Constant Creativity & Enthusiasm In the Drive to Exceed One’s Own Lofty Expectations
By Steven Ferry
Four- and five-star hotels and resorts around the world number in the hundreds, catering to different markets/publics with different needs and wants. The imperative to make the guest experience so memorable that the guests become repeaters and ambassadors, occupancy runs dizzyingly high and word of mouth sizzles, is one that every new (or existing) General Manager/Managing Director faces; each has a vision, a style of management, a stable of successful actions, and erstwhile colleagues they trust to support their standards and whom they quickly bring in to precipitate success for owners, shareholders, management, staff, and guests alike.
At the end of one assignment, Dietmar Koegel ("Didi") was asked if he wanted to manage Per Aquum's resort, Niyama, in the Maldives. He was not sure, so he visited the island as a guest for two weeks and discovered a fine resort with issues that were not so much "bads" as a failure to develop potential "goods." For Didi, the cup is neither half empty nor half full, rather "almost full" all the time; so like an artist assessing a blank canvas, he piled creation upon creation in his mind of how the guest experience and satisfaction could be second to none, as opposed to merely excellent.
Now, 14 months after taking the helm, Niyama's Trip Advisor ranking has risen from 50th to 12th and their Guest Satisfaction Score as measured by Market Matrix has risen from 88% to 94%. Of Minor Hotel Group's 136 hotels (at last count), Niyama has risen to #1. Niyama moved from the high 40's and 4.5-star on TripAdvisor, to #12 and 5*.
How did Didi achieve such results so rapidly in a region where Niyama is one amongst dozens of desirable, high-end island-resorts?
He took immediate action to raise the level of passion in the staff based on his own example, and was not shy of replacing members of senior management who found themselves unable to rise to the occasion.
New hires were sought who had passion: one example was Yoosuf, a butler who was new to hospitality and, following training that inspired him with how many ways there were to wow guests, soon impressed the guests so much that one couple wanted to show their appreciation. When the butler told them he was happy to service them and was not interested in their tip, they had him take them in a speedboat to his local island, where they toured the hospital and school, donated $150,000 on the spot and pledged a further $150,000 for the following year.
As a longer-range target, and to complement the improvements being realized on the people side, Didi immediately pushed through a budget for, and construction of, villas and unique and innovative (for the region) outlets that doubled the former and tripled the latter—by the simple expedient of developing a second adjacent island that, hitherto, had lain fallow.
Didi upgraded from a generic, single island that tried to be all things to all guests, to a two-island concept: Chill for adults and (the new island), Play, for families— with 48 family villas, family restaurants, an ice cream parlor, a cooking school and the largest kid's club in the country, Explorer, catering to four age groups starting uniquely at just one-year old, designed and run in partnership with Scott Dunn, the top European operator.
Didi then invested in training the staff, with the understanding that Rome was not built in a day, and nor were the skill sets of the staff built with a once-off dog-and-pony show: so he provided daily in-house training for all staff to ensure consistency and polish of all outlets and departments; and backed it up with external training, such as two months of training for the bar staff; monthly wine training; and training and coaching every four months for the butlers (Thakurus, in Divehi, the Maldivian language), especially focusing on soft skills and always leaving the guests happier with each interaction.
Realizing the importance of butlers in making possible more personalized service, he quadrupled their numbers, added more butler services and had all the butler SOPs fine tuned—and importantly, is maintaining the ratio of butlers-to-guests as occupancy increases so the butlers do not drop their level of services from sheer lack of time for each guest.
Moving beyond the usual online booking process, Niyama now has its Online Preference Menu, in which all direct bookings, OTA and TO receive this link [http://www.niyamamaldives-ppm.com] with their reservation confirmation to capture guest preferences and allow Niyama to prepare for their arrival (such as placing fins and diving masks in the villa before arrival, based on the shoe-size information submitted).
Instead of the "usual" guest arrival experience, with welcome messages on the bed written in palm fronds or flowers (nice touches, of course), he looked for ways to "rise above the noise" of his competitors. So now Niyama guests see a welcome message in lipstick on the mirror, bed decorations, and welcome gifts beyond the usual complimentary bottle of champagne or wine, such as a frisbee, mini hand-fan, and mini-speakers, all of which create a sense of expectation in the guests that the rest of the stay will be marked by innovation and attention to myriad details that add up to desirable things to experience and have.
And that is exactly what Didi's team focuses on delivering.
Knowing that a variety of gustatory delights rate high on the list for most guests, he added three new restaurants: Blue, a Mediterranean restaurant; one of the largest tree-top restaurants in the world—appropriately called Nest—offering Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Japanese cuisines; and converting the underwater night club into, appropriately, a seafood restaurant. He hired top cooks for these outlets and then reviewed and aligned the menus based on guest comments. This in addition to the other 6 restaurants and bars, including Tribal, an al-fresco, beachside-by-the-jungle restaurant offering African and South American cuisines that combine local inspiration with global flair; and an authentic ambiance, whether the tall Masai-warrior host, the chefs and wait-staff from different African and South American cultures; the flaming, open fires, hot-rock grills, and Argentinian Asado woks; or the traditional, complimentary (and potent) Dawa (Swahili for medicine) pick-me-up that the bar tender brings to start off the meal in the right spirit. It's a hands-on experience, as guests muddle their own "medicine" using fresh lime wedges, honey, vodka (refined Dawa), and crushed ice—and take their muddler home as a souvenir. They can also be photographed performing traditional dances around the campfire after the meal with the entire African team, equipped with spears and shields—or posing with the Masai warrior—which photographs are framed and put on their bedside table at turndown the next evening. These touches are genuine from-the-heart fun with Africans steeped in their own culture, not skin-deep, mass touristic, Disneyesque performances. One detail that has proven popular is the African coffee menu, served the traditional way.
A redesigned Chef's garden, Spice, supplies all restaurants with fresh vegetables, salad items, herbs, etc., in a country that has to import all food items (except fish and coconut!) from Australia, Sri Lanka, and other remote points.
As an example of the creativity, of details being explored beyond the basic level of creativity, the Nest experience includes the sound of exotic birds amongst the Banyan trees and being greeted in your language (English, Russian, & Chinese) by a Macaw and African Grey. The modern, natural multi-level wooden structures include private pods suspended 18-feet above the ground and domed pavilions, all linked by wooden walkways and blending into the jungle.
Beyond the architecture and dining experience, guests can participate by making their own coconut oil, which is bottled in small Niyama bottles for the guests to take home; or cutting sugar cane, using a manual, antique sugar-cane juicer located on a rustic table, and drinking the juice they produce. Or muddling their own curry, starting with a trip through the Chef's Garden with the chef to select ingredients fresh from the trees, bushes, and plants, listening to the chef describing the different methods for making yellow, red, or green curries, and chatting with the chef afterwards while they make, and then eat, their own curry.
For the all-important name recognition by all employees, Didi introduced "Show me you know me," based on photos of guests being taken upon arrival and shared daily with all departments—printing each photo and placing it on each departmental board with the appropriate villa number.
In order to ensure guests take advantage of everything they would like to do during their stay, all employees were provided with a pocket leaflet describing all the facilities, and the Thakurus tasked with scheduling each guest's stay at their earliest convenience. Daily Preference Capture cards were introduced and entered into Opera to be shared with the HODs in the morning, when the Thakurus also provide feedback on each guest's activities and any glitches.
Guest engagement by ExComm is part of the culture—not in a way that distracts the guests, but which allows them to know that management is interested and there for them: Didi, for instance, rides around the islands on his bicycle with the parrot on the handle bars, and when the parrot is not engaging the guests, Didi is. The ExComm members express little reluctance to participate in the wine tastings with the guests, or joining them on sunset cruises.
Then there is the follow-up and connection via all social media and responding to every guest questionnaire received. Didi initiated the Glitch Report, "Measure what you treasure and manage what you measure," which tracks the cost of each giveaway to defuse guest complaints, whether upgrades, comp'ed dinners, or vouchers, and uses it to resolve issues that make guests complain and so reduce giveaways.
In terms of outlets and services offered, Niyama now boasts its own, world-class photo studio, complete with wardrobe and hair stylist/make-up artist, which is constantly booked to take photographs of guests in various locales around the islands, or even underwater; the only dive chamber in the country at its diver instruction school; the first Paul Ropp boutique store (Asia's answer to Armani, with prices to match) in the Indian Ocean, offering only hand- and custom-made, once-off, silk clothing and proving immensely popular with guests (and remunerative for Niyama). The children of guests put on a fashion show to showcase the Ropp clothes made specifically for Niyama; the Coconut Express, where a team member walks around the island harvesting and opening coconuts and offering the milk with straws to guests.
Three initiatives were introduced in the Spa: Pedro Sanchez, celebrity Swiss Hair Stylist, opened a salon; a beauty clinic opened, offering Botox treatment, as well as thread lifting and filler treatment, which combined with Itraceutical, instantly makes a face look younger; specialty Spa practitioners were brought in each month during the high season.
In collaboration with a German radio and TV presenter, Didi is creating the first, worldwide, web-based hotel radio station, starting with a morning show featuring 10 minutes of talk and 50 minutes of music: think interviews with the Chef on "News from the Kitchen;" interviews with the Kids Program Director and with guests about their holiday experience and their favorite activities or dishes; calling in a music request either in house or from overseas (guests can continue to listen after they leave through a link on the Niyama site or an App which is under development).
Daily classical concerts (or live performances by celebrities during the Manager's complimentary Cocktail Hour) will be covered live at the Dune Bar and moderated by the Radio Master, with all sunbeds facing the sunset and waiters in white gloves serving Roeder, Cristal, Armand de Brigand, and Dom Perignon.
In terms of a sense of place and locale, again, the focus is on guest participation, rather than simply being on the receiving end of engineered experiences—guests are encouraged to contribute their efforts to the local environment by creating their own legacy, collecting corals with Niyama's Marine Biologist and attaching these to a coated-steel frame and placing them strategically (with their names attached) to build the reefs that are critical to the existence of the island as well as attracting sea life. Soon to come, a Niyama Marine Micro website will provide scads of information on reefs, reef life, and those in particular around Niyama, including quarterly updates on each person's reef-section growth.
Also in the immediate pipeline: completing a tennis court, a football court, and a mini-golf course; and Bongo Bar, a shack on the surfing beach where a Rastafarian bar tender and young Cuban lady will serve Cuba Libre, Rum cocktails, etc., all to a reggae beat.
If there is one thing that is clear from the Didi modus operandi, it is continuous creativity adding up to a large number of improvements and innovations at every opportunity, driven by passion and high interest—the push to exceed one's own expectations as a manager—the intention for oneself and the staff to have fun creating memorable and fun experiences for the guests.
The metrics show this to be a winning formula, and one encouraged by, and aligning with, the Per Aquum brand and the Minor Hotel Group's philosophy—without corporate support, it would be difficult to achieve such innovations and expansion plans so rapidly, which says something about the rapidly growing MHG brand.
First printed in Hotel Business Review and reprinted with permission of the author