Duncan and Penelope Ridgley left London in favour of sun, sand and hotel-keeping in 2004, but their dream of opening a hotel in Sri Lanka was swept away with the tragic tsunami of that year, which endangered their lives. Undeterred, however, the family headed to Egypt and opened their first property the following year — a renovated mud house in Siwa
AT A GLANCE:
Hotels now owned and operated by The Ridgleys:
The Siwa Villa, Egypt: Four rooms — sleeps up to 10
The Village Hotel, Maramures, Romania: 10 rooms
Transylvania Tree Houses: Eight rooms (under construction)
How did the two of you meet?
Duncan Ridgley: In a tequila bar in London. I was used to tequila, Penny wasn’t!
What were you doing before you opened your first hotel?
Duncan: I trained as a paparazzi at The Sun before jumping into the internet business in the late nineties.
Penelope Ridgley: I was an event rider. After marrying Duncan, I gave it all up to live in London with him. We worked together when he was a photographer for a while and then the children were born and I focused on them. When our youngest, Angus, was four, I went to college and qualified as a tiler. We took our children out of school in 2004 to travel for two years and never returned.
Whose idea was it to open the first hotel abroad?
Penelope: It was Duncan’s. It was a lifestyle choice. We’d bought some land in Sri Lanka and planned to set up and run a small touristic project on the East coast, but we nearly lost our lives in the tsunami and ended up back in Siwa in Egypt where we had also bought land when we visited there. We built a house for our family to live in while we recovered. The more time we spent there, the more we thought that we could do the same kind of project in Siwa. The area was an undiscovered gem. Instead of jungle safaris we could do desert safaris. Instead of immersing ourselves and our guests in the Buddhist culture, it could be the Berber culture and traditions. So we decided to convert our villa into a hotel as it was in the centre of the old mud town, and we built another house for us to live in.
Duncan: It was mine, but if Penny hadn’t been on board, it wouldn’t have happened. You both need to be 100% in to make this kind of life change. We would never have been brave enough to choose Egypt for our hotel if it hadn’t been for the tsunami in Sri Lanka, but once we where there, we had no regrets.
What year did your first hotel open and how did you fund it?
Duncan: In 2005 we opened in Egypt. We remortgaged our UK house and sold my online business.
What was the biggest challenge in opening a hotel abroad?
Duncan: The challenge is getting guys who don’t speak your language to build a toilet when they have never seen one and don’t understand deadlines.
Penelope: It was all a challenge: the logistics; the build; the legals; the language; and living there and home schooling the children.
What are the main operational challenges abroad?
Duncan: Keeping western standards takes a lot of staff training, then the trained staff are very valuable to other hotels who want to poach them.
Penelope: Keeping the villa at full occupancy, maintaining high standards and keeping abreast of constant maintenance due to the extreme weather conditions in Siwa can be a challenge. It can also be difficult to fit in with the local community as you’re seen as a rich foreigner. It is a constant battle to keep prices at a local rate
Who wears the trousers?
Duncan: It’s a team thing, we both do. We fight it out and meet in the middle on any big decisions.
Penelope: Duncan thinks I do. I think he does.
How do you divide the duties?
Duncan: I build from the foundations up to the windows; Penny takes over from there and brings a woman’s touch to the interiors. We split the time spent with guests.
Penelope: By discussing and planning. Luckily we have different skill sets.
How many hours a day do you see your other half for?
Duncan: A lot more than when I worked in London. We are together all the time which was a big reason for making the change. We got to see our kids grow up and be with them at a time in their lives when they wanted to be with us, it was very special.
Penelope: Sometimes 24/7 for months on end, and sometimes we are away from each other for months on end.
Is it difficult juggling other aspects of your life and the hotel?
Duncan: This lifestyle is not for everyone. It’s in your face — work and your private life are all mixed into one. The kids felt we did not spend enough time with them; they didn’t realise that they spent much more time with us this way than if they had been in school.
Penelope: It’s had its moments, but on the whole we are organised and that is the key. We’ve also involved our children in our business and often they will help out.
What do you often argue about?
Duncan: What every long-term married couple argues about — everything! I would want to go big and take risks, Penny would want to play it safe and not reinvest. We would always meet in the middle somewhere, eventually.
What do you love most about running a hotel together?
Duncan: We are able to be together whenever we want. We have the freedom to be how we choose — we have no rules to abide by.
Penelope: Being in partnership with my husband.
What was your happiest day in the hotel business?
Duncan: The first guest, the first five-star TripAdvisor review — proving to ourselves we got it right and are good at what we do.
Penelope: The highlights are when our guests leave happy having had a unique experience. That makes me happy.
What don’t you like about running a hotel with your partner?
Duncan: Having to constantly explain that we are running a business, it’s not just a lifestyle. I never married my wife for her business acumen. She’s the best with guests and the finishes in the villas.
Penelope: Having to compromise when I am sure my way is better — and then having to make him dinner and separate our work differences from our personal relationship.
Where do you see the business in five years’ time?
Duncan: More rooms. We are also adding organic farming to the mix.
Penelope: We have no interest in expanding the business as we feel it would lose the personal ‘hands-on’ approach. A lot also depends on Egypt; it’s so difficult to be certain of anything there.
If you weren’t running a hotel, what would you ideally be doing for a living?
Duncan: Directing/producing pop videos or reportage documentaries.
Penelope: The list is too long, I love running a small business. I love travel, animals and farming, outdoor activities, building projects. Whatever it is, it would be in another hot country.
Would you recommend running a hotel with your spouse?
Duncan: Yes. If you’re both 100% into it and you accept that you will both be at war for years until it’s all done and you come out the other side in paradise.
Penelope: Only if I thought it would interest them.
Would you recommend opening a hotel abroad?
Duncan: I would never dream of opening a hotel in the UK. The cost of building compared to what you can charge does not make business sense. ‘Fortune favours the brave’ is the tattoo Penny has on her back. If you have the guts to go somewhere different, you will be one of the few and there will be no shortage of guests. You can charge good rates and make a good living.
Penelope: I don’t know. It’s not easy and is fraught with all sorts of unknown setbacks. I believe it takes a strong personality to do this kind of thing.
What pearl of wisdom would you offer to others wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Duncan: Don’t underestimate how hard it will be. It will take you longer and cost more. You need to deal with everything. Learn plumbing, it’s not hard and you will know more than the local guy in a week. Have an open mind. You buy the land first, get the papers later. You have to work with the locals or you will fail. The people you build relationships with become your biggest asset, your connection with the real community and this is what guests will give you fives stars on TripAdvisor for — that night when they had dinner with the local family without a souvenir for sale in site.
Penelope: If you have this dream or ambition, don’t be put off, just do it, stick to it. The reward is definitely worth it.