Aishath Afra (Ana) is the co-founder and managing director of Resort Fitness Maldives, a company that provides fitness equipment and services to the resorts in the Maldives. Hotel Insider caught up with Ana to have a chat about the triumphs and trials of her career that’s now spanned more than a decade and also to find out her thoughts on being a female entrepreneur in the country.
Hotel Insider: What made you get involved in fitness?
Ana: It all started because I wanted to lose some weight for my aunt’s wedding. I was very sporty at school; I was involved in athletics, netball and all sorts of sporty activities, but for some reason I was always a bit overweight. So, I joined an aerobics class at Sheri and it turned out to be something I really enjoyed. I found myself wanting to become an instructor as well. I was fifteen back then and was just about to finish school, so when the opportunity to train as an aerobics instructor at Sheri came my way, I decided to take it.
Hotel Insider: Since you’ve mentioned that you’ve always been sporty, did you see yourself working in the fitness field even back then?
Ana: I was really happy to be involved in something that I loved but at that point I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do when I grew up. Getting first place from the instructor course encouraged me; I got first place in both practical and theory. Sheri did not hire me as an instructor right away because I was too young and inexperienced, but I had the opportunity to be on call as a substitute instructor, and one day I got to teach my first class and from there on my confidence began to grow.
Hotel Insider: So did you pursue further training?
Ana: While I was working at Sheri, I received the opportunity to become an international aerobics instructor by completing a FISAAF International Certificate in Singapore. That was in 2000. And three months later I did the FISAAF personal trainer course as well. I was one among the first three women personal instructors from Maldives; we did the course together.
Hotel Insider: Is it safe to assume that personal training was a men’s thing in Male’ back then? Can you describe the local fitness scene of those days?
Ana: Well women wouldn’t go to gyms; aerobics was the women’s fitness thing while the handful of gyms in Male’ were used by men for pumping. There wasn’t much personal training at all, and back then I remember wanting to find a gym so that I can provide personal training.
Hotel Insider: So how did you solve that?
Ana: I left my job at Sheri and joined Heat Health & Fitness. They didn’t have a gym either but upon my advising a small gym was setup. The gym turned out to be a new and exciting thing for the ladies and I really enjoyed providing personal training, giving out diets and all. I loved it so much that on most days I would work from six to six.
Hotel Insider: How did you get involved in the business aspect of things?
Ana: A few developments landed me in a position where I was running the entire operation of Heat Health & Fitness. That sure was challenging since during those days we moved to a new building and employed more staff as well. But in the end it was successful as a business and I loved doing it. I was so young and had to learn so much and made so many mistakes. I had to think about things like marketing, how the place was to be perceived by the public among other things.
Hotel Insider: So let’s talk about Resort Fitness Maldives. Tell us a little bit about your company.
Ana: Resort Fitness Maldives was formed in 2014 and I co-own the company with Dr. Ikleel Shareef; he owns fifty per cent of the company.
I had gained some experience in running a business from my time at Heat Health & Fitness and Resort Fitness Maldives was a result of me wanting to take things a step further. At the beginning of the company, we formed a partnership with F1 Recreation, Singapore’s sole distributor for the renowned US based Life Fitness equipment brand and we began providing equipment, maintenance and aftersales services to the resorts in the Maldives.
Hotel Insider: Starting a new business, were there any major challenges?
Ana: Our main challenge was concerning trust; resorts found it difficult to trust a local party. This was mainly because there were actually a lot of local parties that were providing the same service, but their service was not at par with what’s acceptable. For example, after collecting the orders from the resorts these parties might deliver replica equipment from China and when these break, there won’t be any spare parts available. So we had to put in a lot of effort to have us perceived as authentic.
Hotel Insider: So, what steps did you take to gain the trust of potential clients?
Ana: As soon as we started the company, I sent a staff to Singapore so that F1 Recreation can train him. This was to make sure that our services, whether maintenance or aftersales, is delivered to the resorts by a trained professional.
After we got over that initial hurdle, over the years we’ve actually managed to gain a sizable client base and become perceived as a trusted partner.
Hotel Insider: Do you have plans to take your business even further?
Ana: Recently we’ve partnered with the reputable spa equipment brand Starpool and are about to open our own health and fitness centre at Maafushi, Ufaa Health & Spa.
Hotel Insider: Tell us more about Ufaa Health & Spa.
Ana: It’s an all-new concept. Maafushi has so many guesthouses and it’s impractical for every individual guesthouse to have their own gym and spa. Ufaa Health & Spa allows the tourists staying at Maafushi to engage in health and fitness activities, and this is a concept that I’d like to take to other islands as well.
Additionally, I think having our own gym is important, now clients can visit us and have an easier look at our equipment.
Hotel Insider: Did you undergo any business training?
Ana: No I’ve never had any business training. It’s all from experience. I am very business focused. I travel a lot and I like observing how systems work, such as franchises; how they manage staff and all aspects of the business.
Hotel Insider: In your business dealings, are there any challenges you face particularly because you are a woman?
Ana: I personally do not face too many challenges because of my gender. I find that people do actually listen to me. I think it’s about having confidence. Being direct and projecting confidence means people will be hesitant to take advantage of you.
Hotel Insider: Last question, do you have any words of advise for young women looking to start their own businesses?
Ana: I would say have a good strategy, promote yourself, and as I’ve said before deal with confidence. Also, do not flirt as that will often lead to being bullied. There are a lot of smart women out there who want to do something of their own and my advice is to start small and expand on it rather than having a big start with huge investments.