This time around, Hotel Insider visits Amilla Fushi and sits down with Mark Hehir, CEO & Curator of TSMIC. Mark, who has decades of experience with luxury brands, is responsible for Amilla Fushi, Finolhu and Huvafen Fushi. We go over what gives TSMIC the ability and confidence to compete in a world of big brands, talk about changing travel demographics and what it means for companies like TSMIC, and close with brand essences and traits that define experiences at the company’s properties. This article first appeared in our print issue no. 5.

Hotel Insider: TSMIC is a homegrown brand and it’s competing locally with the likes of Four Seasons, Hilton etc. 

Mark Hehir:Yes, the top ten hotel brands around the world are in the Maldives now. You’ve also got the big Asian brands, like Anantara, Soneva, Banyan Tree.

Hotel Insider: It’s incredibly competitive.

Mark Hehir:Yes, more than ever before. So, for us, how we position ourselves and how we seize market share has been an interesting story. It comes back to some of our foundation ideas; of the Maldives as a one-island one resort destination. In that respect, we all have an opportunity to have a uniqueness. Whereas on a strip of beach in Bali or Thailand, you’re all sharing the same beach though you may make your hotel differently. Here, the all-encompassing experience is not just the hotel room or the restaurant or the spa. What customers have been trained to do over the past decades is to find a photo of a room in a hotel in a magazine or the internet and say ‘I want that room’. Now, people buy experiences. And consider that 70 plus per cent is coming from the wholesale market, some of them going back 40 years or so. 

Hotel Insider: Like Kuoni, TUI. 

Mark Hehir: Yeah, then you’ve got your bespoke tour operators around the world such as those in Chester, UK who’ve been selling the Maldives for half of that time. We’ve known them professionally for the last twenty years or so.

Hotel Insider: You mean the guys in Chester?

Mark Hehir: Yeah, and also Kuoni and Tui, and we have the same relationship with operators in Russia and Japan. These relationships are our strength. So, even if I’ve got a Hilton or a Marriott on my doorstep, I’ve still got that special relationship with my agents. They’re not bothered about the sign, they want to know the experience on the island, how the customer moves through the experience and enjoys its different elements. So, in their eyes, the brand isn’t the thing they’re looking for. It’s different around the world. In big cities for example, distribution systems that Marriott’s plugged into might give more than 50 per cent just because they’re Marriott. And then the rest comes through other organic ways. So, 30 per cent of our business comes in through these [organic] ways. 70 per cent comes through our relationships.

Hotel Insider: I see. So that’s how TSMIC competes with the big guys.

Mark Hehir:Yeah, we make sure our products are unique and that they’re pitched the right way. If they want to have a family experience that’s chic, quiet and understated, Amilla Fushi might be a resort that could appeal to that kind of customer. And that type of customer is one that might go to a Four Seasons or a One&Only. They want to know that the quality’s there. When they speak to their tour operator and tour operator asks them what they like and they say ‘Four Seasons’, then the conversation starts to go through the tour operator. They might ask the customer whether they’d heard of Amilla Fushi, and that Amilla Fushi would tick all their boxes though it’s not as commercial, that their service is a bit more bespoke, that there’s a lot more personalisation elements there. That’s how we’re able to compete with big brands. Because we’re a bit more flexible and are more in tune with what we want to do on the ground here. 

Hotel Insider: Yeah, and the travel demographic is changing. A lot of young people don’t care about big brands as much as their parents do. It’s good that you have a small local brand, this is the sort of thing that would appeal to them.  

Mark Hehir:Yeah, they’re much more educated in searching for things, filtering out the noise. They’re adept at all the digital media out there. They’re like ‘I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it here, it’s appealing to me.’ It’s not about the brand as much as it’s about the experience. So, we have to be very clear in defining what our properties are about, who we speak to and what kind of customer we want to attract. We’ve been trying to refine these aspects, especially over the last eighteen months. 

So, the chic, quiet, understated experience that appeals to the premium luxury customer or the aspiring premium luxury customer, well, Amilla Fushi is playing that card. Whereas Finolhu in Baa Atoll has the ability to reach up to the five-star market but be a lot more fun, less serious. The service levels at Finolhu’s restaurants and spa are on par with what you’d get at Amilla Fushi. However, the way we go about it, and how you enter into it is really a lot more different. 

Hotel Insider: Yeah, like you have therapy rooms at the spa named after people like Barbara Streisand. 

Mark Hehir:Yeah, so it already takes your mind in a different direction. So, for some purists who’re into chic and sophisticated spas that speak to them in a holistic way, they’re not going to find it very appealing. But the kind of people that Finolhu attracts will love it. And I think that’s where we’re really going in the right direction; I really believe that defining our essence and the four traits that we stand for in each resort are able to give us something to work with. Something that the team can start to use in the experiences to bring them alive. These four traits are not necessarily things we speak openly about but they give us inspiration.

Hotel Insider: Can you give an example?

Mark Hehir: Yeah, like at Huvafen Fushi, the brand essence is ‘Sensory Awakening’. Huvafen Fushi is ‘dream island’ in Dhivehi. It was the first real five-star boutique property in the Maldives where around forty four keys were created with every room having a pool, and with fibre optics in the main pool. It’s still the only property in the world with an underwater spa. And then you’ve got the underground wine cellar holding nearly a million dollars-worth of wine at some stages. And that was a benchmark for boutique resorts to follow, almost fourteen years ago.

So, ‘Sensory Awakening’ was the tagline for the property, just to remind everyone that we needed to continue this sensory experience in a boutique resort. And then to support that, we said that we wanted to have a seductive embrace. Meaning the resort should have moments around it that bring you closer to it or draw you to the experience with some kind of allure. Then there’s passionately discreet. We felt that a boutique island needs to be very discreet, it has to feel like you’re whisked away from the airport in your beautifully air-conditioned boat, and you’re met on the jetty by your Thakuru (butler) who takes you immediately to your room in a buggy, and nobody sees you. Like you’re a movie star. Huvafen Fushi is not a place where you’d want to see three-year-olds running around and shouting. It’s peaceful, calm, so therefore we get a chance to be passionately discreet.

Hotel Insider: That’s why you made Huvafen 16 plus, eh?

Mark Hehir: [Laughs] In fact, I wanted to push the bar even higher, to make a statement, to shock everybody. The third trait is dynamic connoisseur. It means, with our underground wine cellar and our new Japanese restaurant, we’ve got to be best in class, providing, in our books, the best culinary experience in the Maldives. The idea is to bring Feeling Koi (signature restaurant at Huvafen Fushi) overseas through the food and beverage experiences and have our dynamic connoisseur experiences reaching right out at you. But also, I challenge the team to use that to inspire them to be connoisseurs of diving for example, to make sure we have the best equipment, to take guests to the best spots. Then we have fearless imagination. For us, it means I want our team to challenge themselves to create and develop experiences. The underwater spa has already been built, you can’t rely on it just because it’s there. What we’re after is utilising those kinds of places to create a sort of journey for guests. So now we have four clear paths to give guests a sensory awakening. In those four paths lie the parameters. And then I say to the GM and managers on the ground, ‘knock yourselves out’.

Hotel Insider: That’s pretty inspiring really. So, thank you Mark for your time, it’s been a pleasure sitting down with you again.