To see women in top positions at resorts, especially Maldivians, is like the sighting of a rare celestial event. It’s a subject we touch on over the course of the interview.
Shaaz grew up in Male’ not too long ago; she is one of those people who’re open and welcoming and, at the same time, somewhat reserved. She doesn’t have an imposing stature; she is petite and her voice is low, in volume and pitch, yet she has an undeniable presence and she commands your complete attention. Hotel Insider talks to her about her childhood aspirations, what it’s like managing a resort like Soneva Jani, why there aren’t many women in positions like hers and whether her childhood self would be proud of who she is now. Read on.
Hotel Insider: What sort of things were you into when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Shaaz: I had too many interests back then. I wanted to be a teacher, a nurse, and in secondary school I wanted to join the police force. But they all had something in common, all of them involved caring for people in some way.
Hotel Insider: True. Was there ever a moment when you thought, ‘yes, hospitality is where I want to be for the rest of my life?
Shaaz: The decision to work in hospitality was made very quickly actually. I was doing my A-levels at the time, in what’s now the Centre for Higher Secondary Education (CHSE). I’d always be at the library in between classes because I loved reading magazines. And it so happened that I was reading through a Time magazine. Do you know Time?
Hotel Insider: We’re not that young, of course we know Time magazine.
Shaaz: [laughs] Anyway, it was a letter to the editor about an article that had appeared on a previous issue. The article was saying something along the lines of there being no secluded beaches anywhere, that you don’t get quiet beach holidays, there was too much partying on beaches and so on. The person who wrote to the editor said he certainly didn’t agree with the article, that he’d just come from a holiday in the Maldives where he and his wife stayed at a beautiful, quiet island called Soneva Fushi. I found the name very interesting, catchy even. Soneva is not a local name and paired with ‘Fushi’ it becomes very exotic, something familiar but not quite.
Hotel Insider: Yeah, we think we know what you mean.
Shaaz: Yes, I was very intrigued. It was very hard to find out information about the resort back then, we didn’t have the internet at our fingertips. Then a friend of mine went to Eydhafushi and he told me the resort was very close to the island. And I was very impressed with his description. I think it must have been fate because a few days later, I saw an advert for the first BTEC diploma at the Hotel School in Male’. I was very excited. Even though I was studying for my A-Levels, I decided to enrol in the course.
Hotel Insider: Did you quit school?
Shaaz: No, I was about to finish school anyway, it was just the last few months. So, I called up my dad and told him that I wanted to do this, and he told me to think about it for a couple of days and if I still felt like it, then enrol.
Hotel Insider: It’s great that you got support from your family.
Shaaz: Yes, especially from my dad. He was just a bit concerned because I’d gone through so many phases, like I’ve said. He wanted me to make up my mind. A couple of days later, I called him and said I wanted to go ahead, and I went for interviews and got selected. I was really happy. I didn’t start going to Hotel School until I’d finished my A-Level exams, though. And when I finally wound up with Hotel School, I graduated at the top of my batch. That gave me the confidence to pursue a career in hospitality.
Hotel Insider: That’s pretty inspiring. What did you do next?
Shaaz: Soon after graduation I got the opportunity to work for the Crown Company. I was a telephone operator at Veligandu [Resort]. That’s my first taste of the hospitality industry.
Hotel Insider: What was that like?
Shaaz: I wasn’t really cut out for it. I didn’t like being cooped up in an office all the time so I asked for different work from the manager. He was very accommodating. I helped him out with his work and oversaw housekeeping for a bit when the supervisor was on emergency leave. Also, after some restructuring at the company, I was put in charge of F&B. So, by the time I left the company, I had experienced almost all of the major departments. Oh, and while I was an F&B supervisor, I also applied for a job at Soneva Fushi a couple of times. My first attempt wasn’t successful, but the second time I struck gold. They took me in as a guest-relations officer.
Hotel Insider: That’s wonderful. It’s like a dream come true isn’t it?
Shaaz: Yes, I was selected as a Ms Friday not long afterwards. It meant closer and more frequent interactions with guests. As a Ms Friday, I became dedicated to the guests assigned to me.
Hotel Insider: It’s essentially a butler’s role, no?
Shaaz: Yes. The name came about because Soneva portrays their properties as Robinson Crusoe islands, and so of course, you’d have your Man Friday.
Hotel Insider: Right. You’ve worked your way up to your current position, so you must have a pretty good understanding of what goes on at the frontline of a resort.
Shaaz: I believe so, yes. It’s given me a good enough understanding of everything in general though I may not be an expert. And not only about things that happen at the frontline, but also at the back of the house. In my position, you need to understand everything that goes on at the property.
Hotel Insider: What’s the most challenging aspect of running a place like Soneva Jani? These days hotels are under a lot of scrutiny from social media and reviewing platforms.
Shaaz: I’d say it’s logistics. People think Soneva Jani is small, it’s only 25 villas, but it’s a huge space, as you can see. So, it’s definitely challenging. As for reviews and criticism, it’s more about the recovery process, how you deal with something that’s gone wrong. What I’ve noticed is that most of the time, the guests who come back to a place are those who’ve encountered issues during their stay but had those issues dealt with properly by the team.
Hotel Insider: OK. Now, we’d like to know your thoughts on why we don’t see so many women, especially local women, in top positions at resorts and hotels.
Shaaz: I think one thing is that not many women in the past have taken an initiative to work at hotels or resorts. Also, I don’t think many Maldivian women see hospitality as a career; it’s more of a job to tide them over until they get married or until they have children. That’s one thing. Another thing; the resorts themselves aren’t equipped to have women in higher positions, especially if they have a family. Sometimes it feels as though you need to make a choice between having a family and your career and it’s very difficult to balance both. If you have a family or a child, having the child stay at the resort is a big risk, and I don’t think many resorts are very willing to give that opportunity. But now that more women are joining the industry, I think it will have an impact on resorts whereby, in time, they will develop their facilities to cater for working mums. I have my two-year old son here with me at Soneva Jani. It was quite challenging in the beginning; I didn’t want to leave him behind. I’ve had interviews where I felt like I’d nailed it but at one point you’d have the conversation about the child and that becomes the deciding factor.
Hotel Insider: Yeah, we see what you mean.
Shaaz: But it’s not just the industry, I think the whole community needs to encourage women to work at resorts. I’ll give you a small example. I’ve encountered a lot of men working in different properties, generations of men actually. But when I ask them if they’d have their niece or sister work in a resort quite often the answer has been “No,”. And they can’t explain their position to me.
Hotel Insider: Why do you think that is?
Shaaz: I think it’s because when tourism started, a lot of locals who worked in it weren’t very educated, and probably that wasn’t the best foundation for the industry. Ours is also still a very conservative community, women are expected to stay at home and take care of the family. And the fact that most people don’t know what goes on at resorts is also a factor I think. We’re trying to change that by having school children from higher grades and their parents visit us at the resort. We visit some schools as well, where we discuss pretty much anything and everything. Also, this year, Soneva has selected only female junior hosts for our internship programme.
Hotel Insider: Yes, changing perceptions will be a long game but these are good steps. Last question. Do you think your childhood self will be proud of who you are now?
Shaaz: [laughs] I have no doubt.