1. 1. Your career in the hospitality industry started around 30 years ago. Tell us about how it started.
I used to play rugby at school. One of my icons—who was a couple of years older than me—came back to do a career’s day at school. I asked him what he is doing, and he said he was in hospitality. Because I looked up to him I said, “Oh I’m going to do that”, and the decision was made. I finished my studies and did a two-year college course and I became a junior assistant trainee manager in a selection of hotels. I moved on from there. I loved it.
I think university degrees and so on are important—but for me the most important thing in hospitality is people. So I decided to go the experience way—worked my way up. When I was working as the junior assistant trainee manager, I was working in the student department in the kitchen, and just carried on forward. I was 21 back then.
2. 2. You have previously worked in managing some great properties in the Maldives as well. How did you land a position in the Maldives?
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. Very rarely did I apply for a position—mostly people just come to me. I was working as the Director of Operations in Hilton Malta, and I was contacted to come work for the Constance Group. I had done a big extension to the Hilton Malta so I had a good idea in terms of—not only luxury—but also design and build. So the Constance invited me over and I came over. My first three and a half years here was building Constance Halaveli and Constance Moofushi. I’ve never looked back actually. You have to get off every now and again. All the GMs seem to go away, but they all always come back two or three times. I’ve done the same.
3. 3. Tell us a bit about Joali Maldives. How does Joali stand out amongst the rest?
I had almost retired—I was GM at Gili Lankanfushi for three and a half years. I was going to go somewhere else, and then decided I was not going to work anymore. But this wonderful family from Turkey contacted me a few times about coming over here. I met them first in Turkey, and then they flew me here. It was a construction site then.
Very importantly, I spoke to my wife; if she had said “no” then I wouldn’t have come—she’s been an amazing part of my life.
But what really won me over was the difference. In the very very high end of the market where we are with the competitors, you have to make something different. What I saw in it from the very beginning was a difference in terms of the design. And the attitude of the owners from Turkey was exceptional. I loved that almost a year and a half before we opened; we had already done the branding. This idea of combining luxury with art experiences, conversive experiences where people can get in there and understand what we’re about, is very interesting to me.
What we have been able to do here is try to combine the modernity of a place, with Maldivian-ness. So there is a little bit of both. No one has really been able to do that successfully yet because either they are very modern or very traditional.
Most importantly, it’s the staff. Right from the very beginning we were told to have a minimum 55 percent Maldivians. I set a goal of 60 percent—right now we’re at 64 percent. That makes a lot difference. Especially today when Maldivians move from one resort to another, they’re almost like gold. But we managed to get a great team here. That’s what keeps me here right now.
4. 4. As the Area General Manager at Joali, what are your main responsibilities?
At the end of the day my objective is, for every guest who comes here to come back. So my work is in the sense of developing guest experiences; being personal—but not too personal—to the guests. Sometimes you love a guest too much. They come here for various different reasons and it is my job to identify why they come here. To ensure that they get the attention they need, the quality they demand. Also giving them the privacy they want.
My other objective is from the sales side. Last year I traveled over 50 cities selling this product, and it was a challenge. I was kind of selling my reputation a bit, and the trust people hopefully would have in me and my team. We were selling this place, when no one had seen the resort; all they had seen were renderings. So I was a bit nervous. It was challenging, exciting and nerve-wrecking. But as long as we could see or know in our heads what the end product would be, I had the confidence to make the sale to people.
Right now we’re starting on our second resort—Joali Wellbeing on Bodufushi near here—so I will be doing some work over there as well in a few months’ time. But I need to be here at Joali to talk to my guests. I love talking to my guests.
5. 5. You have managed from in different areas of the world including the UK, Malta and UAE, Japan. How is the Maldivian experience different from other destinations, in your opinion?
Well, the infrastructure here is obviously very different. There are many islands, and there is the one-island one-resort concept. This concept is clearly different from many places in the world. This makes some very individual characteristics. Logistically, we have to be very well-prepared. For example, we order our food in October for the festive period. You have to be very well-organised. In a place where you got the most expensive hotels in the world, you have to realize expenses. At the end of the day you do not want people going away feeling it is too expensive—you have to have value for money.
The people in the Maldives are probably the most naturally intelligent people I have ever worked with. This is a personal view, but I think it’s an unfortunate situation—the schooling infrastructure in the Maldives is not right. Many Maldivians [in the industry] has not had the chance to go overseas for work, or for actual academics. But their natural intelligence and attitude is second to none. Here we employ for attitude—not necessarily for experience. I have had managers who said we must take people from this or that brand, but my answer is No. If you got someone who has the great attitude—which 95 percent of the Maldivians have got—you can train them how to do something.
I have people from very high-end resorts here too, but none –or very few—of them have got university experiences. But if you speak to any guest here, the first thing they would say is, “Wow, what an amazing team they have here!”
We have 23 nationalities here. But working with Maldivians is wonderful. The nearesr competitor with that kind of attitude is probably the Mauritius, but they are quite a way away.
6. 6. Does your family visit you here?
My wife would normally be with me the whole time. But we did so much travel last year, and right now she’s at home at the Mauritius. But Insha Allah she will be here at the end of February.
7. 7. Many properties of world-class luxury brands are popping up in the Maldives every year. What do you think about the local tourism industry’s performance?
The industry drives more revenue into the government more than any other industry. People come to the Maldives with the picture of the beaches, the smiling people and very high-end resorts. But for a country, it is probably better to diverse slightly and get more people in because, everyone who comes here spends money. The Safari boats and guesthouses thrive in revenue. If that revenue is used properly then it really does help the atolls and so on.
But we have to be careful that the people’s view of the Maldives do not change, that it is seen as a mass tourism place. Because with every person who comes here there is an effect on the environment.
There has to be a sense of exclusivity in the Maldives because if it becomes like anywhere else, you’re going to be opening up to competition from around the world. At the moment the competition is very high-end and only certain people can come here. But when you’re open to competition up huge, it can negatively affect the tourism coming here.
I’m an environmentalist. When you get so many people in—look what is happening in Male Atoll: the boats, planes, garbage. When we look here we might find a bottle and that is bad enough. But there [in Male Atoll] it can be worse. If you do that across the Maldives, the infrastructure is going to have to be in place to ensure that this does not happen.
We also need to get that other runway open—that will help. And of course more seaplanes—they are a very practical way of getting around here.
8. 8. Maldivian tourist properties have always put an effort to be eco-friendly and sustainable. What are some of the things done in Joali in this manner?
Well. We don’t like you leaving anything on your plates, but anything you leave on the plate is made to compost. There is a fantastic company in the UK called Tidy Planet that produces these rocket composting machines. I used them at Gili. I bought the mother of all ones for Joali—a huge one. All food waste and all landscaping things which we’re not using get combined and is back on the island within three to four weeks.
LED lights are very important. We’re also looking at solar again now—but we might be using more of that for the second resort—Joali Wellbeing—than this one.
But also it is all about educating—not only the guests, but also our staff. We have two marine biologists here who work on marine biology; coral rejuvenation; educating locals on the islands, the staffs and our guests. Our owners have given us a trust fund to—not only help marine biology and sustainability, but also for educating the local people. We will be starting that in the middle of this year.
One of the keys is teaching children. Going to local islands and telling them this is the effect your parents are having on the environment. People on the islands are wonderful. But the infrastructure needs to be put in to ensure that they can move into the first tier. Not having running water on the island is very archaic. It is expensive yes, but with all the money we pay, there should be investments on that. On our side, we should be educating young people as well to understand how they are affecting the future for their children. They are more amenable to it especially if you make it fun. They can see the difference of how things can turn tremendously.
Every resort should be doing something. In fact, it should go far that the government should be saying to the resorts “you need to spend this much of time giving affective training to every one of your local or other affiliated islands”.
Because, we are here as guests. We are going to move on, but you [Maldivians] are going to be here. We should be using the facilities and infrastructures we have, to educate the young. If I was the government, I would say, “Steven, you should be spending x amount of hours on this island to educate people”, and I tell you now, everyone would do it.
We just do what we can. No hotel can be carbon-neutral. Anyone who says they are [carbon neutral] can never be that unless with a capital injection of 50 to 100 million dollars. But there are lots of great resorts here doing some great stuff. Six Senses Laamu does great stuff. We’re doing some fantastic stuff too, and we will continue doing them. Soneva and Gili Lankanfushi does a great job as well. But really, there is always more that we can do, and should be doing.
9. 9. In the Maldives, resort islands are secluded and staff members work away from home for a long time. Whom they have is each other. What do you do to keep your team members together, motivated and in good spirit?
None of us are perfect—we all make mistakes. If we learn from mistakes, then it’s a great and positive thing.
The house area right now is great. We have a good football pitch. We have only been playing a few weeks though. But that kind of facility is vital.
We have a cinema area; entertainment rooms; a great staff tuck-shop; and a recreation area for big parties. We got the facilities here. Also we are so lucky to have these little islands around us—we are able to take our team to these islands for the day and enjoy.
Also, the food; you can’t always go right when creating food for 23 different nationalities. But the chef and our team are working on it. It really motivates people when they find something nice in their stomach.
You can’t always go right when creating food for 23 different nationalities. I, the chef and the HR Director are working on it. It is a hell of a lot better now. It really motivates people when they find something nice in their stomach.
But even more than that, it’s the training and development to keep them motivated; coaching people and understanding where they want to be. During the induction process everybody talks about the team. I go on there and say, “why do you think so? You have to be selfish!” and everybody looks shocked, like “why is the GM telling me that I need to be selfish?”
I explain to them that they all have an objective to reach—whether it’s a career or financial goal. It is our responsibility to try to give them the tools to achieve that. We can’t always do it. But I say, maybe you want to be a GM in five years. But we should be giving you the development, coaching, etc. You might not be able to do that here in Joali, but at least we can help you in the career path. That certainly motivates them.
10. 10. Have you travelled to any local residential islands in the Maldives? What do you think of the Maldivian people and their lifestyle?
Not as much as I should do. I was in Meedhoo sometime ago for a business reason—we’re having a dhoani built there. They have really good coffee there. The coffee culture in the Maldives is amazing. But yes I should do more traveling. I think I will not give the excuse that I am too busy-sometimes I am too lazy on my off days (laughs).
I don’t particularly enjoy going into Male, but I love seeing the people and I am fortunate that some of the people know me.
But yes, I should do more in the local islands.
11. 11. Do you enjoy local cuisine?
Musamma. I love Musamma. I keep getting its name wrong all the time. Recently, I had the one with pumpkin in it too, and I loved it. It is fairly good for you as well. I’m not a very spicy guy—some of your dishes are a bit too spicy.
You got breadfruits everywhere. I love roasted breadfruit. Also I live in the Maldives. I love seafood. Maldivian lobster is pretty good.
12. 12. Joali Maldives has been in operation since November 2018. During the past four months and currently, what sort of feedback do you receive from guests?
We have got our first repeater guests here. They stayed in November, and they arrived back in January—which is great. We have had a few guests who kept extending. We had guests staying here for 17 nights, and they extended for another eight nights. That shows how well the team and our product is. We have had very good feedback. We have a little bit more to do—but so far the people have been delighted at what we’re offering here. They say we are different in lots of ways, but not too different in a way from being in the Maldives. We’re lucky we have a great team and very good chef here as well.
13. In your career spanning over almost two decades, what would you describe as your biggest achievement?
I’ll tell you a little story about a Bangladeshi boy at Constance Halaveli. His name was Tasneem, but I did not know his name so I called him the wheelbarrow boy. I used to see him 6:30 in the morning and at midnight with his wheelbarrow—with a big smile. “Hi boss” and “Goodnight boss”.
We had a challenging opening there. Just as we were opening, Tasneem was working with me by my side for nearly 20 hours a day, and he was being paid at the time 150 dollars per month. I turned around to the HR Director and I told her that the project is going to end, but this guy needs to stay and I want him to work in landscaping.
“If you lose him, I’ll sack you,” I said to the HR Director, and I was very serious. This guy—along with my wife—had been a constant person all throughout. And he just worked and worked!
I could not find him about a week after we opened, and I said to the HR Director, “Where is Tasneem?”, and she said she did not know. Then I spoke to the Operations Manager at Halaveli at the time, who told me he was on our other island doing organic farming. I said I needed him here at Halaveli. I went over on a very rough day and found him. He had on a nice shirt and tie. When he saw me, he was like “Boss boss! Come come come!” and we sat down to have a coke. That day I brought him back to the island. He got a pay increase to 325 dollars plus service charge.
When I was moving to Constance Moofushi, Tasneem asked if he could come with me to Moofushi. I said, “Tasneem no. We do not pay service charge there”, but he said “No its okay boss. It’s okay.”
I spoke to some other guys at Moofushi and they said Tasneem only wants to go with me. So he came over to Moofushi with me.
I went back a year and a half ago to see him—he has bought his parents a house; and he has bought his uncle shop. It was incredible. And I did nothing other than smile at the guy and made sure he was brought back to the island. For all the millions of dollars of business in the world that I might have produced for places, that is nothing compared to Tasneem doing what he has been able to do. I love him and am very proud of him.
14. 14. What is your vision for Joali Maldives for the next few years?
We have to develop the brand more in terms of the customer journey. The opening is not very well, but we continue to make special stances. We are working very close with the owner on the guest journey—to kind of really make it different. Last few months were tough. But we need to make sure we’re developing a one where [guests] want to go; standard that we can all go on the same direction.
We are working on Joali Wellbeing at the moment; to get that open by mid 2020. That will be very different. They will have 35 treatment rooms, and it is going to be something very special. We got lots to do. And we have a great people to work with.
15. 15. If not the hospitality and tourism industry, what other career option might you have opted for?
I really enjoyed playing rugby. I would really love to have become a professional rugby player. In my day, they were all amateurs so I never got a chance to do that. Although from playing rugby for the many years I did, I am now kind of suffering (laughs).
The only other thing would have been was to follow my father into the Royal Navy.
But as I said earlier I made this decision just like that, and I stuck with it. I might be a bit tired sometimes, but I do not regret it.
16. 16. What advice would you give to aspiring hoteliers and youngsters working in different areas of tourism?
I think we’re in an industry where we work hard and play hard. To get on in most industries—but particularly in hospitality—if you feel you got the right attitude then you can get anywhere in life. Don’t suck up to the boss, and don’t just say yes to the boss the whole time because that will never get you anywhere. Come through with ideas and make yourself known through them; through the way you interact with guests. Also make sure we know where you want to go. Be selfish and tell us if we are not taking you in the right direction. If you can do that, then that’s excellent.
The other thing I’d say to local staff is, try to get experience overseas. We’re a certain type of luxury. But if you get that overseas experience for even a year or two, it just adds up to your experience and makes something different. It gives you a slightly different perspective. I also believe that hotels should be giving the opportunity for staff to work overseas—especially if they’re international hotel groups, they should be actively paying for people to go over there and get that international experience.
But most importantly, always smile. But smile naturally.