"Guests love to be in an environment that is not similar to what they are used to at home. It’s all about providing emotions and unique experiences. People nowadays are travelling more frequently seeking those special moments, experiences, emotions and memories."- Iain McCormack, General Manager, Vakkaru Maldives
We are celebrating the beginning of a New Year and there’s no better way to celebrate, than by featuring professionals at the top of their game. In this exclusive interview, we caught up with Iain McCormack, the General Manager of Vakkaru Maldives – who is no stranger to the Maldives – to get his thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 across the hospitality industry and the importance of getting health guidelines to their visitors and ensuring how well they will be taken care of throughout their journey.
1. How has your career path led you to luxury hospitality?
I have always had a desire for excellence since I started my career as a Chef. I was fortunate enough to have worked at many luxury properties around the world, spanning my 30+ years, which has given me the insight to understand the world of luxury hospitality.
2. You have a very impressive portfolio working across 3 different resorts in the Maldives – Soneva Gili, Gili Lankanfushi and Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi. What were your biggest takeaways from these experiences?
Soneva Gili will always hold a special place in my heart. I spent over 3 years there and I loved the concept; the founders are pioneers of Intelligent Luxury - Sonu and Eva - whom were both truly inspirational. The resort is uniquely designed offering a truly natural sustainable product with a high luxury finish, very impressive indeed. I was there during the transition from Soneva Gili to Gili Lankanfushi. The direction from the new owners, “HPL”, was to ensure the overall look and feel of the concept originally created was maintained as not to lose its unique experience for our guests.
For me the Maldives have been the highlight of my career. The natural beauty is breathtaking, the quality of resorts, services and details are second to none, but it is the mix of people that make the Maldives the most special place on Earth. The Maldivians in particular are very proud people; ambitious, hardworking and they take care of our guests in a most genuine, kind way.
One unique aspect of living in such an environment, is to be working and living within a small island community. The staff village comprises of multiple nationalities, religions and traditions worldwide, it all seems to work harmoniously.
3. What are the biggest challenges you have been facing with re-opening? Are there new obstacles in ensuring and providing consistently high service standards?
Several challenges during COVID is understanding the government guidelines and implementing all the procedures to ensure the safety of our guests and team members. One vital step is to get the message out to our guests that it is safe to travel and they will be taken care of throughout their journey.
That is why, VAKKARE was initiated- to build the confidence that we will take care of our guest in a responsible way. I personally believe that VAKKARE is a new standard in luxury hospitality, unmatched in the Maldives. The four pillars of VAKKARE is our guiding principles ensuring our guest well-being, safety and self-experiences are at the utmost.
Another challenge was getting our team members back to the island from their home countries, as occupancy started rising. Many staff were locked down in their home countries and we had to wait until travel restrictions were lifted.
4. What does post-COVID-19 hospitality look like to you? Many speak about a ‘new normal’. Has the perception of luxury changed? (If in any way)
People’s expectation of service is enhanced towards hygiene and safety practices. The new normal, for sure will continue for another 12-24 months. We have to adapt and think about all aspects of service, activities and experiences with COVID/VAKKARE safety guidelines in mind. The perception of luxury will surely remain the same and we will make sure to deliver and continue the utmost service with new normal guidelines.
5. What is it you do to stay in touch with your customers between two seasons to keep that direct booking rate high? –
Part of our VAKKARE concept is “After Kare”. Where we provide a wellbeing loyalty programme offering monthly tips from visiting practitioners and the Vakkaru team, alongside a range of exclusive offers and special surprises. It is essential for our philosophies to keep the engagement and be in touch with our guests wherever they are.
6. How would you define Ultra Luxury in the hotel space today?
Ultra Luxury is expressed in all levels of services and experience; guests love to be in an environment that is not similar to what they are used to at home. It’s all about providing emotions and unique experiences. People nowadays are travelling more frequently seeking those special moments, experiences, emotions and memories. Our Butlers and team members play a vital role in every experience, this is why consistent training, communication and maximum support is needed to enhance the level of service.
7. What’s your take on OTAs, considering their evolution over the past decade?
OTA’s have developed into a platform for efficient and fast booking transaction for each traveller. Last minute bookings are becoming a trend nowadays and OTA’s play a substantial role on this. However, there are several challenges for hotels and resorts especially with a free cancellation policy resulting in about 50% cancellations.
Travel Agents provide far more personal attention, they usually have a strong loyal base of customers. They are very familiar with the resort product and can provide clear information to the customer; plus, have direct contact with the resort for any questions or requests.
8. What are your thoughts on sustainability as part of the strategy at any top luxury hotel nowadays, and in the long run?
It is extremely important to have a mutual understanding with sustainability. I believe it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to drive and promote our sustainable initiatives. VAKKARE “Lets Kare” is our driving force to encourage, educate, to initiate sustainable projects which play a pivotal role in our guest for sustainable progress. Such projects include: eliminating plastic use, solar power implementation, Earth Hour to save energy, organic garden, as well as marine biology programmes. Our customers are far more environmentally and sustainability conscious, it is often one of their key factors when choosing the right property to spend their holiday.
9. To what extent do discerning travellers seek experiences and the utmost in personalisation? Tell us more about your view.
Guests nowadays are far more experienced and well-travelled than ever before. Social media has been the fundamental platform to showcase what we offer; guests nowadays seek for more of unique experiences in every destination they travel and always want to feel special in every aspect of their journey throughout their stay
10. What advice would you provide to those seeking a career in the Ultra Luxury market space?
Those seeking a career in the Ultra Luxury market space: Have the right attitude, be prepared for hard work, long hours and criticism. You need to have the desire, eye for detail, understanding the customer and the passion to always do your very best to deliver consistent service excellence. Ultra Luxury is not just about glitz and gold, it’s about creating emotional experiences, in a heartfelt and honest way, which leaves everlasting memories.
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