Ali Naafiz


Jonas Amstad on enhancing, enriching guest experience at LUX* South Ari Atoll

MALDIVES Diana and Bodgana at Adaaran Vadhoo in Male atoll, DOUBLE TAP IF YOU LOVE, COMMENT WITH LOVE PHOTO BY Asad

As a curious young boy of just seven years old, Jonas Amstad had his first stint in the service industry. A chance to work at his godfather’s restaurant at such a young age opened his eyes to the world of hospitality. And he has never looked back!

In his nearly 40-year long career, Amstad has landed jobs in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, China, the islands of the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, and through a succession of senior hotel roles. Fluent in English, French, German and Russian, the Swiss-born hospitality professional is a true citizen of the world, and has worked in all aspects of hotel management, ranging from food and beverage to operations. He has also developed an exceptional understanding of the needs, tastes and expectations of travellers from a multitude of cultural backgrounds.

It is against this background that LUX* Resorts and Hotels in September appointed Amstad to lead the Mauritius based hotel group’s resort in the Maldives, the LUX* South Ari Atoll.

At LUX* South Ari Atoll, Amstad is responsible for ensuring that the resort stays ahead of the curve, while enhancing and enriching the guest experience that has earned it a loyal following and a global reputation for excellence. His challenge also includes steering the award-winning resort on its mission to bring the LUX* signature ‘lighter, brighter’ holiday experience to a diverse international clientele.

As Amstad returns to the Maldives as the General Manager of LUX* South Ari Atoll, Maldives Insider speaks to him about his new posting and his take on the rapid expansion in the Maldives tourism industry.

Maldives Insider: What were your earliest experiences in the industry?

Jonas Amstad: I had my first encounter with the service industry when I was seven years old, in the restaurant of my godfather. I later joined an apprenticeship programme as a cook. From there, I further developed my career as a chef, and later on in different positions in F&B and operations management until I became a GM. I’ve worked in the industry for nearly 40 years. This is my 27th year in a foreign country and my second time in the Maldives.

MI: What was your first experience in the Maldives?

JA: I’ve been in the Maldives before on holiday for about three times. I know what the Maldives looked like and what it has to offer to tourists. That’s probably one of the reasons I accepted my first job in the Maldives.

My first time was at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa in 2015. It was a different experience compared to many of the other locations I’ve worked at. I don’t think there’s any other place in the world where you work with people from so many different nationalities. On this island alone, we’ve over 42 different nationalities. It has a lot of challenges, but it also comes with a lot of excitement because you get to experience different cultures. That was and still is quite interesting to me. I always believe that the more different nationalities you’ve around you, the better you become because everybody has to find themselves at a common ground in terms of respect and acceptance.

I was at Shangri-La’s Villingili for a shorter period than that was agreed because I was promoted and asked to go to China. Since it was the Shangri-La hotel in the hometown of the group owner, it was the most important property in the portfolio.

LUX* South Ari Atoll. PHOTO/ LUX*

MI: What made you join LUX*?

JA: Since I knew the Maldives, I was certainly excited to come back. The nice weather, the fresh air and the beautiful surroundings compared to China were an easy catch. The older you get, the more you appreciate the clean air and other benefits that you get to enjoy here in the Maldives.

MI: What makes LUX* different from other brands you have worked with?

JA: It’s not so stiff like many other big brands where the framework is a bit more strict in terms of dress code, the target market and so on. Here it’s more relaxed, more guest oriented, and more personalised in terms of service and how we approach the guests. I’d say it’s more of a family connection between employees and guests. I don’t think there’s any other resort in the Maldives where you see so many names of employees mentioned in guest reviews. It’s a remarkable achievement. That proves that there’s a very close relationship between guests and employees.

Hospitality industry has changed a lot over the past few years. It’s no longer about just providing accommodation or facilities. Guests now look for adventurous holidays, educational holidays, interactive holidays, active holidays and personalised holidays. They want to have a good relationship with the employees. And that’s what LUX* South Ari Atoll offers.

An expert-led workshop held at LUX* South Ari Atoll. PHOTO/ LUX*

MI: How would you lead your team in adapting to the changing travel trends?

JA: I think we’ve already adapted to the changes. Looking at where we’re standing, I think we’re going in the right direction. But we need to keep on adapting. We’ve to keep listening to the guests because at the end of the day I’m not running the hotel for my own purposes. I’ve to run the hotel in the way the guests like it.

MI: How do you see the rapid expansion in the Maldives tourism industry?

JA: It’s a good thing that the industry is growing. We’re all putting our hopes in other investments and infrastructure. The new airport will help all of us in the industry. The Maldives is a unique location that has a lot to offer in terms of scenery and environment. It’s a dream destination. The increased accessibility will help grow the industry.

Tourism is the only industry the Maldives really has and we need to be very careful with the resources we have. I believe we, as owners and operators of resorts, along with the government should focus on developing infrastructure and protect the environment. There are a lot of media reports that say that the Maldives will be underwater in so and so years. I don’t believe that; I think the Maldives will be here in the next 100 years or even more. But we need to take care of the environment, the marine life and the coral gardens.

MI: In light of the new developments that are taking place, there are concerns of an oversupply. How do you think it will impact the Maldives as a destination?

JA: If you’re talking about the five-star segment, there’s an oversupply at the moment. But once the airport expansion is complete and is fully operational, the infrastructure will allow the numbers to increase and offset the oversupply.

The airport will also make it more accessible to more markets such as three- and four-star markets whose guests might want to stay for only three or four nights on a lower budget. It’s a good thing that the Maldives is becoming more accessible to other markets because not everybody can afford a five-star hotel. Middle class people from other markets want to see the beauty of the Maldives as well. It’d be a shame to not allow them just because five-star hotels want to protect their marketshare. At the end of the day, it’s up to the guests to decide if they want to pay 200 dollars a night or 1,000 dollars a night for their holiday.

Boosting accessibility will also increase the repeat guest segment. For instance, a guest might want to pay 200 dollars on their first trip to the Maldives. Then get a new job and have more money, so they choose a four-star hotel on their next visit. And when then they get older, they come here and choose a five-star hotel.

I don’t see it as a threat. I see it as an opportunity. I think the market will regulate itself. We only need to ensure that we’ve the infrastructure to bring in more people.

Jonas distributes reusable water bottles to team members, as part of a new push by the resort against ocean plastic. PHOTO/ LUX*

MI: How do you see the increasing competition?

JA: Competition is growing everywhere and it’s a good thing. It gives the opportunity for guests to choose between different levels of hospitality. It’s like in nature; the strongest will survive and the weakest will vanish. It’s a natural phenomenon and we’ve to embrace it in the industry. I think if we continue to invest in infrastructure, in people and in our way of promoting ourselves, we’ll survive.

MI: In terms of destination marketing, do you think enough is being done?

We need to do more. I was in Japan and South Korea just a few months back. Travel agents and tour operators tell us that marketing is currently done by individual hotels. More should be done by the government. Otherwise, it won’t make a difference even if the government built a fantastic airport and allowed Airbus A-380s to land. You can have the facilities to bring in more customers, but if they don’t know about the destination, they won’t be interested in coming here.

MI: What should be done differently to promote the Maldives as a destination?

JA: Local Maldivians need to go out there, to other destinations to promote their country. Who can promote their own country better than their own citizens? When people see a Maldivian promoting his or her country, everyone will see that it’s coming from the heart. It might take a bit of time for these efforts to yield results, but I’m sure the return will be higher.

MI: What’s next for LUX* South Ari Atoll? Are there any initiatives you would be implementing soon?

JA: I’ve a lot of ideas in my mind, probably too many. But more than anything, I believe that we’ve to take care of take care of our environment because that’s the only reason guests come here. They come here to see the beautiful beaches, the magnificent marine life and coral gardens.

So, at LUX* South Ari Atoll, we’re very conscious of what goes in the sea. We’ve also started regenerating our reef by coral planting. We’ll hopefully begin breeding clownfish and other marine life. In the future, we’ll also invest in alternative energy such as solar and wind. I strongly believe that certain monitoring measurements should also be incorporated and implemented in our operation.

Note: This interview originally appeared in the third issue of our print edition, Maldives Insider Travel & Tourism. A digital copy can be viewed on Issuu

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Through transformation, Kurumba Maldives’ young Operations Manager Ali Farooq sets the bar high

MALDIVES Diana and Bodgana at Adaaran Vadhoo in Male atoll, DOUBLE TAP IF YOU LOVE, COMMENT WITH LOVE PHOTO BY Asad

Like many young Maldivians, Ali Farooq thought he would end up doing a desk job like an accountant after graduating from high school. But while studying for A-Levels in capital Male, he met a couple of friends working in resorts. What they told him completely changed his life!

Ali realised that he had been preparing himself for the wrong profession; that no other industry in the Maldives had a brighter future than hospitality. And so, after A-Levels, he pursued a course from Hotel School (now Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies of The Maldives National University), and joined Kurumba Maldives in 2001 as a waiter under a six-month internship programme.

Since then, it has been one achievement after the other for this young man in his early 30s. Ali has climbed up the ranks to become the Operations Manager — the second-in-command — at Kurumba Maldives. He plays a key role in leading the constant evolution of the first resort to open in the island nation.

Maldives Insider speaks to Ali about his career, the transformation of Kurumba and the opportunities for locals in the Maldives tourism industry.

Aerial view of Kurumba Maldives. PHOTO/ KURUMBA

Maldives Insider: How would you describe your first few years in the industry?

Ali Farooq: When I joined Kurumba as a full-time waiter after my six-month internship, it was gearing up for a complete reconstruction. Employees were given two options; to stay and help with the project or leave and come back after the relaunch. Those of us who stayed were tasked with support services such as managing the inventory. I was 18 years at the time and in the mood to enjoy life. With no guests in the island, it was more of a picnic than a job. We had so much of a good time that sometimes I wished the project had gone on a little longer.

Kurumba transformed from Kurumba Village to Kurumba Maldives, targeting the high-end clientele. The resort offered the best accommodation options available in the Maldives at the time and introduced butler service in all premium rooms. I was amongst the first four butlers trained by a German expert. It was very complex, but I learned a lot from it. It opened my eyes to the service industry. After the training, I became the first butler in the Universal Group.

The Vihamanaa international buffet restaurant at Kurumba Maldives. PHOTO/ KURUMBA

MI: What were your experiences as a butler?

AF: From 2004 to 2006 were the golden years of Kurumba, as competition was basically non-existent. It allowed us to charge premium rates and butler service was a major component of it.

I had the chance to serve several high-profile personalities such as US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, then Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and many others. You don’t even believe it yourself when it happens; a nobody from a small country in the Indian Ocean gets the chance to meet and interact with the most powerful people in the world!

I was earning so much as well — sometimes more than even the General Manager — that I thought I’d never take up another job.

MI: How did your career take a turn towards food and beverage?

AF: After 2005, a lot of new resorts opened up across the Maldives, including private islands in some remote locations. Demand for premium rooms in Kurumba started dropping, and butlers were sometimes left with no work. I realised that it was time for me to move on.

At the time, Kurumba offered me the chance to enter into restaurant operations. I took up the task, and within six months I was promoted to the post of Assistant Restaurant Manager. From there, I went onto become Bar and Restaurant Manager. I was in restaurant operations until I was promoted to the post of Assistant Food and Beverage Manager in 2014. After two years in that position, I was appointed to the post of Food and Beverage Manager.

Now, after being promoted to the post of Operations Manager from the Food and Beverage Manager position, I have an added responsibility to look after the overall operations of the resort. I serve in a supportive role to the General Manager.

The Thila contemporary restaurant and grill at Kurumba Maldives. PHOTO/ KURUMBA

MI: How has Kurumba transformed over the past 40 years, especially during your career?

AF: When I first joined, it was very basic. After the relaunch in 2004, it became a completely new product. In 2014, we carried out a major project to establish our signature Thila restaurant and to revamp our main restaurant. We’ve also established a new Japanese restaurant and reviewed the concept of all of our speciality restaurants.

I think Kurumba does maintenance and upgrading better than any other property in the Maldives. Every year, something new comes up, be it a new villa category or a new restaurant. We do it because we understand the importance of implementing new and creative ideas, especially in a competitive market such as ours. This constant evolution has become one of our strengths.

We keep a close eye on the latest happenings and trends in the industry. Based on our findings, we keep on changing the interior of our rooms, and keep our food and beverage options up-to-date. But as the first resort in the Maldives, we’ve several traditional service cultures that we follow. So, whatever change we bring about, we make sure that Kurumba’s uniqueness and its traditional values are kept intact.

MI: With the rapid expansion of the tourism industry, how has Kurumba maintained its position as a leading resort in the Maldives?

AF: I think we’re doing very well. Over the past 40 plus years, we’ve established service standards that are on par or sometimes even exceed those of reputed international hotel chains. Whoever comes in to head the resort has a responsibility to maintain those high standards. We’ve been very fortunate to have that kind of leaders with us.

Our achievements can be seen in the number of awards we’ve won, including several prestigious titles at the World Travel Awards, World Luxury Hotel Awards, World Luxury Restaurant Awards and Maldives Travel Awards. Our reputation on online travel websites such as TripAdvisor are excellent.

The Hamakaze teppanyaki restaurant at Kurumba Maldives. PHOTO/ KURUMBA

MI: There are concerns that the industry does not provide enough opportunities for locals to reach key positions. What do you think?

AF: I’m totally against that claim. There are many opportunities, but we’ve a hard time finding competent locals to fill up those positions. We get 50-100 applications for every job posting, but only a few them come with even the basic mindset necessary for a career in hospitality. Even those that do travel and tourism as a subject for O-Levels and A-Levels want to work only in managerial positions. But this is an altogether different industry. Say for example, a doctor has to start from the bottom before specialising in the field they’re interested in. Likewise, hospitality professionals can only start at the bottom and climb up the ladder. It’s a journey, which will surely pay off.

We try to develop young talent, but high school graduates aren’t ready to work in this industry. Starting from primary school years, students should be given career guidance. What happens now is that students who finish O-Levels and A-Levels aren’t sure which career path they want to follow. This poses several challenges because attitude is key in hospitality. Anyone who has the right attitude can be groomed for whatever job in this industry.

There’s also a problem with the general attitude and lifestyle of our youth. Most of them want to be funky; have long hair, untrimmed beard and unclipped nails. They want to go to Male every night after work, sleep in during the weekend and so on. But like every other service industry, hospitality too has certain minimum standards that can’t be compromised.

MI: What should be done to encourage more and more young people to join the hospitality industry?

AF: A great deal of it involves creating public awareness and changing the mindset of the public in general. You might have to be away from your family for a little while, but you save up 100 percent of your salary and allowances for your family. The resort looks after your accommodation, food and everything. But some of our young people prefer to take a job in Male that pays just MVR3,000-4,000 than going to a resort for a job that pays over MVR10,000 as basic salary.

On the other hand, we’re also seeing some positive changes as well. More and more young people understand the importance of tourism for the Maldives, and are keen to explore a career in hospitality. If the right push can be applied through our education system, we will have a much brighter future where the industry will be dominated by locals.

The recently opened King Thai restaurant at Kurumba Maldives. PHOTO/ KURUMBA

MI: What are your biggest achievements?

AF: I’m still in my early 30s, and look where I’m today! In the past 15-16 years, I believe I’ve been able to climb a bit higher than I should in my professional career. I’ve achieved every single goal that I set my eyes on.

My involvement in the transformation of Kurumba is also a personal achievement to me. I started my career here. I also started my life here; I met my life partner here and we stayed here for almost two years until she got pregnant and moved to Male. So, it’s special for me in more than one way.

MI: What is the next step in your career?

AF: I’ve always dreamed of becoming a general manager one day. I think I can reach that level, and I’m surely working towards that goal.

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Sonu Shivdasani: the ‘dream maker’ redefining luxury

On the Dhoni

It was 1986, and a 21-year-old Sonu Shivdasani was reading for an MA in English Literature at Oxford University when he met his future wife Eva Malmström. After their initial encounter, the Swedish fashion model introduced her British Indian partner to a patch of paradise in the Indian Ocean that she had visited a few years back on a photo shoot. She told him of the breath-taking natural beauty of the islands. She said they had to go there someday.

A year later, the couple arrived in Maldives for winter holidays. They stayed at Nakatchafushi (now Huvafen Fushi Maldives). Like Eva, Sonu was instantly drawn to the natural beauty of the Maldives.

“I think we had lived here in a past life. It was definitely a strong affinity to being in the Maldives. We loved the geography,” Sonu recalls his first impressions of the Maldives.

Sonu and Eva. PHOTO/ SONEVA

A few years later, Sonu and Eva returned to the Maldives, this time staying at Cocoa Island (now COMO Cocoa Island), which was then operated by German photographer Erik Klemm. But the standards of hospitality offered by the handful of resorts operating at the time were a major turn-off. Coral walls, white tiled floors, plastic chairs, neon lights, salt water in the toilet and shower, and tinned fruits and vegetables didn’t appeal Sonu, son of a well-known Indian merchant and banker.

That’s when it occurred to him, why not lease an island and build a house here?

Selling the unsellable

In 1988, Sonu approached the government, but was told that an island could only be leased for tourism. It wasn’t something he had thought of. He had no knowledge and experience of building and running a hotel.

But Sonu took on the challenge. When the government began auctioning off islands in Ari Atoll in the early 1990s, Sonu bid for Athuruga, Thudufushi and Angaga – now three very successful resort islands. But the bids failed largely because Sonu didn’t have a bed contract with a tour operator.

“Those days Maldivian tourism was run by German and Italian tour operators. They went to a local who was farming coconuts and said, ‘Will you build a resort for us? We will give a 10-year contract, all-inclusive, a very low fixed price and a three-year deposit to finance the development’,” he explains.

“The government wanted to see a tour operator bed contract, but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to create something luxurious, and we couldn’t work with just one operator, especially at those low rates. We put very nice bids together. We also offered much more lease rental, but fewer number of rooms. But we failed.”

Sonu speaks to Maldives Insider. PHOTO/ IBRAHIM ASAD

Then Sonu had a stroke of luck. He was introduced to an uninhabited island in Baa atoll that had been abandoned after a failed attempt by local businessman Ahmed Jaleel to operate a resort. After Jaleel offloaded the island, it had passed onto various developers. But no one wanted to develop and run it. Everyone thought the island was, as Sonu put it, jinxed!

Even so, Sonu acquired the lease on the island from Veyne Reed, Chairman of Australian travel company Treasure Island Enterprise. And with their family money, Sonu and Eva started building their dream house on the deserted island of Kunfunadhoo.

But to keep construction going and to complete the resort, they needed funds. They turned to local banks, but it proved to be a difficult task.

“The local banks didn’t believe in luxury tourism. We showed them our numbers; we were projecting an average net rate of 200 dollars per night. We went to the state bank [State Bank of India], and they said it was impossible. Even Kurumba, which was the best resort at the time, was doing 100 dollars per night. They didn’t understand the concept at all,” Sonu shares the initial frustrations he had to deal with.

Sonu was once again lucky. He discovered that the Thai government was mandating its banks to lend abroad. And so, he seized the opportunity and approached a Thai bank. Sonu’s proposal was amongst 20 loans – and the most successful of all – given out at the time by the bank’s newly formed division for international lending.

But there was a catch!

“They said, you know nothing about hotels. So, you need a hotel company to manage your hotel,” Sonu says.

He began looking around for a suitable management company. He wrote to legendary South African hotelier Sol Kerzner, who was running the Le Saint Géran hotel in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, as well as Regent Hotels Group, Four Seasons and Taj Hotels. But they – all of them would later come to open luxury resorts in the Maldives – then believed that the Maldives lacked the potential to be a luxury destination. Hilton and Sheraton expressed interest, but Sonu and Eva felt that both the corporate chains were completely opposite of what they had in mind.

Finally, Sonu had the opportunity to take an equity stake in a small hotel management company based in Thailand. It would later become known as Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.

Turning around a business

After resolving the issue of funds and management, Sonu now had to take care of the make or break challenge of guest transfer. Jaleel’s resort operation on Kunfunadhoo in the 1970s failed because bad weather often made it impossible for dhonis to travel. Guests from Europe, who took nine-hour flights to reach the Maldives, had to spend four days from their week-long packaged holiday in Male. Transfer issues forced Jaleel’s successors to abandon their plans as well.

Resolving transfer issues with helicopters was one of the main reasons behind the initial success of Soneva Fushi.

Sonu realised that the only way to resolve the issue was to transport guests by air. Since there was no domestic airport anywhere close to the island, he turned to Hummingbird Helicopters, which was about to close its business after about two years in operation. Their use of western-built helicopters with limited seating capacity and high rates didn’t appeal guests who had paid just 500 pounds for a one-week holiday, including international flights.

“We decided to take over the business. That was the time when communism collapsed all around the world. So, we went to Bulgaria and hired four helicopters from the Bulgarian state helicopter agency. The western helicopters went and these Russian helicopters came instead. They were better; they had 24 seats and a more solid build. They could carry 50 percent more people, were more suited to an environment like the Maldives and operating costs were dramatically lower,” Sonu says about the helicopter business, which he sold to his brother in 1997.

“From being impossible to transfer packaged tourists, we now could and make a profit. The rates dropped from USD 250 to USD 140 for a return trip. It was almost cheaper than going by boat.”

Challenging status quo

With everything in place, Sonu and Eva finished building their island home and opened it to visitors in 1995. Soneva Fushi became the first ‘castaway’ resort in the Maldives, pioneering a trend for back-to-nature luxury holidays – an experience Sonu calls ‘intelligent luxury’. The couple’s intensely personal vision of a locally crafted villa and environmentally responsible lifestyle challenged the long-held view of what luxury is.

“Luxury is a word that’s so often misused and misrepresented. When it comes to luxury, people often talk about marbles or golden gates and chandeliers. But luxury is not about objects. It’s a concept; a philosophy. Luxury is all about that which is rare, that which you don’t get every day, that which is new but is still true. It’s got to strike a chord in your heart,” Sonu explains.

For Sonu, luxury is packing for one’s own self; snorkelling gear, books and videos instead of suitcases full of suites, ties and dinner jackets to impress those they meet during their stay. It’s being able to walk barefoot, taking a shower and seeing the full moon, looking at the stars with the largest telescope in the Indian Ocean, watching a movie at Cinema Paradiso where the stars are in the sky as much as they are on the screen, eating a fresh salad from the garden, or the restaurant being just a natural sandbank.

“Those are things however wealthy you are, you can’t do or get in an urban environment. That’s what becomes luxury,” he says.

A Private Reserve at Soneva Fushi. PHOTO/ SONEVA

With its “no news, no shoes” slogan and authentic experiences that disconnect guests from the noisy world out there and reconnect them with nature, Soneva Fushi became an instant hit. It sent shockwaves through the hospitality industry, and kick-started a wave of new developments that transformed the Maldives from a three-star diving destination to the ultra-luxury island paradise that it is today. And Sonu, from being called “stupid” even by established local developers, became a visionary.

“We spoke to a lot of local developers who were involved in mass market offerings and they all thought our concept wouldn’t work. But now they too have upscale offerings. I think it’s kind of a vindication that those who thought it was a joke are now doing luxury developments,” Sonu says.

“I think people build hotels they want to be in and live in themselves. We didn’t come from the hotel industry. So, we were able to think from a consumer’s perspective, not from the operator’s perspective. Eva and I loved being on the water, we loved being on boats. We loved the fact that when you’re on a boat, you don’t wear shoes. It was something that really appealed to us; creating a luxury experience where there’s a lot of sand and a much more casual environment where people don’t have to dress up.”

The Glass Studio at Soneva Fushi. PHOTO/ SONEVA

Sonu didn’t just revolutionise Maldives tourism, but he also set an example of how it should be done. Soneva established a blueprint for barefoot luxury holidays around the world, with several firsts to its name: Maldives’ first integrated waste management centre, first Art and Glass Studio, and first to introduce a two percent carbon levy to offset carbon emissions. With buildings made from ethically-sourced highest quality sustainable materials, home-grown produce used in the kitchens, and comprehensive waste management and recycling programmes, Sonu and Eva has since amassed two decades of knowledge and experience in coining the concepts of SLOW LIFE, which recognises the ability for luxury holidaymaking and care for the environment to co-exist with perfect ease.

“Preserving the environment is an ongoing challenge, and I think we need to be very careful about that. The Maldives and its tourism industry exists because of the natural environment. If the corals don’t stay alive, the islands will eventually sink even if the sea level doesn’t rise. That’s what keeps the destination afloat, quite literally,” Sonu explains.

“It’s a very fragile environment and people are coming for that; for the diving, corals and natural beauty. If you’ve too many tourists, that will be a challenge. There’s certainly a carrying capacity in the Maldives, and I think it’s not more than four to five million tourists a year.”

A sandbank picnic experience offered by Soneva Fushi. PHOTO/ SONEVA

Making his mark

Following the success of Soneva Fushi, Sonu began receiving proposals from developers and owners from the world over to manage their hotels and resorts. And just like that, Six Senses – a company formed just to manage Sonu’s own resort – evolved into a multi-million-dollar global hotel empire, which at its peak had 26 resorts and 41 spas across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. A more economical brand, Evason was also launched to complement Six Senses.

In between the exponential global growth and perfecting the experiences at Soneva Fushi, Sonu developed Soneva Gili in the Male atoll as a transit point for guests arriving in the night. Instead of staying in Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru or the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa – the only two luxury resorts in Male atoll at the time – Asian guests with night flights could stay at Soneva Gili before taking out a seaplane to Soneva Fushi the following morning. Soneva brand itself also expanded beyond the shores of the Maldives with the opening of the spectacular Soneva Kiri on the unspoilt Thai island of Koh Kood in 2009.

But in 2012, Six Senses and Evason were sold to US-based Pegasus Capital for USD 175 million. Soneva Gili (now called Gili Lankanfushi, and managed by Singapore based HPL Hotels and Resorts) was also offloaded after the opening of a domestic airport in Baa atoll opened access to night flights and Male atoll became too crowded with a plethora of new developments.

“We wanted to be both the owner and operator of our hotels,” Sonu says.

“When you’re a hotel management company, you’re spending a lot of your energy and time on establishing standards, making sure the next property is not worse than the previous one rather than seeing whether you can improve on it. I think that’s a big challenge because a lot of hospitality is now very institutional. Fewer and fewer companies own more and more brands, and they’re growing through managing other people’s hotels. So, a lot of their time is spent on manging compromises between their brand and the owners.”

Returning to roots

Now focused on the Soneva Group, with its “One Owner, One Operator, One Philosophy, One Brand” strategy, Sonu no longer has to spend all his time at hotel conferences, and meeting investors and developers. This allows him to be creative; to introduce fresh concepts as well as new evolutions to what he is already doing.

Aerial view of Soneva Jani, the newest property of Soneva. PHOTO/ SONEVA

With his newfound freedom, Sonu along with his wife Eva, who serves as the Creative Director of Soneva, is back shaking up the hospitality industry. Since the sale of their management companies, they have launched Soneva in Aqua, a luxury cruise, and Soneva Jani in the northern Noonu atoll, a collection of overwater villas situated in a large lagoon and encircled by five islands. Two more concepts that “don’t exist in the Maldives today” will be introduced over the next three years to complement the jungle and beach experience of Soneva Fushi, and the lagoon experience of Soneva Jani. Next is taking the company public and expanding the philosophies of SLOWLIFE and ‘intelligent luxury’ they have perfected in remote locations to an urban environment like London.

“The idea of continuously improving and being creative, adding value and helping people – all these things keep me going. I can never just stop and stay in one place. I’ve to go backwards or forwards,” Sonu says.

Only time will tell which direction he will go. But it sure seems that even after two decades of shaping one-of-a-kind holistic holiday experiences that are inspired by nature – and perhaps by his admiration for the novel of Robinson Crusoe back in university – the literary graduate turned hotelier is unstoppable!

Note: This article originally appeared in the May-June issue of Maldives Insider Travel & Tourism, a bi-monthly travel magazine by Maldives Promotion House. You can read the digital version of the magazine on Issuu

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Ron Kaufman on building distinctive service culture in Maldives’ saturated hospitality sector

On the Dhoni

Maldives hospitality industry is becoming more and more saturated, with at least a dozen new openings every year. But in terms of product offerings, there is so much hoteliers can do. Every resort in the Maldives is blessed with powder soft white sand beaches, palm trees, and turquoise waters that hide gardens of corals and a rich marine life.

So what can hoteliers do to stand out? The answer lies perhaps in service excellence.

With that in mind, the newly formed Maldives Association of Human Resource Professionals (MAHRP) has announced plans to bring world’s leading customer experience consultant Ron Kaufman to the Maldives.

The event, titled Secrets of Achieving Superior Service Excellence, will be held on August 4 at the main auditorium of the Maldives National University. During this one-day event, Ron will share powerful insights on achieving a sustainable competitive advantage through uplifting service, which has delivered substantial business results in many major companies around the world. His vast experience and scope with customer service experience across a range of businesses, from government agencies to world-class multinational companies including Singapore Airlines, Changi International Airport, Xerox, Marina Bay Sands, Wipro, Singtel, American Express, HP and Nokia will also be shared as a part of this learning experience.

As MAHRP gears up for its first major event, Maldives Insider speaks to Ron about his personal visits to the Maldives, his take on the country’s hospitality industry, and his partnership with the first professional association in the Maldives dedicated to human resources development.

Maldives Insider: When did you first visit the Maldives? What were your first impressions?

Ron Kaufman: I’ve always been a scuba diver. I moved to Singapore from the US in 1990, and within the first 18 months, I visited the Maldives. I was impressed by the physical beauty of the destination. It’s warm and wonderful. It’s an economy designed for tourism. The local people fit the physical environment. And I was happy here.

MI: What motivated you to keep on returning to the Maldives?

RK: I found it as a place to scuba dive, read, and enjoy with my wife. When our daughter was growing up, we brought her here and she got to enjoy the joy of the Maldives. So, we just kept coming back.

It’s a five-hour flight from Singapore, so it’s conveniently located. I actually prefer Maldives because it’s pure Maldivian. If you go to Phuket, it’s Thai and a mix of many other influences. If you go to Bali, it’s Indonesian and a mix of many other influences. But if you come to the Maldives, you’re in the Maldives and it’s pure!

Ron Kaufman delivers a speech at a live event held in the Maldives in 2011.

MI: What have you noticed from the service culture of Maldivian resorts? How would you compare it to other similar destinations?

RK: Maldivian hospitality has a unique dynamic, which is a result of the percentage of Maldivians working in the industry. There’s a national culture that exists, and it’s part of the hospitality culture of any resort here.

The management of every resort tends to involve a certain number of non-Maldivians, and they bring with them the ethos, style and expertise. They’re trying to create certain standards for guests who’re also not Maldivians. So, there’s a very unique dynamic. For example, if you go to Phuket, you’ll find Thai guests as well as Thai workers, and it’s a more fluidly cosmopolitan environment. Here, it’s a more national environment in which there are expatriate managers and a global guest population.

MI: With the rapid changes taking place in the Maldivian hospitality sphere, what’re the challenges in terms of human resources?

RK: Every resort is competing with each other. But as an industry, the Maldivian hospitality sector should be competing with Mauritius, Seychelles, Phuket, the Bahamas, Bali, Australia and every other place that has nice beaches.

Global tourism and the airline industry are also growing. People now have more choice. Maldives is not too close to a number of regions. It’s convenient to come to the Maldives from the Middle East and parts of Asia, but there are a lot of competing destinations that are also conveniently located. So why should they choose to come here?

The challenge at the national level is, how do we make the Maldivian hospitality experience so distinguishable and unique there’s a reputation for it globally.

MI: What has to be done to overcome those challenges?

RK: If you don’t have a good framework for understanding how to build a culture — how to create it, how to make it stronger, how to sustain it and how to differentiate it —  you’re just grasping at straws, and you end up with all sorts of ingredients chopped and thrown in a bowl. It’s not the same as chopping certain types of things and making a perfect curry, a stew or a salad. In all of those situations, the ingredients are the same, but the end product is distinctive.

You can’t have a distinctive and sustainable culture unless you’ve a framework for thinking about it. What’re the components that lead the culture and how do you make it stronger? Most people in HR don’t have that mindset. They understand training, performance management, compensation and benefits. But the culture issue is not just related to HR. You need the leadership team and every member of the whole team to recognise it. That requires a framework that everybody can look at and understand.

Ron Kaufman at a training session held for the team at LUX* Resorts and Hotels. PHOTO/ LUX*

MI: How important is it to develop local talent?

RK: There’s a gentleness to Maldivian hospitality. There’s a timidity when it comes to creativity. The willingness of Maldivians to say, I can be responsible for making something different, stronger, better, proactive and more responsive.

In general, people just wait for instructions. That’s what needs to change. From an HR development perspective, we want people who’re thinking ahead, looking at the big picture, anticipating what could be possible, and then constituting themselves as someone committed to make that happen, not waiting for that to happen. My job, as an expatriate, is not to tell you what to do, but to help you get what you need to achieve it; let’s say budget and technical support. I might have an opinion on what you can do, but you’ve to come up with what to do, how to do it and how to make it happen.

Everything is possible. That phrase immediately opens up opportunities; anything is possible, what are we going to do? Let’s do this and that. I don’t see that from most of the Maldivians. They’re just waiting for instructions. That needs to change.

MI: What more can be done to develop local talent?

RK: Take the lead. If you’re waiting to be given the chance to lead, you’ll be waiting a long time.

I was recently at my daughter’s graduation in the US, and one of the speakers advised the students: take charge and don’t wait to be given responsibility. Of course she was talking to a bunch of people graduating from university, and such advice was expected there. Here, you have local people who want to have a job, and be assessed well and be given a raise. Looking at what you can do for your boss is very different from looking at what you can do to make something happen in order to excite and delight your guests.

MI: What’s your message to locals wishing to join the industry?

RK: Develop your competence. Learn your skills. Learn your job. Develop sensibilities, so that in different situations you’ve good instincts as to what to do and what’s right. Develop your own creativity and your leadership ability to work with people and to make the future happen.

Local telecom giant Dhiraagu signs up with MAHRP as the main sponsor of the upcoming event with Ron Kaufman. PHOTO/ MIHAARU NEWS

MI: Please comment on your partnership with MHARP. How do you think the organisation will help locals in the industry?

RK: I’m a friend, a fan, and in a way a family member. The birth of MAHRP is something I’m delighted about, and I’m lucky to be present during the pregnancy and for the birth of the organisation. Now we’ve a little baby. So, it’s a privilege to be able to contribute during the early stages of the association.

I think the future of the association should be incredibly strong for the nation. This country is so dependant on its human resources, for its commercial success and future. For young people who’re yet to begin their careers and for those who’re already working, they’d be able to grow their careers for the nation’s economy to be able to grow. I don’t think HR has been as much a world of concern as training, but it’s always been about getting a bunch of people for a job. But now everyone’s looking at it as more of a national database of humanity.

MI: What would your focus be at the upcoming event in the Maldives?

RK: It’ll be around building and sustaining a distinctive culture of excellence in service. It’s not just about how to give great service, but also about doing it in a culture that’s distinctive. There are 100 plus resorts in the Maldives and they all want to stand out from each other. How do you do that? You also have guests who come here with different expectations; some are here to play, some are here to relax, some are here to get healthy and heal, and some are here to get married. So, you want your team to be able to use its culture effectively, creatively and responsibly. But the culture itself needs to have some characteristic that stands out.

MI: What should attendees expect during the event?

RK: Enjoyment, entertainment, energy, education, and engagement with me as well as with everyone in the room. It’ll be a day well spent with somebody who loves the Maldives. They’ll find a teacher who’s a friend, a fan and a member of the family.

MI: How would the event help in developing the skills of seasoned and up-and-coming executives?

RK: For seasoned executives, the Uplifting Service architecture allows them to reflect on which areas they’re doing well and which areas they could do better. Sometimes the world of work is so full, you don’t see what’s going on and what’s ahead with the same kind of isolation. For example, if you’re working out on your body, you do a certain kind of exercise and your muscles feel that. But you don’t notice that until you did that particular kind of exercise. So, our overall framework would be helpful for seasoned executives.

For somebody who’s new to the industry, it’s more of seeing the big picture. You’ll be seeing not just how to be a good service provider, but also how to be a better service provider and how to think about the service culture of the entire organisation.

MI: What’s your message to potential participants, ahead of the event?

RK: Don’t miss this! There aren’t a lot of opportunities for a truly world-class, full day community event like this. You have the HR conference and the HR summit, and they’re all very good initiatives. I know in the future many more thought leaders will also come here. But in this particular case, you’ve a thought leader who adores the Maldives, and has been part of brands like One&Only and LUX*. I know what the competition is; the state of Four Seasons, Hilton and others.

So, don’t just come alone. Bring your team. Bring four to five people because the quality of conversation you’ll be having after this event will be very different from those you’ll be having if one person came along and later relayed the content to others in the team. You can’t influence someone’s biology the way you can influence by being in that room all day.

Interested in participating in a world-class customer service training seminar? You can register for the the Secrets of Achieving Superior Service Excellence with Ron Kaufman by contacting +960 7778035, via email to [email protected] or [email protected], or by filling this form

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