Seychelles, Republic of: Interview with Georgia and Vincent Van Heyste

Georgia and Vincent Van Heyste

Director and General Manager (Skychef and Panosco Properties)

Georgia and Vincent Van Heyste

As a set of islands in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles competes with many other island nations across the globe, from South East Asia to the Caribbean, as well as with nearby countries such as the Maldives. Nevertheless, the Seychelles has managed to be positioned as one of the top tourism destinations worldwide. What competitive and comparative advantages set this country apart from its main competitors?

Vincent: Seychelles is famous the world over for its natural beauty, both on land and in the sea. There is no doubt that this is the country’s key attraction. At the same time, Seychelles is a very stable and democratic country, with a growing economy and a floating currency. It is also a place where life is peaceful and serene, allowing people to truly enjoy themselves while feeling safe. There are very few countries in the world that can offer all of the above. After all, Seychelles is a true paradise.

As we mentioned, we were impressed by the fact that you have ventured and been successful in different sectors, such as real state, hospitality and catering. Could you elaborate on what is on the table for you at the moment?

Georgia: With Panosco Properties, our real estate company, the main project at the moment is Pangia Beach, a high-end residential development consisting of 33 luxury beach apartments and a private marina. The first stage of this award-winning project will be ready in September 2017, and the entire project is scheduled to be completed by mid-2018. Of course we do have other real estate projects in the pipeline, but we are very much focused on Pangia Beach at the moment.

As to our other business, Skychef Servair, we are very excited about our latest product launch, which is called Easy Meal. After six months of testing and refining ingredients, we recently launched a collection of convenient, fresh and delicious ready-made meals that are easy to reheat at home or in the office. It is a brand-new concept that did not exist in Seychelles. We brought this product to the market to respond to the changing lifestyle habits of the Seychellois.

Vincent: Although the primary focus was making life easier for the local Seychellois residents, Easy Meal is also very much appreciated by tourists, especially those staying in self-catering apartments. I believe the Creole-inspired Easy Meal dishes appeal to tourists who are looking for a meal that they can easily prepare where they are staying – no one wants to cook every night of their holiday– while at the same time allowing them to enjoy delicious local flavours.

Going into detail about Panosco and Pangia Beach; it is a business that entails a family legacy that is now becoming a reality. How has the country’s economic and political situation played a part in the decision to launch this development now?

Vincent: With Pangia Beach, our focus is on selling apartments to non-residents, although it has to be said that also several Seychellois people have already bought.  As the majority of the project will end up being sold to foreigners, a steady influx of tourists is critical for us. Tourist activity has increased by 10% per year over the last five years, so we are blessed with a growing pool of potential buyers to tap from.

Last year, Seychelles received over 300.000 tourists and we only have 33 apartments to sell. From our viewpoint, we only need a few of these visitors to fall in love with the country and desire to own a place in this tropical paradise.

The increasing number of tourists and people looking to purchase real estate in Seychelles has provided a positive impact on value appreciation of property in recent years. It’s important to understand that real estate and land, of which 50% is protected, are scarce assets in Seychelles, and by default, prices tend to increase rather than decrease. Obviously, as in all economic sectors, there are cycles.  I’m sure that if the world economy wasn't doing well, Seychelles would also be impacted. However, to date, Seychelles has continued to surpass everyone’s expectations with its 10% annual growth in tourism, making it a land full of business opportunities. I’m sure you would agree that most countries would sign up for that kind of economic progress.

Pangia Beach received a 5-star award for Best Residential Development in Seychelles at the 2015 International Property Award summit for Africa & Arabia. How would you say you differentiate yourselves from other residential developments in Seychelles?

Georgia: I firmly believe that our pursuit of perfection and the relentless focus on attention to detail sets Pangia Beach apart. Being an interior designer with experience in London at Candy & Candy, and in New York at Kondylis Design, my aim has always been to bring a level of luxury and style to our beach apartments that isn’t readily available in Seychelles. We wanted the apartments to be contemporary, while still having that island-style feeling that goes with living by the sea. After all, Pangia Beach, with its convenient location and private marina, will act as the new gateway to island life.

In order to realize this vision, we chose to work with some of the best professionals in the industry, from the architectural firm, SAOTA, to our contractor, Laxmanbhai. In addition, each apartment, with its light colour scheme and latest energy-efficient technologies, uses carefully chosen materials and finishes from high-end European suppliers.

Finally, we don’t consider ourselves to be typical developers. Given the fact that this is a legacy project and we will be living there ourselves, we wanted to build a development that stands the test of time and a place where people will enjoy being our neighbours.

How are you planning to promote this special concept in Seychelles and abroad?

Vincent: The majority of our marketing is local and targeted at engaging people who are visiting Seychelles. We also work together with real estate agents in South Africa, Abu Dhabi and Europe, but quite honestly, those relationships have only resulted in a small percentage of our sales.

As almost everyone who comes to Seychelles arrives by plane, we advertise in the airline magazines, as well as on video screens and billboards in the airport. In addition, we have a large billboard on site and are active on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram.

However, the best marketing is word of mouth. As Pangia Beach is a unique project in Seychelles, we are fortunate that a lot of locals are recommending our development when they speak to foreigners. In the end, we are not really comparable to anything else here, as we are bringing something to Seychelles that has never been seen before. Add to that Georgia’s design aesthetic and her attention to detail, and I think you will be hard-pressed to find beach apartments as luxurious and well-priced as Pangia Beach in Seychelles.

As for the longstanding catering brand of Skychef Servair: How has it evolved over time? What would you say is the current vision and aim?

Georgia: It is actually a wonderful story. My father came to Seychelles before the airport even opened in 1971 and started an airline catering business from a little house off the runway, which was aptly called Paradiso. The business has grown from strength to strength ever since.

When Vincent and I moved to Seychelles three years ago, one of my first projects was to create a new snack bar within the international departures lounge, which we called Café Paradiso, a fitting name to commemorate where it all started. In April 2016, we also opened the Skychef Shop, which offers local food at reasonable prices. And of course, as mentioned before, we recently launched Easy Meal.

We are currently working on two more cafés, one in town and one at the airport. These are expected to be ready in 2018.

Finally, I think it’s also important to mention our continuous focus on staff welfare. I am a firm believer that if you treat your staff well, the business will flourish.  As such, I have done a lot for the Skychef staff since returning to Seychelles. For example, on their birthday we give each employee a cake and personalized card. We also give Labour Day presents, and everyone benefits from substantial discounts on their food purchases at Skychef. In addition, I started a Staff Welfare Committee, which organizes outings for the staff and their families, including Easter celebrations, Christmas parties and sporting events.

After having met with members of the government and trading entities, we have found that there is a common objective to reduce obesity through the encouraging of healthier eating habits but also through the provision and promotion of quality food and products. How does Skychef take part through its products in this national project?

Georgia: Healthier eating habits start by knowing the ingredients that a meal contains. As such, we have made sure that the nutritional values of each Easy Meal recipe are clearly labeled on each package. It’s also important to note that there are no preservatives in Easy Meal, as they are cooked fresh daily and have a shelf life of three days. In the future, we plan on creating alternative versions of Easy Meal that address some many nutritional concerns, such as low-sugar or low-sodium meals. We are even in discussion with the Ministry of Health about offering similar healthy meals for the hospital. Finally, we launched a series of fresh salads last year, which have quickly become one of our best selling items, with people traveling across from Mahé to buy them.

Having gathered experience and being successful abroad, why do you see Seychelles as a place to live, work and invest?

Georgia: I have a very personal reason for coming back to Seychelles: I was born and grew up here. I had a wonderful childhood in Seychelles. I vividly remember running around barefoot, going on picnics, hikes and boat trips with friends. It was such a carefree upbringing. We wanted to give our children the opportunity to experience a similar type of childhood.

From a business perspective, moving to Seychelles allowed us to fulfill my father’s dream of building a luxury development with marina, as well as assist in the development of Skychef. We are proud to say that our businesses have grown tremendously in the last 3 years and there are still a lot of projects in front of us.

Vincent: I totally agree, and I believe this question brings us full circle back to our original statement that Seychelles is a land full of opportunities. As more and more Seychellois travel abroad, they are being exposed to new concepts and ideas, which subsequently get introduced here. In fact, there are still a lot of new concepts that you can bring to Seychelles: new real estate ideas, new food ideas, and plenty of other exciting products and services that exist elsewhere, but are outside of our core scope. In that sense, it is true that in Seychelles, as a businessperson, you can still achieve a lot of growth notwithstanding the fact that it is not the biggest market.

So yes, we are very happy that we came to Seychelles. We have never regretted the moment we left London three years ago. In fact, we often talk about the fact that having made this move was actually the right thing for us to do as a family. Georgia and I have always been very close, but working together has brought us even closer. Just like this interview, we do everything together. This is how our relationship has always been, but now to work together as well is fulfilling in many ways.