Martin van der Reijden is a man of many talents, as you will see in the course of the interview. But one particular trait that stands out is his willingness to risk the safety of the known for the chaos and potential of the unknown. He is a key figure in 21st century hospitality in the Maldives, having worked with some of the most daring personalities and brands in the country. Now, he has settled down, for the time being at Cora Cora Maldives, a resort that shows guests and team members what it means to be free.
Hotel Insider: You’ve been a busy person since coming to the Maldives decades ago. You’ve worked with some of the industry’s biggest players: Tom McLoughlin, Mark Hehir, Dominic Ruhl and also with Dirk de Cuyper as part of Crossroads.
Martin: Yes, I’ve been several different people over the years – from general manager, interior designer, landscaper, lighting consultant, procurement specialist to project manager. I think what’s really important for someone who joins the industry and really wants to make a mark is not to let themselves be boxed in. You don’t want to join the front office and be a front office manager after ten or fifteen years because that’s really middle of the road. That is being said with utmost respect for people that are enjoying a certain aspect of our industry and are happy in that chosen field but if you want to get to a point where you start creating new products or services you must have experienced all elements of hotel development.
Hotel Insider: You spent close to twenty years with Hilton here before you made a move to Huvafen Fushi.
Martin: It was a very difficult choice because Hilton gave me a really generous offer when I let them know that I wanted to quit, a large Hilton in a bustling capital city. You have to know that Hilton takes care of everything for you if you’re with them. And I had two children. But there’s something in me that prevents me from getting too comfortable in one place I think, and I told Tom and the gang “yes.” So, I was moving from a massively structured environment to something that had just started out, Per Aquum, which was very hip at the time. It was me getting out of the corporate world, from structured to completely unstructured. And if you know Tom, he is known for big picture ideas – structures will eventually follow.
Hotel Insider: We’ve heard stories. He’s a legend.
Martin: Of course. Anyway, this was around the time when Soneva Gili and One&Only opened, and of the latter, people were saying ‘Oh, this is an artificial island, it is much too expensive, it will never work.’ But twenty years later, One&Only is still considered the cream of the crop.
Anyway, so, for me, jumping into the water with Tom and Mark Hehir and all was like taking a leap into cold water. There was a steep learning curve, I had to learn to do a lot by myself without guidance from a corporate head office. You had to find money, find investors, find development opportunities.
Hotel Insider: You also started LUX* North Male Atoll in 2013, could you tell us more about it?
Martin: LUX* North Male was a beautiful project. We began with the idea to build twenty super-luxury villas, each one with its own sailing boat that would anchor right in front of the villa. The flat roofs, curved walls all in white and the interiors with beautiful touches of colourful elements and art is something we were very proud of – it took almost five years from planning to opening. This process from initial concept to master planning, financing, project management and the appointment of an operator is what I find the most rewarding work in our industry as you can literally see “dreams coming true.” LUX* North Male was recently sold to Jumeriah and they are operating it now under their own flag.
Hotel Insider: You also worked on a watershed project, Crossroads.
Martin: Yes, that was another first for the Maldives. It was a huge project, reclaimed islands and a brand-new concept of a marina, a township and two international hotels all sharing the same interconnected land. There were a lot of naysayers in the early days. The whole marina idea was practically unheard of, and it’s bundled along with a museum, a hip Lounge club and shopping venues. It must have seemed too much for some but we’ve now come to see just how successful Crossroads is.
Hotel Insider: Then you became involved with Cora Cora, what used to be Loama.
Martin: Yes, but it had fallen into ruin essentially and I had to find out what’s there. And that’s what we did for four or five months, meet at eight every morning and go with the entire crew, hacking away the overgrown jungle. We came up with a landscaping plan and it took about half a year to get a clear view of what we had to do.
And towards the end of it, we realised that we needed to come up with a brand.
Hotel Insider: Yeah, Cora Cora is pretty catchy.
Martin: Yes it is, right? A lot of people ask me why we named it ‘Cora Cora.’ What’s the rationale behind it? And I guess an intellectual or academic type of answer would be to say that it has something to do with corals and colours.
But let me tell you what really happened. We had ten names from a branding agency on a PowerPoint presentation and a guy who speaks really nice English and he repeated these names, each one for like half a minute or so.
So, later, I had four or five people in my office and I said ‘OK, guys, we’ll listen to this and each of you will give the top three names on your list.’ And the thing is I cannot remember the other names on the list besides Cora Cora. Maybe there were very Maldivian sounding names like Mirihi and lots ending or starting with Fushi. Cora Cora was on four of the five sheets, I believe, so we went: Yes, that’s it. It was decided in ten minutes, our brand.
Hotel Insider: That’s a very cool story. So, what’s Cora Cora’s approach to hospitality?
Martin: Well, we thought ‘what do people really crave now, after COVID?’ And we thought: freedom. And it’s massively important because based on that, you can plan an entire customer journey, putting activities together that enhance that feeling of being free – getting a tattoo (fake ones), playing the guitar, dance, experience sound healing, learn to paint, read wellness books in your room, take away food to wherever you want to eat it and so on.
But to create this sense of freedom for guests, your staff have to be “free” to a great extent, too. And that was our whole human resources angle. They’re not restricted to their rooms, they can go play badminton, soccer, ping pong, have karaoke nights, do some gardening, raise their own chickens, ducks, fish etc.
So now, I’ve had a number of people telling me that the service is excellent and very consistent, and that our staff seem genuinely happy. And I believe it all comes from that sense of freedom – I am not saying that all of our team is super happy every day, but I believe we have formed a sort of family bond amongst us that I have never experienced before.
Hotel Insider: Thank you, Martin. You’ve made us want to experience this for ourselves.