were you like as a kid? Were you creative? How would you describe yourself?

RF: Yeah, so I would say I was definitely a creative child. We traveled a lot when I was young, and I used to spend a lot of time out in nature building tree houses, painting. My dad’s a musician and he always wanted me to play guitar and sing. Unfortunately, that never filtered down to me. I was more,…I love to build things with my hands and I love to be outside, outdoors and having a lot of fun.

SSR: And what did you end up going to school for?

RF: Yeah, so originally I was actually in a school, so in my primary years, which is quite an unusual type of education. I think in many ways that sort of gave me quite a creative base in terms of my education. It was very cool. And then in terms of higher education, I studied multimedia, so I did a lot of design in that. But I actually dropped out. I dropped out of university or just before going to university, start my own business, and it all kind of started there.

SSR: Which business did you start?

RF: It was not really related to what I do now, but we used to design and build small buildings for people’s gardens. So it could be a small office, it could be a studio for people to paint in, could be a workshop, that type of thing. And yeah, it was good fun for a few years where I did that.

A guestroom in Amarla Hotel Casco Viejo in Panama; photo courtesy of Soulfocus

SSR: That’s awesome. All right, let’s switch over to you, Asher, you’re up. So where did you grow up?

AW: I also grew up in the rural town of Glastonbury, which was tight knit community of holistic doctors, artists and musicians. What’s interesting about Glastonbury is that it’s actually sitting on ley lines, which is said to be a link to ancient monuments. And there’s a series of invisible energy pathways which are sort intertwined across the world. So it is kind of a quirky place to grow up in. There’s lots of stories and myths and legends, which are attached to the place. King Arthur’s burial ground was there in Glastonbury, and there was the Holy Thorn as well, which was planted on a hill called Wearyall Hill. I think last time we went there, a group of guys actually set fire to it, so I’m not sure if they could stand it. Do you remember? Yeah, I grew up there, which a very creative place, a lot of alternative thinking.

SSR: And were you creative as well as a kid?

AW: Yeah, in some ways. I spent a lot of time around creative people. My parents took me to a lot of festivals, a lot of folk-festivals. I can remember as a kid just sitting around campfires and listening to children’s stories from my parents and from my friends. And I think that added to my imagination and gave me the ability to dream up different situations and scenarios that often would come across as a bit far-fetched at times. But I think probably I got my creativity from there.

SSR: Yeah. And did you end up going to university?

AW: No, actually I took a bit of a unconventional path in comparison to perhaps some other hospitality folk. I actually left home when I was 18 and I was just eager to learn from the school of hard knocks. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was just figuring out as I went along, I don’t have any formal degree in hospitality or hotel management.

SSR: Which is not needed. So I’m excited to hear. So what did you end up doing?

AW: Oh, all sorts of stuff from… I was really passionate about snowboarding, so I went over to Austria and I was just trying to find any kind of job that I could during the nighttime so that I could snowboard during the daytime. So what was great about Austria is that they would give you a full board with the job, so you’d get a free ski pass, you’d get food and accommodation. So I would just take any job, whether it’s working in the kitchen or I was carrying glasses for a club at one point. It was really savage because people would always try and trip me up as I was walking along. They would just like… [inaudible 00:07:12] that kid that is carrying glasses. And yeah, just from then on I had various different jobs from drop shipping jobs, jobs where I was selling selfie sticks and via Robin went into business in Thailand a few years ago where we were selling super bikes. We were really passionate about bikes and we just had lots of different entrepreneurial ventures and most of them failed, but we learned a little bit from each one along the way.

SSR: Yeah, I’m sure. Okay. So you two met growing up. Were you friends growing up?

RF: Yeah, we met… I think it was 25 years ago when we met, right Ash? It’s a good 25 years I think. And we met in school because we both used to skateboard, and I think that’s kind of how we met is through mutual friends and out skateboarding.

SSR: Love it. And so you both kind went on your own paths. How did you decide to then come back together and then start Amarla Hotels?

RF: I mean, we started this officially about seven years ago, but I think the conversation probably started around 2012, probably, maybe even before then. And it was funny because it was like many of our conversations would come back to this idea. And originally it wasn’t actually to do hotels per se, we were really passionate about design, but specifically about designing a resort. So we had all these amazing ideas that we would share when we saw each other about designing this resort that had a particular way of designing the ergonomics. So people would meet and there would be these spontaneous moments where people would come together, whether it was around music or food or ways to enrich their experience through the design and then how that connected to nature and all these different things. And we would just… At that point, it was purely hypothetical. There was no opportunities to do this or anything like that, but it was something that we felt some passion for and we would sort of kick around ideas. And that’s kind of how we began that journey of more and more coming back to it and ended up here where we are today.

A seating area in Amarla Hotel Casco Viejo in Panama; photo courtesy of Amarla

SSR: And what do you think drew you to wanting to do this?  I mean, you had traveled, you had worked at various places, but what was it about owning a resort and wanting to take on this challenge? What do you think it was that kind of drew you to this world?

RF: So I would say that hospitality has a very, very interesting mix of things which are hard to find in other areas of life. If you’re passionate about design, I think hospitality has got to be the best place to express that. A boutique hotel or an amazing restaurant requires that degree of sort of out-of-the-box thinking and drawing people into this unique and interesting world. And I mean, my initial basis was very much around the design side. Ash is amazing with the experience stuff. So he has a real, I guess an instinct for how to create beautiful and amazing experiences for people. And he also has a great mind for design too. Hospitality was a great way for us to express a lot of those ideas that we had from a design perspective. And then I guess the experience stuff, we’ve gone into that a lot more over the last few years in the day-to-day work that we do. But that is a whole nother world, which is incredible. It’s beautiful to bring somebody into a space and then curate and design that experience for them and be the host of that experience is such a satisfying thing to do. I don’t think there’s another business where that could have happened let’s say.

AW: I come from a tech background prior to coming to the hospitality world, and I think that it’s kind of a bit of a lonesome journey in front of the computer. You’re building code and things like that, whereas hospitality is a great way of being of service and it just brings a whole new perspective and meaning to my life. So that was one of the reasons why I got into hospitality. Sorry that answer wasn’t the best.

SSR: Okay. Wait, what did you do in the tech world? So after you explored and did all these other jobs and tried these other launches, did you go into tech then?

AW: Yeah, so prior getting into hospitality, it was into tech, sort of drop shipping, into the blockchain space as well. And yeah, it’s one of those things where you’re just spending countless amounts for hours in front of the computer and it’s often… During those moments you often question yourself, what are you really giving to the world? And hospitality has been an incredible platform to be of service and to give back and to curate people’s memories in some ways and be a part of other people’s stories. So that was the thing that really drew me to hospitality is the creative aspect, that also being of service and that human connection as well.

SSR: Yeah, a hundred percent. Okay. So you guys had dreamed this up and then a lot of people dream, but how did you make it from conversations to a reality? And also I’m still curious, what’s behind the name?

AW: No, I was just going to say that it’s an idea of Robin’s. I can remember when we were back in Thailand around seven years ago, we were sat together just making paintings of just dream scenarios, just completely out there of these different resorts in the rolling hills of Burma. At that time, we’re thinking about Burma as a sort of an interesting hospitality destination or resort destination as it was very much up and coming and that untapped and Robin’s a really great artist. So we would just sit down together and create these paintings about our ideas. At that time, we didn’t really have any sort of financial capability on how we were going to achieve this. It was just pure fantasy in a way. But somehow I think by doing that, it took us on this creative journey and Robin came up with the name Amarla and he would probably tell you a bit more about it, but it’s got a certain amount of symmetry to it and it’s got a couple of meanings as well. So I just thought I’d say that. And Robin, you go ahead and explain it a bit more.

RF: Cool. Yeah, the word Amarla sort of came to me by accident in many ways. My dad is friends with a Buddhist monk. He’s a Scottish Buddhist monk. I speak Spanish and he had had this prayer book, which was only about 10 pages long, and it was in Sanskrit and then in English. And he asked me, can you give me the Spanish to it as well? I was like, okay, give it here. And I translated it for him quickly. And one of the words in there was Amarla, and I think it was in the original Sanskrit, and I’d written it down in my notebook, which I always have with me. And it was a while later when we were doing these sort of creative sessions that one of the resorts that I designed was lacking a name and I was looking through my book and I saw it there.

It was Amarla and I thought, okay, that kind of fits. And I put it on. And the meaning of it is purity as in pure intentions or pure water in Sanskrit. I was like, that’s nice, I like that, that’s cool. Little did we know though, I hadn’t made the connection that Amarla in Spanish means to love her and this is where the connection later on comes with when we began to explore Latin America for the sort inception of the hotels is where that connection was made. It was made by Asher actually, and it kind of stuck, to love her. That was something that really captured the romance and the passion of these historic towns as well. And it also just felt so right in the context. So yeah, that’s how it came about and that’s how it also ended up being the name for the hotels out here.

SSR: Amazing. You mentioned Latin America. Why did you choose Latin America? What drew you there first? Was it just from travels before or you were interested in exploring or was it the opportunity that led you there?

RF: Originally we were actually looking in Asia. We were traveling around, we went to Bali, we went to crazy places, a place called Anambas archipelago, which is in between Vietnam and Borneo. We traveled all over the place and we were looking for something that just felt right, and Asia’s awesome, we love Asia, but it was actually my cousin who was like, “Why don’t you guys go check out Colombia?” He had been in Colombia several times for work and stayed in some of the boutique hotels and he was like, “You guys are going to love it. Take a trip out there and see how you like it.” So we ended up coming out to Cartagena. I think we spent a bit of time there and spent a bit of time in Panama and we fell in love with Cartagena. That was originally what we… That’s kind of where we started this thing was Cartagena. And Latin America in general, it wasn’t somewhere that we had explored before, and it is such an incredible mix of cultures, biodiversity, the gastronomic side is incredible too, design is really booming here is something that I think a lot of our generation, younger generations have really taken to another level out here. And we just felt very inspired being out here and in this new environment. So it just felt right. It felt right.

SSR: What were you guys doing in Asia? Just traveling? 

RF: No, we had a business out there together and it started… We were basically importing motorbikes, race motorbikes, and it was kind of cool because we love to ride bikes and when you’re like 23, 24 and you can ride a bike around and it’s a lot of fun and stuff, it’s cool. But we wanted to turn that into a business. So we’ve begun to figure it out. And we used to import bikes from the States. We used to do them up and do all this… Changed the design of them and suit them up a little bit. And then we used to sell them and we created a business around that and that allowed us to be in Asia and also travel around a little bit and enjoy a few years while that lasted. But it was never something that truly had our passion. It was fun, but it wasn’t the business that I think really drove us.

SSR: Right. This was always going to be the end, getting into hospitality. What did you learn from doing that though?

RF: A lot. I mean in terms of starting a business and making it work, that definitely gave us a good foundation. Because it is tough. Certain things don’t work out like you think they’re going to work out and you just have to keep at it. And especially around if you don’t have the expertise in certain areas, whether it’s accounting or how to market properly, how to employ people. All of these different things are a world in themselves and learning them from scratch is an incredible experience. But also there’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of mistakes and it was definitely there.

Kaandela restaurant in Amarla Casco Viejo in Panama; photo courtesy of Soulfocus

SSR: All right. So your cousin points you to Colombia then how did you find the location and then figure out how to pull this off?

RF: So we took a flight out there and Ash, you’re pretty best explaining that bit. It was good fun.

AW: So we just started walking around and looking at the different buildings and towns. We came across this one buildings in the heart of Cartagena, and it actually wasn’t on the market, but one of the agents that we knew said that they knew the owner and that he may want to sell it. And as soon as we went into the building, we were met with this beautiful courtyard with two large palm trees that were situated in the middle of that courtyard. And even though Cartagena is quite a hot city, because of all the different air gaps that were in the house, and you can imagine there’s lots of natural light and things like that, it had this natural cooling effect and it really felt like this sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city. And we had this name Amarla, which meant “to love her” in Spanish. And that was exactly the sort of feeling that we were imbued with when we entered the property. So there was just this sort of match made in heaven with the name and the property, and we just kind of took it from there, really.

SSR: And what did you want to create? I mean, obviously you traveled around, you’d seen different hotels. What did you want Amarla Hotels to be?

RF: So I think going back to the meeting between design and the sort of act or discipline of hospitality of providing that experience, we had this idea of heartfelt hospitality. So beyond the physical aspect and having this beautiful property in which to create that experience, we wanted to create an experience which really tied to the destination. So it was very contextual. So I mean, to do that properly, we really had to get stuck into all of those elements. We had to be there for a while. We didn’t do anything. We were fortunate enough to have an investor who was interested in making that investment. So we sort of went through that whole process first. And then after that, we spent about six months just on the ground, basically emerging ourselves into the culture, into the different areas, the architecture, the food, the people.

And we went through a brainstorming process in that period of time. And with that first project, the building, like Asher mentioned, was already very beautiful. So we weren’t looking to do a very, very complex intervention into that building. In fact, it was like we had to be very, very light. It had to be a light touch. So it was a way of us developing the building and putting our own mark on it without destroying what was already there, which was, as Asher mentioned, it was beautiful. So the idea was really to accentuate that, which was already there in that property. And then it was really to also connect to Columbia in ways that perhaps it was not when we received it. So from the way that we designed the service to the food that’s presented in breakfast, I think we were probably the only boutique hotel in Columbia that had specialty coffee with breakfast.

So it was like this amazing, beautiful coffee from Columbia that, I mean, usually they serve just the sort of cheap junk. And we really wanted from the moment you wake up to experience Columbia for all of your senses. And that was one of the ways to do that. So that was like that throughout. So whether it was taste, we did an amazing project in the rooms, which is with the Goni from London, who do these incredible wallpapers that are all hand painted. So we did a project with them, and each room has a triplet of works of art, basically. They’re kind of on wallpaper, but they’re framed and each one is a bird of Columbia in its natural setting, these beautifully hand painted pieces. So there’s a way of drawing the guest in to where they are, creating context for them and doing it, let’s say through the eyes of Amarla and then making all of that harmonious so that it felt very seamless from a guest perspective.

SSR: Amazing. And what was the building before and did you have to create a lot of changes to update the rooms and bring it to where you want? I know it was a light touch, but there’s always things to tweak.

RF: Originally it was a tobacco factory.

AW: Yeah, just to add on that, it also was an interior designer’s personal home, and he lived in there most of the time, and he had some staff members, which lived with him for many, many years, which we actually ended up keeping on and bringing into the hotel operations.  There was quite a few things that we did, but it was more to sort of accentuate the current form, so to speak. And we added some beautiful new floors and we redid the rooftop and we created this amazing garden out there where we see a lot of parrots and hummingbirds that come and visit us. So our idea was to really create this environment that made you feel like you weren’t in the city anymore. You were in this sort of sanctuary away from the city, and you can feel it’s a real place of rest. And we also went around and found different ornaments and statues from around the world and put them into the house in order to give it a look and feel that it was a travelers house of rest, which was quite reflective of our own path as well. So yeah, to summarize, we didn’t change a lot in terms of the building itself, but we did make a lot of aesthetic touches.

SSR: The layering and the infusing it with that special touch that’s hard to define. So how long did it take you to do all this? And then what was it like when you finally opened in 2022, right?

RF: So Amarla Cartagena opened on the 9th of November, 2018. The hotel here in Panama opened 2022. So the process itself took about almost a year. It was just under a year. The first six months were planning, brainstorming, and then translating that into a project which was deliverable. And then we’d set aside four months for the renovation phase, which was ambitious to say the least.

But as is the case with this type of project, there’s usually something which takes a little bit longer than expected. And we actually opened without a back of house basically, that was still in gray works when we opened. So we had to close a room in order to have all of the sheets and everything in there. And we were having to bring the breakfast from another hotel that was close by, and it was a little bit faulty towers, as you can imagine. But it was a great experience. It was a real wake up to what it took, and it was our very first experience of hospitality. We were very, very fresh to it. So yeah, it was really cool and really scary at the same time.

SSR: You said you found some unexpected things. Were there any cool things you found as you started to touch the building and add things to it? Any surprises as there are with old buildings?

RF: In Panama, which we could get to perhaps in a minute, we did. We found some cool stuff. In Cartagena, it was more discovering the history of the building. It was originally built in the 1600s. That whole area was a tobacco producing area of the city, and then it was renovated into a caçona, which is I guess like a family home in, I think it was 1664 or something by a general. Well, it would’ve been a Spanish general. And it was a family home for a long time. And then eventually this interior designer picked it up and he did a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful conversion of it in the late 1990s, I think. So the house as it was, was already very tastefully done.

SSR: So you had some good bones then to work with? What was the reaction, and also how did you then as first time hoteliers grow a fan base, grow guests?

RF:  I guess the launch was a big unknown for us. We had a lot of confidence in the way that the physical property was executed. It was stunning and we were very happy with that. We were very, very new, as I mentioned, to the hospitality scene. So we really didn’t know how it was going to be received. Fortunately, I think the first three months, basically everybody that stayed with us was super happy. So we went from being quite scared of what the reaction was going to be to feeling like, wow, this has been incredible and so worth the journey. So this is where I think Ash did a very, very good job as well.

I think it would be cool to go into how we went through the branding process because that was really, really cool. And that was a very much a joint project between Ash and I in expressing what the heart of what we wanted that guest experience to be like visually. And through that process, I think we were able to solidify a lot of what we wanted to create. And a lot of that was driven by Asher’s ideas around the guest experience. And I really feel like that was well done. So maybe Ash, you could take it from here with that because I think that was really cool and a big win in those first stages.

AW: We wanted to really integrate the local culture into our branding as much as possible. But we wanted to be more than just a design hotel. We wanted to be an experience-based hotel as well. So a lot of the research went into finding out what guests could do in the city, which was a little bit out of the norm. And we came up with all kinds of different ideas, some which stuck and some which didn’t. We wanted to do things like take our guests to Isla Rosario, which is one of the most beautiful archipelagos on the Caribbean side of Colombia. And there you have all sorts of different amazing experiences that a lot of people don’t know about. For example, there’s a lagoon there with bioluminescent plankton, and when you dip your hands into the water, it flashes with blue and purple. So we really went above and beyond to try and figure out what was going on all around.

And we also wanted to create authentic experiences. So one of the experiences that our guests still love even today, is just going to the local market with our chef and picking out all the different spices and vegetables and herbs that Colombia has to offer in it. And there’s a huge variety of native fruits and vegetables that Colombia has so it’s always a very interesting day out. So yeah, a lot of our creative processes around the branding sort stemmed from what was going on around us and what the people and the culture had to offer. And that was a really exciting and fun as well as being very immersive process for us and gave us the ability to provide a really well-rounded offering at the hotel.

Kaandela restaurant in Amarla Casco Viejo in Panama; photo courtesy of Soulfocus

SSR: And how much research did you all do?

RF: A lot. We spent a lot of time. It is funny how we can do the research in the world, but sometimes when the rubber meets the tarmac, things turn out different. And a lot of what we’ve learned, I think has just been through the process of actually doing it and figuring out what works for us, what doesn’t. And I think that’s the way we’ve probably grown the most is in the act of just trying things. And sometimes it’s following your instinct as well, I think, and your intuition.

SSR: Is there anything over the last six years that you’ve changed up or added or rethought since you opened?

RF: For sure. I mean, I think one thing that we both had to work on a lot, the hospitality industry is so key to have the right people, especially in terms of those that connect with the guest. We had a little bit of a baptism of fire around that, so we made perhaps not the optimal choices at the beginning around how we built our team and we had very quick feedback from that, that it just wasn’t working out for us with those people. So we had to really go back to the drawing board and figure out how do we get the right team of people, how do we attract them to what we’re doing? How do we excite people about what it is that we want to create and the experience that we want to provide? And we developed more of a system around how to find those people.

And that’s, I think been probably one of our strongest points from the original launch of Amarla Cartagena where at the beginning, although we provided a good experience, I think internally it was quite tough for us because we weren’t seeing the results we wanted to from a human resources perspective. And then building that team up to a point where we have a manager out there who’s super dedicated. She’s been fully emerged in that project now from early on and building a team up in Columbia around her that truly live the Amarla experience and are able to provide that to our guests. But that wasn’t so easy at the beginning. We didn’t quite have the degree of understanding that was required for the onset. I don’t know if you want to add anything to that Ash. I mean, that was really a key part of our development, I think.

AW: Yeah, I mean, I can think of a story that sort of encapsulates that in a way. When we were first starting out in Columbia and we were just starting to rock and roll with the operations, and we had hired in a manager and we also then just had a wedding booked. And it was a well-known Colombian family. And in Columbia they really liked to have a tradition, call the Hour of Madness, where at midnight they try to make as much of a celebration as possible within the hour. You can probably imagine how that is. Problem is the law states that you have to keep below a certain amount of decibels and you have to shut down that celebration at a certain time.

And our manager knew this and our guests also knew this, but they managed to make under the table deal between them. And because of this, our manager lost control and the hour of Madness went from one hour to three to four hours of madness. Alcohol was flowing, fights broke out, and the night ended up being a bit of a disaster. The police were called. It was devastating to us, but it taught us that you’re only really as good as your team and you need to be able to trust them a hundred percent. After that, we were just super diligent on the people that we hired. It was a really good lesson to have early on. Nothing like that ever happened again.

SSR: Yeah, it is. You have to surround yourself with the right people and people that are better and know different things than you. Okay, so you went through this experience and then now in 2022, you opened your newest hotel in Panama. Why another and why there?

RF: From the onset, we felt like Amarla was a very, very suited brand to do at least five small hotels in the old towns, the historic districts of Latin America. And Panama to us has been a really, really cool challenge, as I think you can imagine, it’s not necessarily on people’s minds so much in terms of a destination. In fact, some of the connotations that people will have with Panama are probably negative, where the Panama Canal would not be a negative one, but perhaps not one that is as interesting as I think Panama is as a destination. And so we took on this project in the old district of Casco Viejo, which is a really, really cool neighborhood. Columbia, and Cartagena specifically is a very, very Spanish colonial town. It’s very well preserved and it has that very strong identity, whereas Casco Viejo has many layers of different, well at least architectural, but also cultural influences.

So originally of course it was Spanish, but then the French came in to build the canal. So a lot of Casco Viejo has very French architecture, and then you have the… America was here to finish off the canal, so then you have a turn of the century US style as well. And we took on this ruin, which was a complete ruin at the time. The only thing that was in there was a couple of bulges, and most of the building had fallen down, and we basically redesigned the whole thing from scratch. And it was quite a challenging project because it wasn’t just a renovation. Here we had to design basically from the baseline of the architecture all the way through to the finishes. And we took on a little bit more of a challenge as well, which was really cool, which is we turned the downstairs into a restaurant, which in Cartagena is a boutique hotel, we serve food, but we don’t have a restaurant which is open to the public and a business in and of itself. So we designed the ground floor as our restaurant, which is Candela, which is an open fire concept. We have this beautiful patio, which is like a tropical garden.

And then we have the hotel above with a beautiful rooftop where you can see the skyline of the new city. And then that juxtaposed with the roof line of the old towns, you see the old steeples of the churches and the rooftops of the historic district, and then the sea beyond as well. And we see the entrance of the canal. So you see the giant ships passing by slowly. So it’s an amazing sort of mix of things here. So it was the sort of natural next step in what we were doing. It matched all the criteria. It’s an old town, it’s a historic building. It’s somewhere that has this great mix of… We like to think of the five pillars of things that make a great destination, which is the culture and the people, the gastronomy, the natural surroundings, the history, and also the economic situation. Is it stable? Is it good? And Panama matched those and it made sense for us to do a hotel here.

SSR: Amazing. And how many rooms is it?

RF: It’s eight rooms and the restaurant.

The rooftop at Amarla Casco Viejo in Panama; photo courtesy of Soulfocus

SSR: Got it. You said earlier you found some surprising things. What did you find as you were opening it up?

RF: Because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site as well, by law, you have to have an archeologist come in and do a study. So they come in and they dig certain trenches and they dig down in specific areas where they think they might be able to find things of interest. And a lot of it, to be honest, were things that weren’t that interesting. But we found an old well, which goes back to the 1600s. And the well top was then added, I believe probably 100, 150 years ago, we’re not quite sure when. But it’s this incredible cast iron piece of design, which is very unusual. It weighs about 400 kilos. So in the build process, it was getting kicked about. And obviously the contractor wasn’t very happy because this thing weighed half a ton, and they were like, “What do you guys want to do with it?”

And we sat down and we were like, this is an integral part of the old building, let’s do something fun with it. So we decided to winch it up, and now it’s suspended in our bar as kind of a design element, which is lit up from behind. And it’s a great conversation piece because a lot of people always come in and go, “What the hell is that thing?” But we found all sorts of things from old pottery to funky little things from probably 300, 400 years ago, little trinkets and things like little cast iron things and bits and bobs. But yeah, nothing like we were hoping maybe some Spanish gold or something. We didn’t find anything like that.

SSR: That would’ve been amazing. And why do you think after 25 years, you two work so well together?

RF: I mean, I think we have different perspectives, and I think that’s important. I think if we both agree on everything, then one of us isn’t needed. And I think we complement our skill sets very well.

SSR: Do you want to add anything Asher?

AW: I think that we enjoy each other’s company and we have a similar sort of energy, similar sort of interests. And we’ve both are very family orientated and were just share a lot of similar values. We grew up together in the same town, and I think that’s what’s kept us together all these years.

SSR: And so what’s next for the company? You said five hotels, you have two now, what are you looking at next?

AW: So right now we’re in the process of talking to some landowners that are interested in doing our resorts. As we said earlier, our dream has always been to one day do resorts based around not only design, but health and wellness as well. And so we’re just sort of steadily trying to move towards that point and just refining our systems as much as possible to sort of enable that to happen. Pretty much that at the moment.

RF: Yeah, just to add to that a little bit is what we’ve learned. We went in without a great deal of knowledge and we’ve been able to learn a great deal over the last, almost seven years now. And one of those things has led us to… Basically, we’re in the process of creating a hospitality management company, and then we’ll do the design and development stuff separate to that. And we have a core team of really talented people, very driven people, it’s a small team, very focused that we are going to work with to now expand that portfolio and we’re going to focus much more on the hospitality management side within that company.

So with that, obviously, as a technical services part to that, we are designing the properties. Right now we’re in the active negotiation of three really, really cool projects. One of them… Hopefully we can tell you a little bit more about these once we close on some of them. But some of them are very much leading us to where we originally wanted to go, which is being far more connected to nature, integrating those elements of design, what we’ve learned about providing an incredible experience for our guests, and just completing that picture a little bit. But yeah, we’ve got a great team of people. We have a very, very cool property that hopefully we can share with you soon.

We’ve been extremely active recently and we’ve been talking to some incredible partners, people that believe in what we’re doing, love what we’ve done, and I think that’s really key as well, it’s not just about creating new hotels, I think it’s also about working with the people that share our vision for it and begin to really create something which has a snowball effect to it. I think that really only happens when that energy is right. So that’s where we’re at right now. We’re at a very exciting stage of what we’ve done. We’ve put a lot of hard work into the base, into the foundations, and now I think it’s time for us to really get that moving and it’s a very exciting time to be doing what we’re doing.

SSR: I can’t wait to see what’s next when you can share. And thanks so much for taking this time with me today. It was really great to hear your story.

RF: Awesome, thank you. It’s been a real honor being on the podcast.