This time for Conversation, we sit down with Steve Ng, the group general manager of Hulhule’ Island Hotel. He also heads Maldives Inflight Catering Pvt Ltd and Madifushi, the new resort that is being developed in Meemu atoll.
Malaysia-born Steve Ng has over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry, having worked for some of the top hospitality brands across the globe, such as Malaysia’s Berjaya Corporation Berhad and the InterContinental Group. He has also managed hotels in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Seychelles, to name a few.
Since he took up the reins at Hulhule’ Island Hotel in September last year, the hotel has gone through major transformations. And there’s more planned for the future.
We had a chat with him to talk about emerging trends in the industry, his plans for the hotel, and his thoughts on how Maldives can stay ahead of the competition.
Hotel Insider: Can you walk us through some major changes that the hotel has gone through since its opening?
Steve Ng: Occupancy remains consistent. Of course, as our main clientele are airline crew and business travellers, while we see some fluctuation over the year, the occupancy rates remains pretty constant even during low season.
Hotel Insider: Can you tell us some things that affect occupancy? Like external events, such as natural disasters and political unrest. Do they have an impact?
Steve Ng: Natural disasters such as tsunamis definitely have an impact, but only for a short while. Just like when I was working in Thailand when the tsunamis hit, I think that the impact is comparatively smaller here. Similar to political instability, I feel that it does not affect occupancy that much. When I was in Cha Am when Thaksin was overthrown, and while they closed down the airport for one month, it only took them nine months to resume business. Of course, airlines would try to make changes in such times of political instability, just like airlines who tried changed their routes to transit in Maldives instead of Sri Lanka when the bombings happened in Sri Lanka recently. However, not many airlines finally made the switch because there are a lot of expenses involved. I think that as long as the tourism ministry continues to promote Maldives and keeps on assuring people that it is safe to visit, it will be okay.
Hotel Insider: Being the only city hotel in the greater Male’ area that serves alcohol, do you feel that you have an advantage over the others?
Steve Ng: Honestly, that is the common perception, but I do not think that this has resulted in any major impact to us in terms of hotel occupancy. With safari boats just five to ten minutes away, or nearby resorts offering free flow of drinks for a small charge, people who really want to drink will go to these options instead. I think that there are advantages to come to HIH instead, but for our regular guests, it’s more for the social setting instead of just for the alcohol.
Hotel Insider: With the development of the Hulhumale’ second phase, more city hotels will crop up in the greater Male’ area. Are you concerned that this will affect your business?
Steve Ng: With the development of the airport and Hulhumale’s second phase, we expect many changes. However, we are not in direct competition because the guesthouses are vastly different from our hotel. They offer a different experience, and they also target a different market segment at a lower price point, which is different from ours.
We should be cognizant that with such rapid expansion, there is the possibility of starting a price war between hotels and guesthouses. This is similar to what happened in Thailand many years go, resulting in five-star hotels dropping to four-stars, four-stars to three-stars and so on, due to the price competition. It is crucial that we (and the ministry) understand that we need to be clear on the kind of market that we need, and that we cannot satisfy everyone.
Hotel Insider: With the ongoing expansion of the airport, there will be a significant increase in tourist arrivals. How many guests will you be able to accommodate in the future? And what changes will we see then?
Steve Ng: We understand that the government has predicted that with the ongoing expansion, the number of arrivals will increase to 14 million. Thus, we are also expanding our market segments, and we are also looking at attracting MICE clients. With the upcoming 12,000 square feet ballroom that we are building, we will have the capacity to accommodate 500-800 guests at a single event, which is a market segment that no other resort is able to serve at this point.
At present, we have 136 rooms, but are looking at expanding our hotel to 220 rooms with the upcoming expansion plans. This will then increase our capacity to more than 400 guests in-house.
Hotel Insider: The country’s tourism industry is heading towards mass tourism, with big international players establishing themselves here. What are your thoughts on this? And will the Maldives still be able to stay ahead of competition?
Steve Ng: As a tourist destination, when you compare it to Seychelles, Mauritius or Fiji, Maldives is already ahead of the competition! The beautifully formed atolls and gorgeous islands, crystal clear waters and sandy beaches are so different here, and it already promises guests an incomparable experience.
Sadly, though, the general upkeep of the country is sorely lacking, with garbage being a major problem. Our hotel sees a lot of garbage washing up on our beach area, and it takes a lot of time and effort to clean it up. Once, we even had a mini fridge wash up our beach, can you imagine? I worry that if it continues this way, tourists will be greatly turned off by the amount of garbage, especially considering how much they have spent to come here for a holiday. It would be really sad state if our guests do not return because of the negative experience that they have had here.
Hotel Insider: Can you share your thoughts on Maldives’ marketing approach?
Steve Ng: Personally, I think that MMPRC is doing a good job especially under the leadership of managing director Thoyyib. I believe MMPRC has plans to visit many places, and I am also joining them for a trip to Korea next month for a roadshow. I have also heard that they are planning to go to Russia, which I feel is a good move as Russian guests have proven to be big spenders and we should continue to engage them.
Hotel Insider: As a parting question, what do successful hoteliers do differently, do you think?
Steve Ng: I cannot claim to be a successful hotelier, but I always believe that we should never remain static. We should always venture into new things. Our hotel has been around eighteen years, and so it is crucial that we should not remain as merely an airport hotel. There will always be hiccups, but we should learn from them and move on, and take on more challenges. We cannot just remain comfortable, and this is something that I believe strongly in.
Hotel Insider: Thank you so much for your time, Steve.