Born in Chennai, India, Meenakshi Sundaram is probably one of the least likely people to have made a career in the hospitality industry. He has an academic background in zoology, is certified in library and information science, and had other dreams but circumstances led him to a hotel in his home city. It grew on him and now, he’s the general manager at The Residence Maldives in Gaafu Alifu Atoll. We had a chat about his journey, what he thinks of ‘Western’ vs “Asian” hospitality and The Residence Maldives’ big plan for this year. Read on.
Hotel Insider: You tried a few different things before settling on tourism. You studied zoology, for instance. How does one go from that to tourism management? Can you describe your journey a bit?
Meenakshi Sundaram: The thing is, I really wanted to become a doctor. My family has a lot of doctors and teachers, including my cousins; so naturally, I was trying to become one myself. After completing my degree in zoology, due to circumstances in my family, I had to find work. And those days, there weren’t many jobs available in Chennai. I got a job in the hotel industry, and at that time, it [hospitality] was fairly new, at least in my part of the country. I started as a front office cashier and worked my way up from supervisory positions to management roles to general manager. It’s a long but interesting journey, almost 27 years. I was also very lucky to get this opportunity to be here at The Residence Maldives. I’d like to thank the holding company Bonvests Holdings and its chairman Mr. Henry Ngo and executive director Mr. Gary Xie. I’ve been with the company for over seven years.
Hotel Insider: What drew you to the hospitality industry? You started work as a cashier but it became more than a job for you.
Meenakshi Sundaram: I got married at 21. So, I had to find work to support my family. During early 90’s, there weren’t many jobs available and I was blessed to get a job in the hotel industry. In fact, I’m the only one from my family and extended family to work in this field. You have to know that during those days in Chennai, this was still quite new. It’s a different situation now. But at that time, people doubted whether I could have a career in this industry. Since then my passion for the hospitality industry led me to pursue masters degrees in tourism management, hotel management and an MBA in hospitality.
Hotel Insider: Was your family concerned about your career choice?
Meenakshi Sundaram: They were a bit worried about my future, my career goals because as I’ve said, people weren’t very familiar with the kind of opportunities that this industry can provide. Having said that, they fully supported me. I’ve missed important dates, like the birth of my two sons [laughs].
Hotel Insider: [laughs] Really?
Meenakshi Sundaram: [laughs] Yes, when my first son was born, I was attending a training programme somewhere and I got a call. When my youngest was born, I was actually here in the Maldives. But my family has been nothing if not understanding and I’m very blessed that way.
Hotel Insider: All right, let’s get back to the original question. What was attractive about the industry, what made you embark on a career in hospitality?
Meenakshi Sundaram: I think the fact that in the hotel industry you have so many different elements working together is something that greatly interested me. Unlike, say, a specialised industry like IT. In our industry, we cover so many areas from engineering to IT to culinary arts to accounting. This really appealed to me. Initially, when people thought of hotels, it was just about going and spending a few nights at a property and having someone check you in and out. But I saw how many different elements combined to create an experience for the guests. And it has to be specialised as well; an engineer working in construction for a construction company is different from one working in a resort or hotel though their qualifications may be the same. And the fact that you meet different kinds of people on a daily basis, I think, gives you a very good opportunity to learn. And I’ve always had this belief that I can learn something from everyone I meet.
Hotel Insider: Were you always a people person? Like when you were younger, were you very sociable?
Meenakshi Sundaram: [laughs] You’ll have to ask my colleagues. But really, I think I am a people person. I do care about people, that’s actually what I’m here for. Our industry is all about people, both guests and staff.
Hotel Insider: OK. Right. You’ve also experienced hospitality in Europe, in the UK for instance, where you were the front office manager at the Holiday Inn in Kingston Upon Thames. Have you observed any key differences between Asian and European hospitality?
Meenakshi Sundaram: Traditionally, the ‘West’ was the trendsetter in hospitality; well known for their high standards and flair in delivering service. The main difference I think is in the West, the service focus is mainly on discipline, whereas in Asia we tend to take a middle ground between discipline and human relations management. This could be due to Asians being more hospitable generally, by nature. The Maldives is a good example of that, the standards here are pretty high, one of the best in the world and I have travelled quite a bit in Asia and Europe.
Hotel Insider: Where have you been in Asia?
Meenakshi Sundaram: I’ve travelled in the East to Japan and Korea. They’re very nice, very disciplined and polite but when it comes to heartfelt service, I think you need to come to the Maldives. That’s where I think the Maldives is a trendsetter in the industry.
Also, I’d like to add that earlier it was only western hospitality brands that were making headlines like the Intercontinental, Accor, Hilton and so on. But now, you have more Asian brands like Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental, Dusit Thani and our own brand The Residence by Cenizaro. Today we have a collection of six properties; we’re represented in the Maldives, Mauritius, Zanzibar, Tunis and Bintan.
Hotel Insider: It’s a Singaporean company isn’t it?
Meenakshi Sundaram: Yes, our holding company Bonvests Holdings Ltd is based in Singapore.
Hotel Insider: Do you think there’s space for small brands in today’s world? Especially when big brands are acquiring smaller ones and adding to their portfolio?
Meenakshi Sundaram: Yes, definitely. We’re a good example, we’ve been around for more than 22 years. Our first property opened in Tunis, followed by Mauritius, Zanzibar, Maldives and Bintan. We will be opening our second island in the Maldives, The Residence Maldives At Dhigurah and a couple more properties in Tunis. Definitely, the smaller brands also have a big future and that’s something unique in this industry. As long as you provide the service and keep the guest at the centre, you can be successful. There are so many brands that aren’t very big that have been successful, especially in Asia.
Hotel Insider: I also wanted to ask you whether pre-opening experience is essential to a person in your role since you’ve been with several pre-opening teams in your career.
Meenakshi Sundaram: I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence; all the properties that I’ve worked were pre-opening properties [laughs]. I think they are a very important part of a career in this industry. You learn a lot in terms of planning, you start from scratch. Plus, you learn how to source things from different parts of the world especially in a place like the Maldives. And you have to budget, plan and forecast your revenue and expenditure even before starting operations. Also, it allows you to be more creative during the pre-opening phase as it gives you the freedom to test a few things before you start the actual operations. In the Maldives it’s like running your own little island village because you have your own power generation, desalination and so forth. You can plan for a lot of environmentally friendly measures. Like with us, we’ve put in place a system whereby the heat from outdoor units of ACs are used to heat hot water boilers and the treated water from the sewage treatment plant is used for watering the plants etc. Pre-opening experience, especially in the Maldives, will give you a deeper understanding of how things work in the industry.
Hotel Insider: Let’s talk about your property for a bit. What would you say are the draws here?
Meenakshi Sundaram: I’d say that our product is a big draw. It’s beautiful, elegant and the villas are very spacious with 137 square metres minimum. The heartfelt service from the team is another, and it’s at the core of our brand. We’ve got excellent cuisine with a lot of variety for guests. And we’re located in the largest and deepest atoll in the Maldives, and being away from major tourist spots gives us a tranquillity that’s hard to find elsewhere. Also, we’ve got lots of activities, from the spa to the water sports and dive centre and excursions.
Hotel Insider: A lot of draws indeed. And you’re opening up a new property next door.
Meenakshi Sundaram: Yes, it’s going to be The Residence Maldives at Dhigurah. It will be our second resort in the Maldives and we plan to open in the second quarter this year. It will have 173 villas, on the beach, lagoon and water, and each villa will have its own pool. Plus, we’ll have three restaurants and three bars. We’ve connected the two islands with a kilometre-long bridge.
Hotel Insider: Perhaps the longest bridge in the Maldives. [laughs]
Meenakshi Sundaram: Probably the longest connecting two resorts, in any case [laughs]. Also, what’s interesting from a guest point of view is the opportunity to experience two island resorts during a stay, and the chance to visit both islands and use their facilities.
Hotel Insider: Sounds great, Sundaram. All the best and it’s been great chatting with you.