Operating a Hard Rock Hotel in Maldives’ first integrated resort is no easy feat. But Tolga Unan, General Manager of Hard Rock Hotel Maldives gets the ball rolling with the beauty and serenity of the destination perfectly paired with the lifestyle and energy that only the Hard Rock brand can deliver. In this exclusive interview he tells us about his career path in the travel industry and shares his views on technology and the brand’s sustainability initiatives.
“We use music to connect with people – music is our enabler and music unites people. That’s how we do it at Hard Rock!’
1. Before joining the Hard Rock Hotel, you worked for InterContinental, Hilton and Banyan Tree, all trendy brands in the hospitality industry. What drew you to this genre of hotels, and what expertise do you need to cater to the hip and famous?
Many people wouldn’t know this, but this is not my first time in Maldives. I was here back in 2002, or maybe 2003 for a brief period. I was working for Club Med at that time, and I had to oversee the Food and Beverage Department at two of their properties – Club Med Kani, which had just opened then, and Club Faru, which is now part of Hulhumale – so I have known Maldives from those years.
The early years of my career, I worked in the Caribbean and USA. I arrived in Asia with Club Med, and spent a few years in Indonesia and Malaysia. I then moved to Hilton to open their first resort property in China at the Hainan Island, and soon moved up to the position of General Manager in Shanghai. I ended up spending seven years with Hilton and also did another resort opening with them in Beijing right before the Olympic Games. I then took a position at Banyan Tree, and afterwards, I was with the InterContinental brand where I was managing one of their biggest properties in China.
My experience in China was great, but after I had my daughter Anna Sofia, I was looking for a more natural setting. I was particularly looking for a resort which I could manage in Maldives. It was really the right timing for me because Anna Sofia was very young. So, my wife, Mariana and I wanted her to grow up in a more natural setting. Mariana is from Brazil and I am from Turkey. We both grew up in nature and that's what we wanted for Anna Sofia as well.
We were at dinner discussing our next move, when I heard about the opening of Hard Rock Hotel in Maldives. I knew it was "now or never", so I immediately reached out to the Vice President of Hard Rock International for an interview. Few weeks later, I was confirmed for the job, and the following month, we packed up and moved to Bangkok, where the head office of the company that owns this development is, and I started working for the brand. It was relatively fast, and I’m glad I made this move because it was a very exciting venture.
It is true that a lot of celebrities come to Hard Rock Hotel, but then again, a lot of celebrities come to Maldives, right? So, the positioning of Hard Rock
Hotel Maldives is a little bit different. First of all, we classify ourselves as an entertainment company to start with, not as a hospitality company. Whether our guests are famous personalities or not, we treat everyone like friends and put people at ease in a matter of minutes. We strive to deliver authentic experiences that rock for everyone.
2. What are your biggest takeaways from the hospitality industry? Tell us about the key issues that it’s struggling with.
Well, we have to look at it in two ways. Now, we are right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, this is our biggest struggle, so undoubtedly, we will have to look at the before and after of it. Right now, all our focus is on the safety and security of our team and guests, but once everything is put in place, we can tick this box, and all that’s going to matter is how we engage with our guests. For me, the core of this business is always the human factor.
I pay particular attention to recruitment and hiring the right people for the right job, making sure the people that I put in place can play as a team, and independently. If you were to walk into my office, you’ll see a large mural decoration on my wall with the words, “A man that wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back to the crowd”. As the leader of the orchestra, your role is not to teach the violin player how to play the violin, your role is to inspire the violin player, and all other members of the orchestra to play the same melody in amazing harmony. At Hard Rock, we call our team ‘band members’. We are the band, and we try to sound as one, with different band members playing different instruments.
That’s how I like to focus. I spend a lot of time making sure that the connection among team members, between the team and the guests, and between department managers and team members are very transparent, so they can convey the message very clearly and with the right level of energy.
3. How will integrated resorts improve the Maldives’ tourism product? What are the niches the country needs to fill in order to present an even more attractive product to international visitors?
I know Maldives from a decade and a half ago, and at that time it was a couples’ destination, a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. Sure, there were a lot of wealthy repeat guests, but for the majority, Maldives was a place that you’d come for honeymoon, and that’s how it was marketed.
What makes the integrated resort concept unique is that it allows so much more in terms of activities and entertainment compared to a typical Maldives resort where after a couple of days, you’ve done everything there is to do. We are able to offer so many different things under the same umbrella. We have two different hotel brands, we’ve got a Café del Mar, plus various renowned restaurant brands, the Maldives Discovery Centre which is almost like a museum, and we have lots of retail shops. I think this is what has been missing in Maldives up until recent years. It even cracks open a window of opportunity for Maldives to compete with destinations like Bali and Phuket.
Play on Land provides many activities with our Body Rock fitness concept ranging from Jiu-Jitsu and Self-Defence to Boot Camp. Play on Air is our aerial acrobatics program, and we have one of the largest Dive & Water Sport Centres in the country for some Play on Water. Plus, with our Sound of your Stay program you can borrow a guitar and learn how to play, or take it to your room for a jam session - the list goes on. I’d like to think of it like this: Using Maldives as a backdrop, we designed lots of cool activities for people to come and experience in this beautiful location. We are in the business of "Experiential Tourism". We try to get our guests to come and stay with us, not only because it is beautiful, but also because there is a lot to do. You could buy an electric guitar and learn to play it in your living room, it’s a great thing to experience and a fantastic skill to learn, but isn’t it an even better experience when you’re doing it on the terrace of your water villa? That’s what creates an authentic experience that rocks!
We’ve had a few Brazilian beach football players and Capoeiristas, taking the beach experience to a whole new level. We hosted Brazilian week over here with beach football, beach volleyball, and even Capoeira classes. These are all things that anybody in a major city could do. Just get a gym membership and learn Brazilian Capoeira or play volleyball. Undoubtedly these are very accessible. But when you do it in this beautiful lagoon, it’s completely different.
4. How is the ‘Integrated Resort’ concept received in the Maldives? Do people have enough understanding of what it actually involves?
Well, there are few other resorts working under the same concept, but not at this scale. I mean, even our back-of-house area can accommodate about 800 staff. It is almost like a whole other resort just for the staff themselves, along with a gym, their private beach, recreational facilities, a football pitch, the mosque, you name it! Besides that, we have the largest laundry facility and the largest power house in the entire country – you’d have to see the scale of it just to believe it. Even our warehouse is the size of Walmart.
We also have a workshop dedicated purely to repairing and maintaining the buggies. There are over 160 buggies here so imagine, every day there are a few buggies being maintained. On top of that, we have over 500 bicycles and another workshop just for bicycle repairs.
The concept and scale of this operation creates a lot of advantages for us. We all tap into the same resources in a way. This is what makes it a bit different. It’s a large-scale operation, and I think people understand the benefits of it.
5. What do you think about the hospitality industry in the Maldives and how do you compete in today’s market?
I would like to think of it like this; when comparing vacation spots, at some point it comes down to the price, but we try not to compete solely from the price-perspective. Instead, we try to create additional value for our guests. Our magnitude as an integrated resort helps with that for sure.
We’ve got Ministry of Crab, Carne Diem, Nihombashi Blue; all three rated within the Top 50 Restaurants of Asia for the past six consecutive years – Dharshan Munidasa is an award-winning celebrity chef. And then of course, we have the Hard Rock Café where you know you’ll get fantastic burgers. When you are a guest here, you are not at the mercy of just one Executive Chef or one Food & Beverage Manager, you have a variety of options to choose from.
Another point is that for the money spent on a family trip to the Maldives, we provide way more island-time compared to our competitors. I mean, we are just a fifteen-minute speedboat ride from the main airport. We try to create an environment that makes it as easy as possible for families with young children. We have excellent amenities for babies and toddlers separately and free, and lots of fantastic activities for the kids, all designed to provide that extra bit of comfort for parents. When you combine all these little factors together, I would like to believe that you get more island-time and value.
6. Give us an idea of what your Rock Star Suite Experience is like. How many units are there, and who are the types of well-heeled folks that stay there?
We have water villas, beach villas, water villas with a pool, water villas with two bedrooms, but we only have one Rock Star Suite – 450 square metres of pure pleasure. It is designed for a couple. It has a master bedroom and a very large living room with a glass-bottomed floor. It has an infinity pool and a tuk-tuk bar sitting on the deck. You can walk right in and make your own cocktails.
Inside, you’ll find a jukebox with a fantastic collection of music, and your very own seahorse carousel. It has an 86-inch TV and a massive sound system. It’s got lots of celebrity artwork, and it’s just a playful experience. The suite is right at the end of the water villa jetty so it has one of the best views of the ocean. It also has a private bridge that links to the water villa next door, so in case guests come with the kids and nanny they could get the next room as well.
It is actually one of the rooms that we sell the most. In the past six months that we’ve operated, it had the highest number of bookings. It’s in great demand, and although we’ve had a few musicians, rock stars and celebrities staying there, the people who come do not necessarily fall into that category. There are people who are just looking for a little bit of extra space and extra comfort, who like to come and stay there.
We’ve had guests who stayed there for like six to seven nights and just didn’t want to come out. I mean we had to tell them, “Look at all the other things you can do at the resort! There’s so much more!”, but they were very content spending their days in the Rock Star Suite, having all their meals there and enjoying the experience.
7. The brand is embarking on, or already midway through projects in international destinations such as Dublin, Budapest, Amsterdam, and Madrid. And then, the coronavirus-stricken economy has had a major effect on the hotel industry, especially so on upscale properties. How are you tackling to adjust to the downturn?
It’s no secret that the global tourism industry has been very badly affected. I think it is one of the worst affected industries during this COVID-19 downturn, but I am a believer that we will overcome this.
Particularly, with the new Safe & Sound measures that Hard Rock International has introduced, it’s going to provide guests with trust in coming and staying at our properties.
After many days of this global lockdown, people are going to start travelling again and when they do, we just have to be ready to welcome them and make sure that we can provide the right level of engagement. At the end of the day, people will come if they’re safe, but when they do come, they would want to have a good time. So, we need to make sure that we are ready to deliver these authentic experiences that rock. We use music to connect with people – music is our enabler and music unites people. That’s how we do it at Hard Rock. This is our Amplified Service.
It is not an easy road for our industry. We are all working very hard to adapt to the new norms, making sure that we can provide a seamless service, with the safety and security of our team members and our guests, under the guidance of the Ministry of Tourism. Plus, being an all-island country, we have an opportunity here. I think that Maldives is going to overcome this much faster than any other destination.
8. In September 2018, Hard Rock International (HRI) began eliminating plastic straws from all its properties worldwide, in addition to the existing green initiatives at Hard Rock Cafe and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino locations globally. Aside from them, what other sustainable initiatives have you implemented at Hard Rock Hotel Maldives?
A subject very dear to my heart. In fact, they did, yes. At Hard Rock Hotel, once a guest arrives and completes the check-in formalities at reception, we say that we have a gift for them, and we give them Green Flip Flops – a pair for each guest. Green Flip Flops is a Brazilian company that makes plant-based flip-flops, beautifully designed. We have seven different models for the ladies, five for gents, three for the kids, and of different sizes.
So, the guests pick up their free Green Flip Flops at the Rock Shop, and upon selecting their preferred model, one of our band members at the Rock Shop talks about why we give them these specific flip-flops. We explain that this is part of our sustainability initiatives. They are 100% biodegradable, and it's a great brand. They are not branded as Hard Rock, because we are not in the flip-flop business, plus, the Green Flip Flops brand itself is doing such a fantastic job for the environment. We also tell our guests to take the flip-flops back with them, and to choose this brand if they ever want to buy a pair. We often find stray flip flops on the beach and in the ocean, but Green Flip Flops will not harm or pollute the environment.
Guests will also find a lot of sustainable amenities in their rooms. We don’t provide disposable amenities. I would like to believe that the amenities we provide to our guests are designed to last longer. A good example is the “Bogobrush” – an environmentally- friendly toothbrush. I don’t believe in providing a new toothbrush every time the bathroom is replenished. The Bogobrush can be used for three to four months. Each toothbrush is made of plants, and is biodegradable, it returns to the earth within a few months after being tossed out. I was actually lucky enough to meet the President of Maldives, and I gave him a Bogobrush. It’s the same with all amenities, inside-out they are made from metal or wood and contain zero plastic. Also, all the sunscreen available here is completely coral-safe. Everything here is done in a way that will inspire guests to continue to save the earth in their daily lives after their trip to Maldives. This country is a great location to influence people to live a light sustainable life.
At Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, we have our sundown ritual every day, and one day of the week is dedicated to sustainable living, where I talk to guests about why these little actions matter.
We also have the Marine Discovery Centre where they teach our guests about the resort's conservation activities, like the Junior Coral Curator programme and a clownfish release initiative, while the Maldives Discovery Centre showcases the culture of this captivating country.
So, you see, we are trying to create our own little ecosystem here. I think it is a good effort to do something right for the environment.
9. The classic artwork, guitars and costumes – it’s all a major part of Hard Rock Cafe. What exactly is the essence and concept behind it?
We call them memorabilia at Hard Rock Hotel. And, we have been collectors of music and entertainment memorabilia for over 45 years. From the time Eric Clapton donated his red Fender guitar in 1979 to simply mark his seat at the original Hard Rock Café in London, the collection has grown to over 86,000 pieces worldwide – the largest collection of music memorabilia in the world.
These pieces are not just costumes or wall decorations. They mean something to many people, and allow us to start conversations with guests. Each item has a story behind it. At Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, one of the department heads on my team is the Vibe Manager, responsible for all the music at the hotel. He also gives memorabilia tours for the guests, sharing stories about each piece. At the front desk, there’s a handwritten letter by Eric Clapton which I like very much, we have a Rolling Stones guitar at the Hard Rock Café, we have some pieces from Asian, European and American stars, from different decades, and different genres. These items are displayed at Hard Rock Cafés and Hotels around the world, and are rotated across Hard Rock locations every seven years.
I had the pleasure of seeing some unbelievable pieces. There's a rocking horse that belonged to Jimmy Hendrix, displayed at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando. Someone from India gifted this it to him way before he gained fame. So, just imagine how many songs he must have composed in the same room as that rocking horse. I mean, how many songs has that rocking horse heard from the master himself! These stories are what make it great.
10. That’s a lot of Hurricanes! How do you think technology has changed the hospitality industry? What is Hard Rock doing to accommodate the future?
I don’t think it changes it, but undoubtedly it enhances the hospitality industry. Then again, I am an optimist and a firm believer that guest engagement is the key. Today, we engage with each other over smartphones and apps, in fact Hard Rock has its own app at our properties for guests to make special requests, obtain room service, chat with us and simply enjoy some rock-star-quality service all with the tap of a finger. This is something pretty standard across the hospitality industry these days.
Still, I think what really makes a difference is not the technology behind it – it’s how you engage with guests, the tone you use, the interactions. Here, at Hard Rock, it’s very lively with the music and with little more amplified energy compared with other brands. That’s how we roll.
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