Future Island: How Richard Bailey Built Marlon Brando's Vision into the World's Most Luxurious Eco Resort

Five years into an extraordinary mission, The Brando’s Richard Bailey offers a new vision of tourism and sustainable design.

Five years into an extraordinary mission, The Brando’s Richard Bailey offers a new vision of tourism and sustainable design.

Many of the world’s legendary hotels have great provenance, and there are few more storied than The Brando. Built on Marlon Brando’s French Polynesian atoll of Tetiaroa, the far-flung resort captivated travelers’ imaginations with a mix of turgid Hollywood lore and a string of notable first visits by the likes of the Obamas, David Geffen, and Leonardo DiCaprio when it opened, in 2014—10 years after the screen icon’s death.

While the exclusivity and the unparalleled splendor of this pristine playground in a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean were obvious lures, these luminaries were equally attracted to the serious research and innovation taking place there (avid conservationist DiCaprio visited to pick up some best practices for is own in-development eco resort and green-hotel projects he’s invested in).

Brando and Bailey, who met in 1999, spent years dreaming up the “world’s first post-carbon” resort, not only as a hotel for the ages or luxury escape, but as a model of how tourism could be a force for good. Out of their conversations, innovations in sustainable site development, water conservation and filtration, and selection of ecologically sound materials followed, leading to The Brando becoming the only resort in French Polynesia with a LEED Platinum Certification. From the creation of green technologies to the development of a lighter environmental footprint to the eradication of mosquitoes, The Brando has crafted local solutions which could help battle global health crises.

Here, the property’s acclaimed Sea Water Air Conditioning system cools with little carbon output. Here, food-digesting machines condense a normally six-month composting process into 24 hours, turning the resort’s organic waste into rich black soil that can sustain full kitchen gardens on these nutrient-poor coral islands. Here, the resort’s beekeepers send their robust queens to farms around the globe fighting against colony collapse. Yes, The Brando always offers guests exquisite experiences in a spectacular place, but its greatest contributions offer the world something far more valuable.

About to embark on a build of new residences on the island, Richard Bailey talked to Surface as he celebrates five years of great goals and lessons learned and at The Brando.

Light, design, and sustainable materials at work at The Brando. Resort beekeepers tend to their hives, preparing to send their queens to areas looking to fight colony collapse. (Photos courtesy of The Brando)

You’re celebrating The Brando’s five-year anniversary, which means that the innovations created for the resort have now been tested. How have your considerations regarding the elements of design and technology evolved in terms of their application?

Tropical design is all about striking the right compromise between the pros and cons of exposure to nature. For example, some restaurant areas worked great in nice weather but were a disaster when it rained. Also, we have vastly improved our solar storage, as battery technology has advanced. We improve along the way and, most importantly, we listen to our guests.

How do you continue to push the envelope of sustainability? What can the hospitality industry, and travelers, learn from the Brando?

If you build resorts, you’re really lucky to have an opportunity to build on an island like Tetiaroa. To have a greenfield, off-the-grid canvas to express yourself on without constraints and you can really do something new and fresh—break the mold. We believe in a business model where tourism and the environment are partners, not adversaries, where each feeds the other and they grow together.

The Brando’s backstory is so fascinating, it can often distract from what’s been achieved in Tetiaroa. How do you reconcile the stuff of Hollywood legend with the enormous amount of thought and planning that went into the 12-year build?

People don’t generally realize it, but Marlon Brando was one of the first champions of the environment. He had very specific ideas that were even further out there than my own. And it took a while for technology to catch up. He was very big on some of the sustainable features, carbon neutrality for example. We don’t use or want any fossil fuels on the island. This leads to a discussion about air conditioning. He would say “We have to have the air conditioning powered by the ocean. So how do we do that?” We had to have energy. And he said we could use the deep ocean water, which is very cold. We worked out a way to do that and created many other innovative technologies.

Tetiaroa Atoll with The Brando poking out of the trees. (Photo courtesy of The Brando)
Restaurant Les Mutinés, by Chef Guy Martin of Paris’ Le Grand Véfour, captures a bit island spirit thanks to its hull-like architecture. (Photo by Romeo Balancourt)

Where did you begin?

We thought of it as a puzzle, and we didn’t want to start until we had all the parts of the puzzle worked out. We set the bar very high, deciding it would be better to not do anything than to not have it exactly the way we want it. So, it took a lot of time. Quality was the most first thing, then the budget. Time had to fall by the wayside. It took eight years to conceive and another four to build. So that’s a long gestation for sure.

We cast a wide net with universities, experts in renewable energy, experts in biodiversity, and architects. As a result, we built a research facility as a sort of offshoot to mine all of the thinking that we did before building and implementation. Scientific research was the basis for the design, so we created a facility for it focused on conservation projects and the development of environmental tech. There’s a technology story, there’s a Brando story, and there’s a cultural story, and a history story. This island was the exclusive reserve of Tahitian kings for 1,000 years. We have ongoing archeological digs—there’s a whole dimension of historical stories that go along with this island.

Many islands on the planet are in peril because of tourism. How do you reconcile that as a hotelier who is also an environmentalist?

My thoughts? No single developer can be held accountable. Ideally you have developers working with governments and within the fabric of the community. That’s what we try to do. Balance comes from parties with diverse interests coming to some compromise. The real engine of change is the customer. If the beaches are not so nice, or the way the employees from the community are treated is less palatable to the customer, then you can’t attract people to the mission of sustainability.

(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) An entrance to the resort’s spa. (Photo courtesy of The Brando); Out in the resort’s organic kitchen garden, the soil for which comes from guest’s food waste. (Photo by Romeo Balancourt); Behind the scenes at The Brando, a unique air-conditioning system that uses sea water to keeps things cool. (Photo courtesy of The Brando)

Has The Brando created a paradigm of sustainability for hotels and resorts?

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim any kind of new paradigm, but I do believe that in the tourism world of tomorrow, sustainability is not something you will have to point out. It’s driven by design that makes sustainability disappear. So, it will be the new normal. The way we get to that place is to do it in such a way that people don’t have to care about it. They’re getting everything they want from a luxury experience and—oh, by the way—it’s absolutely sustainable. We’ve done the work via technology and design. There’s no sense of something you have to sacrifice or give up. Our goal is, if you make a decision to come here, the clock stops in terms of carbon contributions. If you care about that, great. If you don’t, you don’t have to worry about it.

What will The Brando’s legacy be?

We are not trying to change the world. But if some of what we are doing is possible on a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific, then surely it is possible in many other places on our planet. We hope for a new kind of tourism where the qualifier “sustainable” gradually disappears because it is no longer a distinguishing characteristic. Rather, it’s just something everybody does.

All Stories