This time, Hotel Insider meets up with Michael Wieser, an experienced Austrian with three decades of hospitality behind him. He’s no stranger to luxury, having managed Sheraton Hotels and Le Meridian properties in the late 90s and early 2000s. He’s also spent several years in the Middle East working with the Domina Hotel Group. Today, he oversees Hideaway Beach Resort & Spa and its sister property Lily Beach Resort & Spa as CEO. This article first appeared in our print Issue No. 3.

Hotel Insider: You’ve been in the industry for over 35 years, quite a while really. Almost as old as tourism in the Maldives. Can you tell us how the industry’s changed, the most significant changes you’ve observed? Is it more challenging to work in hospitality than it was?

Michael Wieser: Well, I went to the classical hotel school and my parents had a small country hotel so I was introduced to the industry when I was very young. And I worked with some notable brands, Starwood, Steigenberger Hotels (in Germany), so I’ve been exposed to many countries and cultures over the years. I’ve seen the sort of challenges to business in the places that I’ve worked. 

So much has changed since I started. I’d go back to 2010, which was when I arrived in the Maldives. Business was just booming; the inflow of tourists was very robust. But that has changed over the years. It has to do with the fact that a lot of resorts have appeared. But it also has to do with certain changes in the world, certain challenges. Economic instability impacted the industry. And of course, now, everyone has to fight very hard to capture market shares and to penetrate new markets because business has become much more different from ten years back. 

China has been a major contributor to tourist inflows over the past ten years, but last year it was interrupted with the bankruptcy of Mega Maldives, and now, there are not enough seats for incoming [Chinese] tourists. Looking forward though, the Maldives is a well of potential, that’s why international brands are keen to have their footprint here. When you go back ten years or so, there weren’t as many international brands. Today you have Cheval Blanc, St Regis, Marriott, Fairmont. It’s like in a high street, if there’s one good brand there, the rest of the brands will want to be present. And of course, we all know because of the country’s great average room rates and its beauty, international hotel chains and domestic investors are very keen to expand business here.

Hotel Insider: Do you see more international chains coming in over the next few years?

Michael Wieser:I know that quite a few are looking [to establish themselves in the Maldives]. Rosewood Hotels for example. I’ve heard from a source that Kempinski Hotels are interested as well. And Ritz Carlton, there’s still a lot of brands who want to have high-end hotels here.

Hotel Insider: You talked about changes in hospitality over the past few years, and today we see that social media has become a huge phenomenon in the industry, shaping how hotels are perceived by potential customers.

Michael Wieser: Yes, social media has become very dominant. People have realised that it’s a very quick way of bringing a product to customers. We’ve realised that our classical adverts in high-end magazines are not as effective as they were some years ago. Today, it’s more about high-profile people who have a lot of followers on social media. When they upload photos, we see how quickly they’re being liked, re-tweeted. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are very powerful marketing tools and we’re learning as we go. We sometimes bring celebrities here and we see things happen very fast on social media after they upload a few photos. Getting the right ambassadors to carry the brand is our main means of expanding and bringing Hideaway out to the world. Amidst brand giants existing in the industry, we seize the opportunity by getting the right person to represent us and that someone must have experienced and believed in Hideaway’s potential as a luxury resort.

Hotel Insider: One of your key areas of focus is e-commerce isn’t it?  

Michael Wieser: Yes.

Hotel Insider: A hotel needs to have a great image on the web, and you need to be able to do things easily online, like getting hotel information, booking rooms and so on.

Michael Wieser: Yes, that’s correct. We have invested quite a bit in that aspect. Also, when it comes to gauging customer satisfaction, we’re using a company called Review Pro. They pick up any comment, positive or negative, from TripAdvisor or HolidayCheck or other booking sources, and these comments are consolidated and benchmarked against other resorts. We have a very high score, running around 98 per cent. We’re always pushing very hard to be on the top three positions. It’s important because when we talk to our partners in the travel industry, we can show our high score and therefore assure them that we’re delivering outstanding service to customers. It’s not like in the old days when you used comment cards. Now, there’s nothing in between, customers can tell us on different social media channels what they think of their stay.

Hotel Insider: Let’s talk about Hideaway for a bit. You’re far away from Male’, in the northernmost atoll, but you don’t have much competition here. Plus, there’s virtually no traffic, you don’t have seaplanes coming in, you don’t see speedboats going to and fro in the distance, it’s very secluded, very private.

Michael Wieser:We always try to explain that being far away is not a disadvantage, there’s a lot of plusses that come along with it. The marine life out here is extraordinary, so pure. They’re not disturbed by boats or seaplanes. And I feel that because of the developments around Male’ Atoll, we’ll be at an advantage in the future. Because people look for uniqueness. Some years ago, I went on a safari with my children in South Africa. We took a long-haul flight, then a domestic one, and then we drove two and a half hours in a Jeep through a very rocky landscape, but at the end of it, the animals that we saw were exceptional.

Hotel Insider: So, it’s a bit like that?

Michael Wieser:It’s a bit like that, yes. It’s a bit more travel, a little extra effort, but I’ve always explained to our partners that it’s also what’s great about Hideaway. That extra effort goes a very long way.

Hotel Insider: You’ve recently introduced a White Platinum all inclusive package here, you’ve got a lot of hopes on that.

Michael Wieser:We’ve successfully implemented this at Lily Beach when it was re-opened after redevelopment back in 2009. We were the pioneers of the Platinum Plan and it worked very well for us there. The market knows Lily Beach, horizontal and vertical. The Plan was well accepted, our customers have a really hassle-free vacation. We put a lot of value in the Platinum Plan, so we have over 70 wines, all international spirits are included, almost all the restaurants included, and it has been extremely successful. When we opened Hideaway, we stayed with the classical, meaning bed and breakfast, half board and full board. But again, since 2014, a lot of things have changed. Many hotels decided to go all-inclusive. Business is very challenging these days, and we’ve had discussions about going all-inclusive for a few years. I checked with our partners in the travel industry before we did and asked them what they thought of having a plan at Hideaway like what we have at Lily Beach. And they were very positive, they assured me that it was the right way to go. So, once we knew that it was what the market wanted, we went ahead. It’s great for families and for individuals, it makes for a very calculated holiday. And we’re the first high-end five-star resort who’s gone for such a package and I think we’ll be successful. Other destinations are doing it already, for example North Island in the Seychelles, a very expensive place, but they’re also all-inclusive and they’re doing very well.