GM interview: Arne Silvas

Arne Silvas talks success: his property is ranked the best hotel in the region on Trip Advisor for the third year in a row

Arne Silvis, general manager, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa
Arne Silvis, general manager, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa

Ranked the best hotel in the Middle East in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice Awards for a third consecutive year, 15-year-old Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa has still got it. As the trend toward experiential travel grows, Hotelier asks general manager Arne Silvis how he fends off competition to retain market share

In January this year, Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa was ranked number eight in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice Awards, making it number one in the Middle East region. The hotel has moved up the rankings for three consecutive years, having made number 16 and number 12 on the list in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

“I think it’s very valuable,” the resort’s general manager Arne Silvis tells Hotelier Middle East.

“The fact that the property is 15 years old and there’s so much competition coming onto the market, with beautiful, new resorts worldwide. The hat-trick was achieved; we set a goal for ourselves and we would very much like to stay in the top 25 list.

The influence of TripAdvisor is increasing among travellers, and a spate of enquiries at Al Maha following the release of the 2015 Travelers’ Choice Awards list is testament to this.

“I receive so many emails from around the world from repeat guests who constantly watch us on TripAdvisor.
“This reconfirms for them that Al Maha really is the destination to come to. They’ve written to say ‘we’ll be back next year, keep up the great work, we know that we’re coming to the right place when we stay with you’ — so that’s really good.”

Increasing the volume of repeat customers to the resort is of course one of Silvis’ key strategies. In line with incremental rankings on TripAdvisor, the property is seeing growing numbers of repeat guests each year with 20% in 2014, an increase from 18% in 2013. “The number is growing slowly, but we are growing it, and we’re able to do that through building relationships with our guests.

“The property is small enough that we need to personally interact with many of our guests.

“It’s not always possible for me to spend time with all of them, but I like to make a point of speaking to as many as I can.

“Through building those relationships you’re able to get those guests to become loyal repeat guests.” Ensuring his 150 staff are aware of guest preferences is of key importance to encourage repeat custom. Instilling this culture, he believes a “constant flow of communication” is crucial.

“Every morning in my office at 9 o’ clock sharp, all the heads of department meet and we read every single guest name, the in-house, the departures as well as the arrivals and we go through all their preferences and the activities they’ve booked for the day, whether it’s birthdays or celebrations, or a cake to be delivered at a certain time.

“We touch everything and make sure we miss nothing, and I think guests absolutely feel valued.”

Meanwhile, Silvis is happy to get his hands dirty alongside the team, and believes he provides an encouraging environment for staff, which is passed on to customers.

It’s important to be with your team. I encourage them to succeed, I make that a very important part of my daily life. If I ever see them doing anything wrong, I’ll try and coach and guide them in the right direction — I’ll provide a friendly, but professional hand. And I think staff members at Al Maha feel acknowledged and valued, and you can see that in the way they deal with guests.”

Being a boutique property, the size of the hotel also contributes to the close-knit feel of the team. With just 42 suites — an increase from 30 when the resort was established — Silvis doesn’t see the inventory changing despite the fact that economies of scale would perhaps make a larger property more profitable. “The hotel would lose the atmosphere if we made it any bigger,” he asserts.

In fact, boutique is second nature to Silvis who grew up in South Africa and began his hospitality career as a river guide, followed by a role as a safari ranger at a lodge development in the country. Shortly after, he was posted at a group of three 16-bed lodges in Zambia, which were “small, luxurious and in a wildlife conservation park”.

At that point, 12 years ago, Silvis decided to move to Dubai, where he took a step back to become the facilities manager at Al Maha.

“I wanted to move out of Africa and take on a career at Al Maha, which provided the challenges I was looking for.”

In terms of the location and activities on offer, Silvis seems to have found his second home. Also located on a conservation site, the resort has a roster of activities inclusive in the price of room nights, offering guests an authentic taste of the Middle East.

Morning desert activities include falconry, horse riding, nature walks and dune drives, while in the afternoon guests can partake in camel trekking, archery and wildlife safaris.

These are conducted by good-humoured, friendly safari guides, most of whom are also from South Africa, or other remote areas where they have built up experience working in natural environments with wildlife.

“Overall our aim has always been to provide guests with a memorable experience at Al Maha, and we do this very well by offering the activities that are included in the room rate.

“We don’t charge any extra, so we are truly able to get guests involved in the conservation.

“We make activities enjoyable, fun and educational, so people feel they really learn something. It’s a real value-add for us and people do look for experience-driven travel,” he adds.

While experiential travel is becoming a major trend that hotel groups are now catching on to, particularly in the face of ever-increasing competition, it is something Al Maha has been specialising in for more than 15 years, and only recently has there been a spike in similar offerings in the region.

“There’s Bab Al Sham’s, 50 kilometres down the road from us. There’s Banyan Tree Ras al Khaimah, and these resorts are doing what we do.

“Some of them get it right to an extent. Some of our guests do go and stay with our competition on occasion, but they frequently come back to us saying ‘Al Maha is truly fantastic’. There are two new ones, Qasr Al Sarab and Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, which pose competition for us from Abu Dhabi specifically. People are more inclined to support the Abu Dhabi safari lodges rather than coming to Al Maha, so we have lost our market share coming from there,” he lamments.

Despite this, Silvis is keen to stress that he learns from the competition, and overall sees it as a positive development for the resort.

“I think competition is healthy; it’s good to know we have new ventures on the market,” he says.

“It’s an ongoing process, and it will never end, it’s just a matter of how we position ourselves to stay ahead of the competitors.”

While Silvis still believes Al Maha “has a truly competitive advantage because of its location and positioning”, he admits the team is now having to work harder.

“We are having to fight a lot harder and work a lot smarter about how we bring in the business, whether it be through social media or other channels. Our PR and marketing teams are actively at work on a daily basis on Facebook and Twitter, and all the other applications trying to engage our guests,” he says.

Silvis believes social media has become “absolutely essential” in today’s hospitality landscape, particularly at a visually impressive location like Al Maha. “It’s a requirement these days, and as soon as you stop being involved in it, you’ll drop off the radar,” he says, adding that the field guides are also being included in the social media strategy.

“We’re trying to engage the field guides to take really nice pictures when they see some unique wildlife sightings, to send those on to the PR and marketing teams. People like interesting facts and they love beautiful scenery.”

Additionally, bloggers and Instagrammers are invited to the resort occasionally. Citing Instagram as a particularly useful tool, Silvis believes there’s potential to make more of this.

“I think Instagram is a fantastic platform with the beautiful sunsets and sunrises and the untouched sand dunes.
“I think we’re ideally positioned to market Al Maha, and people are aware there is a jewel in the desert out there waiting to be discovered.

“However, it’s surprising after many years, there are people that stay with us for the first time and say they never even knew Al Maha was here.

“So there’s certainly potential for us to make more noise on social media, and this is something we’ll actively try and do.” Silvis is also looking at tapping into emerging markets such as China to drive extra business, and he believes there is a growing class of millennial travellers from new destinations looking for experiences.

“Typically guests would be 45 – 75 and from the UK, the rest of Europe and USA. But that has changed recently.
“Younger travellers, smarter travellers who know where to look for experience-driven travel, people who want to enjoy special moments are emerging.

“We do these incredible dining options out in the desert. We get so many marriage proposals coming out to Al Maha, so we’ve seen an increase from different markets this year — from India, from Saudi, from China.”

This year the team will go on Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ roadshow in China to push more business from there, and the resort recently celebrated Chinese New Year, during which decorations were hung up around the hotel, and the menus were offered in Chinese.

A Chinese-speaking guest services agent was also recently hired, which Silvis believes is a real bonus when trying to attract Chinese guests.

“I think it’s partly a cultural thing, but also a language barrier, so it’s essential to have a Chinese speaker in your team. Before ours arrived, we really struggled communicating with the Chinese guests.

“We realised that if we had a Chinese speaker, the guests would leave us really satisfied, really happy, rather than just kind of happy,” says Silvis.

The resort currently works with destination management companies in Dubai focusing specifically on the Chinese market, however it is not losing sight of its traditional markets.

In addition to this, Al Maha is working on a number of partnerships, such as an agreement with Seawings, w hich offers seaplane tours rounded off with a wildlife safari drive at Al Maha and then lunch and a glass of champagne on the sand dunes. Another company, Royal Shaheen, specialises in early morning falconry displays off-site and then brings guests for breakfast, as does Desert safari provider Platinum Hertiage.

Events company 24 Degrees also brings groups ranging from 200 – 300 people to a desert site near the hotel and Al Maha does the catering and the set up.

The company specialises in MICE business, usually incentive groups, whose last gala dinner takes place at Al Maha.

For the resort, MICE currently accounts for around 15% of business and this is something Silvis is keen to grow.
Additional revenue is generated from day packages, which were introduced a few years back.

“Traditionally Al Maha was closed to the public. The only way you could come was if you had an overnight reservation.

“We decided to create additional awareness of the resort by inviting guests for day packages.

“The four packages we offer include lunch, so we have a pool package; an activities package where you can choose anything from a nature walk to a safari drive or a camel trek; an equestrian package with a two-hour-long horse-riding session with access to the pool and spa; and then a spa indulgence package, which includes a 60 minute spa treatment of your choice.

“We find that many of these day package visitors come back as overnight guests, so it’s about creating additional awareness.”

Currently, the team is looking at how to expand on its activities’ offering without sacrificing the peace and quiet of the resort.

“We’re very sensitive about what we do in this environment. Recently we implemented the Ghaf tree forest walk — the traditional tree of UAE.

“We take guests on a nice stroll through these giants, many of which are 100 years old and have medicinal values, so there’s a really interesting cultural aspect with that activity.” In addition, Silvis is looking at enhancing the food and beverage offering and carrying out a soft refurbishment of the hotel. “We’ll look at doing the floors and the bathroom fittings, the lampshades and the bedside tables.

“The curtains and all the upholstery and furnishings will be polished and brought back to their beautiful conditions.

“It will probably be about 10 rooms at a time; with a small inventory of 42 suites we can’t place half the resort out of operation. It might take two or three years, maybe a bit less; the plan is two years.”

With so many projects on the horizon, it’s no wonder Silvis is still content in his role after 12 years at the resort.

“I think Al Maha at this point in my life is still providing me with the challenges and the rewards. It’s still keeping me engaged. I’d like to stay with Starwood, I think it’s a very professional organisation, so should opportunities arise with similar-style resorts, that’s probably where I’ll go.

“I think it’s important to be happy where you work and I think that goes all the way through to your junior staff members.”

Another thing that ties Silvis to the resort is a personal love for nature, and his favourite Arabian horse, Red Galaxy.

Having already climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and just recently hiked the Grand Canyon, Silvis sets himself a new challenge each year, and this year he will complete a 500km horse-ride safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. As for training, Red Galaxy will take care of this. “I try to get out on horseback at least once or twice a week,” Silvis reveals.

“We have the Arabians; there it’s a wonderful terrain to ride in. It’s my hobby and has been since I was a little boy. I love travelling and I love adventure sports and activities, so I still have a long list of things to do.”

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