Dream makers: Rosie’s scion, Tony Whitton

Driving down to Nadi to meet the proprietor of all those Rosie Holidays coaches I passed along the Coral Coast, I kept wondering whether Tony Whitton would be exactly how his high school mate, Fiji Plus publisher Julian Moti QC remembered him.

“You’ll find Tony a perfect gentleman. He’ll be dressed immaculately and speak passionately about the dreams he has inherited from his parents for the future of Fiji’s tourism industry. And, if he’s the same Tony I knew from third form in Natabua, he will treat you with meticulous care – just like his Mum.”

Just as my vehicle passed Sigatoka – an hour before we were to meet – Tony messaged: “We’ll have water. Do you want coffee or tea as well?”

I replied: “Tea, please.” Never before any interview had I been asked that question an hour before my arrival. Julian knew Tony very well.

That meticulous devotion to hospitality defines the Rosie Group, Fiji’s renowned travel and holiday business built by Tony’s illustrious parents, Roy and Rosie Whitton.

Now managed by Tony – the enterprise grew from humble beginnings 40 years ago to become a multi-million dollar conglomerate servicing 200,000 tourists annually.

The Rosie Group is the country’s largest inbound tourism operator. It also owns and operates two of the country’s premier island resorts, among its many portfolios.

Rosie’s journey

As I settled down in his office boardroom to enjoy my first sip of tea, Tony described the company’s incredible journey as a story with two interconnecting threads.

“The first story is the impact that tourism has had on my mother, and how through tourism a single mother was lifted out of poverty,” he explains.

“The second thread is our cause – and our cause is that tourism is an industry that has the power to lift every single Fijian out of poverty.”

Rosie was raised by her grandparents in Nadoi village in Rewa, until her father brought both her and her sister back to Suva where she began to make a life for herself working odd jobs.

“The Rosie Holidays’ story began in 1963,” reveals Tony.

“It portrays a single mother struggling to make ends meet in Suva working at a restaurant earning one shilling a day, 7 days a week – at a time when the prevailing economic depression made it very hard to find jobs.”

The gossip around the capital caught Rosie’s ear: something extraordinary was happening in Nadi where hundreds of people were now finding employment in a new industry. Tourism was relatively unknown and no one could imagine anything exciting happening in Nadi – perceived then as no more than a cowboy town.

Rosie was fascinated by the opportunities presented by the industry when “the big flying ships” would land at Nadi Airport – disembarking thousands of passengers eager to splash foreign currency enjoying themselves for the benefit of Fiji’s economy.

She found a job working for a tour company. At the airport one day, she met Captain Roy Whitton – a former Australian navy veteran working in Fiji as a manager for Qantas.

“They fell in love and dreamt together to start a tour company called Rosie Tours in 1974,” says Tony.

“That is when and how it all started.”

Their vision was to build an extraordinary tour company and they genuinely believed in tourism’s potential to lift Fijian people out of poverty.

Rosie threw herself into the business with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Many in the industry recall how meeting Rosie for the first time, they felt like being introduced to a queen – and she was indeed the undisputed queen of Fijian tourism and hospitality. She was gracious; made everyone feel special; and left people – who watched her greeting and serving her customers at the airport – simply awestruck.

The proud boast of the company in taking a “strong personal interest” in their customers was an art practiced to perfection by Rosie herself from the time of its birth.

While she was the heart and soul of the company, Roy was the one with ideas. He was constantly hatching business plans – the quintessential entrepreneur.

Their first operation was at the Dominion International Hotel in Nadi (before it became today’s Mercure). The Punja family owned 75%; and both Roy and Rosie jointly owned 25%. Rosie Tours started there as a small tour desk operation before they eventually acquired an office at Nadi Airport.

“I was growing up in the business, and I knew the business was tough,” Tony recalls. Roy soon left Dominion to work full time with Rosie. The two of them plus their drivers comprised the entire staff of Rosie Tours.

“There were some days that they did not make pay roll,” reveals Tony. As the drivers had become like their family, they would say “just pay us when you have the money.”

“We’ve never forgotten their understanding, patience and faith. We’ve also never forgotten where we’ve come from to reach where we are now.”

Most tourists arriving on planes already had packaged holidays pre-arranged by travel agents overseas. The company’s profitability required them to start targeting visitors travelling here without committed itineraries.

Rosie’s reputation for honesty, reliability and her distinct brand of Fijian hospitality didn’t take long to spread globally – by word of mouth – at a time when there was no internet, no website, Facebook or TripAdvisor.

Tourists on their way to Fiji were simply told: “when you get into the airport in Fiji, all you need to do is find a woman there named Rosie!”

While she looked after her visitors, Rosie didn’t neglect her staff.

“She adored her staff and looked after them like her own family and children. Even to this day, she keeps reminding me daily to be kind to customers and always take care of your staff.”

“Our prosperity has been based on that strong foundation of love, empathy and unity,” adds Tony.

The Rosie Group, today, is a tourism empire employing nearly 700 people.

Rosie’s contribution to the development of Fiji’s tourism industry was recognised, in 2017, with her award of the Order of Fiji.

In the presence of those assembled at Government House for the investiture ceremony, business tycoon Sir Jim Ah Koy remembered Rosie’s kindness:

“She used to work in a Chinese café back when I did not have a cent to my name. Whenever I turned up there hungry, she’d always feed me.”

Rosie responded, cheekily: “He used to eat and run away!”

The journey of Rosie’s own ascension and success, fueled by her determination to put her hospitality talents to better commercial use, parades as well the progress of our nation in embracing the challenges afforded by tourism’s transformative potential to rescue lives from destined poverty.

Under Tony’s stewardship, the Rosie Group’s corporate creed remains committed to that “greater cause”.

Tony’s horizon

Tony and the Rosie Group revolve their service and performance around their magical number of 11:

“Every year I talk to my staff, I remind them of our cause: our why? I tell them that for every 11 international visitors who arrive at Nadi Airport today to be served by Rosie’s, be encouraged that one full time job will have been created directly somewhere in Fiji and another two jobs indirectly. That three families will be able to put food on their table today because of what you are doing.”

That ethic is also demonstrated in Rosie Group’s bold decisions to venture into previously unexplored terrain.

Malolo Island Resort and Likuliku Lagoon Resort are visible proof of Tony’s transformative zeal at work.

Many of us will be astounded to discover they’re owned and operated – not by some international hotel chain – but by our very own, home-grown Fijian family company.

Under his parents’ tutelage, Tony has been able to master all the different facets of the tourism trade. His apprenticeship began while he was still at school.

Young Tony’s entrepreneurial drive profited from parental nudging – and nagging. He remembers how he decided to help supplement their family income by picking fruits from their farm in Vuda for sale to Air Terminal Services. He did that after returning home on his daily bus shuttle from Natabua High School.

He confesses to being lazy too – like many teenagers – and needing Rosie’s occasional lectures to maintain an even balance between study, work and play. Rosie prized finesse and kept on Tony’s toes to attain exacting standards.

“Mum would tell me … Listen you will not amount to anything if you can’t be good in the small things. You’ve got to be trustworthy in the small things. Quite frankly, you can’t even cut the fruit properly because you are lazy!”

Tony recalls Rosie reciting biblical verses to make her points: ‘Be trustworthy in the little things and you will be given more’ … if you can’t cut the fruit properly, how do you expect to be given more? If you can’t be disciplined enough to make your bed when you wake up, you will be not be disciplined enough for the bigger tasks later in the day. Those things stuck with me.”

Tony attended university in Australia where he enjoyed partying like most university students, but he managed to emerge from there wanting to do something better with his life.

It was in the small office which Rosie Tours had opened in Sydney in 1989 where Tony learnt the skills he has harnessed in transforming his family brand into a global business operation.

Though small in the company of package tour operators there, Rosie Tours had to distinguish themselves as Fiji’s local experts. Tony tasked himself to convince Australian travel agents:

“The bigger companies might be able sell all the world, but we sell only one destination – Fiji; and because we are a Fijian company we must be the best at it.”

After his return to Fiji in 1996, Tony had to gaze into the proverbial crystal ball to forecast the impact of the internet’s arrival on both their business and the tourism industry:

“We were worried that our international partners would start booking their hotels directly. Looking at the structure of our business at that time, we realised Rosie Tours was essentially a middleman. How could we protect our future survival, if they start booking direct? That is how we ended up with a resort division.”

Their first resort development was formerly known as Naitasi Island. The previous operation was beset with so many problems – and considered the “worst house in the best block.” They spent a fortune to revamp it to a premier 4-star resort, rebranded as Malolo Island in 1999.

The creation of Likuliku Lagoon Resort in 2007 exemplifies the Rosie Group’s pride of being distinctive in their distinction.

Tony cherishes his trusted relationship with resource owners for selection as Likuliku’s developer over leading international competitors.

Likuliku’s luxurious overwater bures – previously undreamt of in Fijian resort architecture – is just another feather in Tony’s cap and the result of him heeding his parents’ advice to “do something really well if you’re going to do anything at all.”

The Rosie Group’s established reputation as a pioneer extends beyond its Likuliku venture. The recent induction of Likuliku into the Fiji Excellence in Tourism Hall of Fame was “the icing on the cake” of the highly-lauded luxury resort.

“The lesson we’ve learnt from our success is: if you are going to do something, be extraordinary at it! We didn’t want to build just another basic resort or bures on the beach. What is our unique selling proposition? What is our point of difference?”

The Group’s inbound travel operator, Rosie Holidays, was also similarly inducted into the Hall of Fame after maintaining its award-winning performance, consistently, over a decade.

Tony’s exploration of new opportunities and into new territories turned the heads of many of his counterparts in the industry in this region. With his management team, he has spearheaded Fiji’s marketing and promotional efforts to put this country on the map of tourist destinations from the emerging markets of China, India and Taiwan.

Since 2015, Rosie Holidays began chartering flights from China to bring tourists from there directly to Fiji for holidays during the Chinese New Year season. Tony’s bold initiative paid dividends for the company, uplifted Fiji’s tourism profile in mainland China and boosted our national economy.

Fiji’s spectacular success in staging the largest international conference ever held here – the 52nd annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank – enlisted Rosie Holidays’ logistical support.

In July this year, Tony followed in his mother’s footsteps to Government House to be awarded his own justly-deserved Order of Fiji.

Their corporate achievements – from its journey under Rosie and Roy to the destination it’s currently travelling with Tony at the helm – qualify the Whittons as Fiji’s pioneers in a long list of unrivalled firsts in, of and for this nation’s tourism industry.

It underscores their belief and their cause in the transformative power of tourism.

“How lucky am I?” asks Tony, almost rhetorically. 

“I count my good fortune to be given the chance to build on what Mum and Dad started in 1974; and work every day with an amazing team of professionals from both the Rosie Group and Ahura Resorts who share my conviction that tourism is a force for good that can improve the social and economic well-being of every Fijian.”

Originally published in Fiji Plus Magazine.

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