A Chat with  Najib Khan – CEO,  Ooredoo Maldives. The Maldives is experiencing a surge in tourism development. In a highly competitive market, luxury resorts are compelled to find new ways to meet the needs of the tech savvy contemporary traveller. Ooredoo Maldives, not merely a company with telecom credentials, is spearheading digitisation in the country, especially in the tourism sector.

Hotel Insider sits down with Ooredoo CEO Najib Khan, who took up the company’s reins earlier this year, to talk about the convergence of technology and tourism along with how the digital company can support and enhance Maldives’ booming tourism sector.

Hotel Insider: Can we start off with a general comment on the role of technology in tourism?

Najib Khan: I think the tourism sector is not bereft of the impact of technology. It is evident in every process of the tourism sector. The back end of a resort is like an efficient factory. The back office operations, house-keeping, room service, the front office, the activity centres and the restaurants, in all these areas there is technology at play.

We all know that as consumers are getting more and more evolved, their need for technology, whether at work or leisure, is an absolute must. Today there is a really thin line between work and leisure. Therefore, when someone comes to a resort for leisure, he still wants to be connected to the other world. And there are very few customers who probably will not want to be connected. The best part of technology today, and the way we think technology should be, is that you should get it when you want it and you can cut off when you don’t want it. And that’s possible today through software defined networks or SDN as we call it.

On the other hand, for a resort to be efficient, for tourism to be an efficient industry, technology can be a great enabler as it also helps to bring down the cost of operations. Especially for repetitive tasks. And in technology, Internet is the core. The Internet being superfluously, and ubiquitously available across the globe is what is needed today. Fortunately for us in the Maldives, with Ooredoo, we have covered 99.9%, in fact, all the islands are on 4G plus which is the latest in the world.

Hotel Insider: We’re witnessing a surge in tourism development; several new properties are to be opened next year with more to follow in the coming years. So let’s talk about Ooredoo’s services and products to the resort sector. What new and exciting things are happening on this front?

Najib Khan: I think when you look at the resorts there are prominent sections in which technology plays an important role.

First and foremost building the core infrastructure for the resort is fundamental for all services; whether it’s optical fibre, Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) or Wi-Fi for the rooms.

Secondly all the back office and front office services are interconnected. There is a huge collaboration taking place between these functions. Today, all these services have different types of devices. Devices like walkie-talkie radios, mobile phones, Desktops, laptops, POS machines are frequently used in a resort for communications. All this can be converged using
a IP based Unified Communication platform. UC allows seamless convergence of Voice, Email, and Text using a single device.

Thirdly the services which are centred on the guest. A resort app, or a guest app as we call it. This app can enable check-in right at the time the guest comes to the airport. It allows the freedom of choice to be given to the guest. The guest can see which activities he wants to go for. He can in fact book it online before he comes in.

Because of our 1200 km submarine cable, we have been able to connect all the islands and the resorts. And the capacity is enormous. There’s more than 1 terabyte of capacity that is available today, which can be used for fuelling technological innovations in all the resorts. So having said that, Ooredoo Business, which is the enterprise service of Ooredoo, specialises in ensuring Internet solutions for the tourism industry and also for the general corporate at large. We have set up partnerships with the top suppliers in the world and these partnerships are beneficial to the solutions that we provide.

The next level of innovation I want to talk to you about is artificial intelligence and machine learning. All these engines will start becoming real even in the tourism industry.

Hotel Insider: Resorts are embracing new technology; they have to because of the needs of the contemporary traveller. For instance, top-tier resorts like Amilla Fushi and Chavel Blanc make good use of iPads and digital media in their rooms. Do you see an opportunity here? How can you assist them?

Najib Khan: In fact some of the resorts are doing this in a very prototype and pilot basis and there has to be a lot of innovation done to make it superfluous. There’s a servicing element and a support element to it, which is not really thought through in some of the resorts that we see.

However, for us in Ooredoo Business, we have developed tools, which are remote maintenance tools. Since most of the equipment are IP based we should be able to monitor them proactively. This is where we are moving, where more and more interfaces will be with tools and backend machines. If all the equipment on the resort are on an IP layer, the command centre can actually proactively see that there is an issue coming in and also heal and rectify it and restore it.

We can help develop a full backend support system or a command centre and we have to ensure that we always have an Internet pipe that doesn’t ever go down. For that we have multiple submarine cables, so that you never face low availability.

We find that most consumers access Google, Facebook, Netflix and those types of services. Many of these services are cached here in the Maldives and peered directly, this reduces the response time drastically. So we have Facebook caching, we have Google peering and Google caching which helps us to reduce the response time.

Hotel Insider: The guesthouse market is also growing rapidly. Do you feel it’s a market worth tapping into?

Najib Khan: I think the guesthouse industry is an important category within the Maldives. And we have a service suite for this sector, which has Internet, Wi-Fi and cloud combined for them. This means guesthouses do not have to spend heavily on building huge IT infrastructures. It’s a pay per use model. If they want a Microsoft [Office] 365, they don’t need to buy the license we can give it to them online. If they need the accounting software, that can come on the cloud. All they need is just an Internet connection in their guesthouse, which they can provide to the guest but also use to run the operations. They really don’t require an IT infrastructure.

Hotel Insider: Questions of security and privacy abound in today‘s world, especially in the hospitality industry where hotels have access to some of your most private information. What sort of role would Ooredoo play in enhancing guest security and privacy?

Najib Khan: Data analytics can really be useful for the benefit of the customer because many of the guests we see here keep on repetitively visiting the same resort again and again. Data analytics can be used to customize the experience for the customer. Most of this data is run by huge encryption, and it has triple factor authentication, not everybody can get access to the data, and also that data is not so personal beyond a particular point. The encryption does not even allow the service provider access to that data. So in that way it is a highly secured vault of information.

And if you look at our Internet, it also comes with a secured firewall as a standard offering, so when we provide Internet it comes with privacy security software.

Hotel Insider: Where do you see Ooredoo in say five years from now, in the Maldives’ context? What can we expect from you in the coming years?

Najib Khan: In the digital world, in 5 years things can go in any direction. However, for us I think because of the way we have developed our vision; which is of a Digital Maldives, we’d continue to be on this journey of ensuring that more and more processes in the Maldives become digital.

Our vision for Ooredoo is not to be a telecom company but to be a digital company. And being a digital company means we could be an enabler of banking, we could be an enabler of hospitality, we can be an enabler of education and of course be a technology partner for resorts in the travel and tourism industry. In the Maldives I think we should be able to enable any financial transaction or any health transaction or health service transaction using a digital app, or it could be web or it could be using VR. We are trying to make the company move in that direction; make it very, very agile.

The investments that we’ve made already, above USD 194 million, for the infrastructure allows us and gives us the opportunity to touch every sector, every area of the economy today. So whether it is the government sector whether it is the tourism sector, and the general corporate sector we can enable efficiency by deploying our agile technology. This is also the mind-set that we are developing internally because digital is an attitude, it is not a subject that we learn, and that’s what we are moving towards.